Two key questions underpin discussions about photography and art. The first – ‘what is art?’ – is usually ignored, while the second – ‘what contribution does photography make to art?’ – can easily be reversed to ask ‘what contribution does art make to photography’? The answers to these questions open out onto a range of issues and problems relevant to contemporary art photography. Let’s start with the first question.
The word ‘art’ can mean different things to different people in different times and places. To speak of the art of cooking, the art of gardening, or the art of cricket, for example, does not mean that food, plants or a game will automatically be guaranteed an exhibition in a major art gallery – although you never know. The use of the word ‘art’ in this sense, as meaning a skill, has long been in use. Historically, ‘art’ has been crucial, for example, as part of the medieval university curriculum. The ‘seven arts’ of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy were the ‘liberal arts’.1
But the idea of ‘Art’ as a noun, indicating a separate institution, and the ‘artist’ as a person who practises within it, are relatively recent phenomena. These emerged mostly in the eighteenth century (some earlier) as ‘Academies’, institutions (Royal or Art), mostly in Europe, and were consolidated during the nineteenth century in developments of a range of related new art institutions, like the National Gallery in London. Thus artist and artisan (as specialized skilled craft person) were distinguished from scientist (and the scientific institution), as in the now still common (but problematic) distinction between an artist’s creative imagination and the scientist’s rational experiment. Such oppositions began to mirror another distinction between art (as ‘fine art’) and culture, a word whose emergence parallels the rise of the art institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These distinctions became particularly acute as the processes of industrialization began to grip an entire society.