#692. Maxwell’s equations of watching others watching art ?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Jan 27

If I asked you “what is art?” you’d be right to close this window immediately. The eternal question has elicited numerous replies from pundits, none of which can satisfy everyone. While auction houses and collectors seem to agree on what constitutes valuable art, I’ve come to the conclusion that a general definition of art doesn’t matter as much as how we individually interact with it.



And that’s my definition (since it don’t matter, I can give it) : art is the sum of all individual responses to it. All is in the art. Art is in all. Right ?

Case closed. You’re welcome (insert silly grin) !

And that’s my topic for this post : individual relationships to art.



Befitting my chronic lack of time, this is a short article. Few words, a few more pictures. During an afternoon stroll in and around the Tate Modern, in London, I randomly photographed how visitors interacted with the pieces on display. It’s something I will try to do more purposefully in the future. If I can muster the cojones, that is.

In many ways, those individual responses and attitudes reveal who we are. And that’s my view on the purpose of art : Art reveals who we are. To others, of course but, more importantly, to ourselves. Artists are lanterns around which we congregate for deeper nourishment and evolution, like insects around a camp light, but without the zapping sounds. Each of us receptive to a different set of artists, based on our personal drives and biases.



Photographing people in museums is not a new topic in photography. Thomas Struth, for instance, working in European museums, asked himself :

“The museums were almost always crowded and this led me to wonder what people were looking for in front of these historic paintings. For me the museum is a place to sharpen my tools, my perception, to delve into history. What can you valuably take from pictures from the past, which might be a catalyst for interesting or productive ideas for the future?”



He also noted :

“The idea behind the museum photographs was to retrieve masterpieces from the fate of fame, to recover them from their status as iconic paintings, to remind us that these were works which were created in a contemporary moment, by artists who had everyday lives. They can be admired but revering the artist and their work can also be an impediment. In essence, I wanted to bring together the time of the picture and the time of the viewer.”



That level of thinking explains why Struth’s photographs are regularly auctioned for 6 and 7 figure amounts, while mine are displayed for free on a blog 😀

But where Struth focused on the (now) iconic artist as a living human being, I am more interested in how we spontaneously absorb or reject the work of others, famous or otherwise. You don’t have to go to museums to play that game. Co-author Philippe and I regularly swap photos for evaluation and rarely favor the same ones. We’re all complex beings with complex experiences, and what fascinates with art is that what passes for humongous are-you-having-a-laugh spuds for someone is pure genius to somebody else. It’s not just a matter of education and ‘getting it’.



Art triggers us all in very different ways.

Some admire, try to replicate, learn techniques from. They are future makers honing their craft.



Some try to understand, building a personality for themselves.



Some want to be told how / what to understand, building a culture for themselves.



Some want to collect memories, to frame the unfathomable analog device into controlled digital fragments, building Instagram accounts or educational folders.



Some want to take selfies (above), but our egos are transparent in the face of art (yes, I am joking)



Some are more focused on their phone, taking in the art subconsciously or in between rooms of greater appeal.



Others are more focused on survival



Some work in art, building a career for themselves.



Some consume art as a testimonial of the past, building an ideology for themselves.



Some take it in for what it is, to them, building an experience for themselves.



Others use it as a set, building memories for themselves.



Some live and breathe it, piggybacking art upon art for themselves.



Some are fascinated, building a psyche for themselves.



Some are inspired by it, building art of their own for themselves.


There are far more reactions to art than those depicted here. Is there a common thread ? Art is magnetic. It attracts and repulses according to our own psychological polarities. Artists are magnetic. In fact, all creators are magnetic, each with their own power and type. Much like bloggers, youtubers, instagrammers arount which some followers congregate. Some are extremely powerful and shallow, as is typical of the large social accounts, drawing in huge crowds in search of easy amusement and cheap dreams. Others are more polarising and deep, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, appealing to a far tinier crowd, but appealing strongly and deeply enough to command 300 grand prices for new prints.

I was struck by two events last week. Once was Ming Thein’s article about Paul’s recent Monday Post, the detailed analysis and very intellectual relationship to photography, both in the text and in many comments. Ming has a brilliant mind and a deliberate approach to what is essentially his work. His creativity is powerful but kept in check by even stronger purpose and intent. His readers probably share that dominantly convergent thinking. My approach to photography is much more instinctual, divergent and recreational. I try to help, open minds, open doorways, but not to educate and this shows in DS’ tongue in cheek tone, both in articles and in comments. Two magnetic sources dealing with photography, yet very little community intersection. The second event was our recent collective post on influential masters, which clearly laid before our eyes the huge differences in styles and inspiration between us. All those masters are beacons that have (often subconsciously) guided us to where we are now. Such is the magnetic role of artists and art.


Where all these masters have taken me


What matters most is that we are all universally drawn to art. We love some, hate other stuff, can’t wrap our minds around some, collect other stuff … It’s a major driver in most people’s life, whether they recognise / admit to it or not.

Dear Diary Moment: As a kid, I really loved art, but from afar. It was always something pleasing, deeply satisfying to watch, but artists were artists and there was a chasm between Picasso, Chagall or Klimt and what I could one day become (a doctor, a teacher, an accountant). Artists were artists, not people. Now that amateur photography occupies such a large part of my life, I don’t think anything could have been more fulfilling to me than to have become a successful artist (not that I’m doing or have ever done anything to help achieve that goal 😉 ). And I think most people (even many strugling for their lives, as shown by the art inside concentration camps) have a relationship with art that’s just as strong as mine. Some just hide it from themselves for a really long time. Sometimes, sadly, all of their life.

So, this is what this post is about. A series of portraits of people. Not in a street, not in a studio, but reacting to the creative work of others. You can’t be more naked than that. There you have it. DS’ first nudes.

Right now, are you puking at reading this, or having an epiphany? Most likely something in between but I’m hoping you’re feeling something about your own relationship to art. Are you?


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  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    A Good read!
    – – –

    ( Art?
    Disciplined love.. ?)
    – – –

    ( Mona Lisa… Art?…
    …that (in?)famous smile.
    I saw it once behind armoured glass, an armed guard beside.
    Lots of viewers photographing and not realising that their flashes would be reflected in the glass.

    I strongly believe Mona is just smiling ironically at the viewers!)
    – – –

    The returning wanderer
    of unknown lands,
    wide awake
    with eyes of wonder,

    Has hard work before him
    singing his stories
    in the wind
    that carries his people about.

    But their children,
    holding their parents hands,
    stay to listen
    wide awake,
    while their parents eyes
    widen with wonder.

  • Paul Perton says:

    You’re way too clever for one person, Pascal.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Some nice photos!

    My favourites :
    Above “He also noted : ”
    Above “Some work in art, ..”

    And, especially, the last one!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting, the two photographs you chose are from people moving inside the museum. The two women have a similar pose in both. I wonder if that has something to do with it ?

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        No, at least I don’t think so.
        I chose them for the movement framed by architecture made more poignant by that same movement. (I hope that makes sense..)

  • Jaap Veldman says:

    Being the MT reader that pointed him to Paul’s article here at DS, there’s a few more events that struck me in the past weeks!

    Ming’s interpretation of Paul’s remarks about him was in my opinion unnecessary serious.
    I think it shows how difficult interpretation of tone (and humor) can be. He also initially misunderstood the humor I saw because his article about his career decisions came only a week after Paul’s remarks about him being too busy.

    Ming is a very serious guy.
    I appreciate his thorough and brilliant analysis of certain subjects.
    His convergence defines his niche.
    Ming tries to analyse all aspects, I don’t.

    Which brings me back to the DS posts of this week.
    Kertész. He indeed seems almost forgotten.
    At the age of around 15, I was really struck by his photograpy.
    At the age of 16, I bought a battered slr.
    Still a shitty bad amateur though almost 40 years later.
    Next strike: your Dear diary moment.

    Your museum nudes however did strike me in another way: interesting photographs usually leave room for the imagination!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks for the comment Jaap. I wonder whether Ming didn’t feel Paul was being critical (which I really don’t think he was). I appreciate his analysis of many subjects too. At the end of the day, the question for any blogger is this : is the photographic world a better place because of him? In Ming’s case, the answer is a resounding YES. He’s just a great guy and has helped many people along the way (which can’t be said of all bloggers out there).

      “Still a shitty bad amateur almost 40 years later” 😉 😉 😉 Hear hear … It’s easy to feel bad when you compare yourself to geniuses such as Kertész. There are only a few like him in any generation and they devote their whole life to their craft. We all feel bad compared to guys like him. Still, the really important thing is to feel we are making progress and benefitting along the way.

      All the best, Pascal

      • Jaap Veldman says:

        Thanks Pascal, thanks, all true.

        I was wrong about one thing.
        I don’t see him mentioned very often,
        but Kertész is all but forgotten.
        A beautiful four month exhibition of his work in the photograpy museum FOAM in Amsterdam just finished a few weeks ago.
        Only I missed it..Just subscribed to their newsletter!

        All the best,


    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Their flashes reflected in the glass? – were they using cellphones? A half decent SLR or similar, at an angle of perhaps 30 degrees off to one side, will usually avoid this – and if all else fails, a polarising filter. Anyway I thought flash was banned in the Louvre.

      BTW – I don’t care what the English call it, but the Italians call it the “Monna Lisa” or “La Gioconda”. In Italian, “mona” is an obscene word.

      I saw it once, too, Kristian – I went very late, the mobs had moved out, and I had a private viewing. There was just me and the lady with the unforgettable smile. Not even the armed guard (but perhaps recent terrorist activities have changed that?) As an ardent fan of da Vinci, it was a very special moment for me.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Ah, this was in the middle 1970:s, way before cellphones, I guess they mostly used (film) point-and-shoots.
        ( You’ll have seen the same behaviour e.g. in sport audiences, they all raise their P&S cameras and flashes light all over the place – as if it would make a difference at that distance.)
        – – –

        Thank you for the lesson on her name, I needed that!

        I’m also a da Vinci fan, especially his drawings – there is no one like him.

        ( But I can’t help suspecting that da Vinci smiled to himself when he (at last) had that special smile on Monna Lisa’s lips…)

        • jean pierre {pete} guaron says:

          I nearly fell off the edge of Place Trocadero, laughing at the idiots who were trying to photograph the Eiffel Tower at 11:30 at night, by firing the flash lights on their cellphones at it. 🙂 They obviously never studied physics at high school (or anywhere else, for that matter).

          • pascaljappy says:

            Well, you never know. Maybe it was syncrhonized flashing 😀 Maybe they were hoping that if 100 000 of them fired in the same milisecond … you know 😉

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    EEK – dunno how that happened – my reply to Kristian’s comment was posted to Jaap’s! 🙂

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ha ha – this one takes me back to a day when I was in Melbourne, the “Paris of the South”, and took my aunt Caroline to the National Gallery, to see an exhibition of modern art from Monet to Matisse, loaned to the Gallery by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. After battling our way through the crowds for a couple of hours, we finally reached the last of the paintings – Dali’s painting of the Madonna/an ear (what you see depends where you stand, in relation to the painting – it’s an experience not to be missed 🙂 ). When we finished looking at it, I turned to Caroline – who said “all finished?” When I said yes, she replied “well then, let’s go and look at all the PEOPLE!” After the very first comment/victim, I had to tell her that she wasn’t to comment on anyone standing less than 3 metres away from us! >_o >:)

    So I’m very happy with my relationship to art – raised by a mother who was a reasonably good amateur artist, and tutored by an aunt who had an encyclopaedic knowledge about art (and practically everything else you could thing of 🙂 ). All my failures are in other fields. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy trying – it’s just recognition of the brutal fact that if after 65 years of trying, I haven’t become more famous than Cartier Bresson, it’s unlikely that in whatever time I have left in this life I ever will eclipse him with my photography. Or put another way – acceptance of the fact that being a Leo doesn’t necessarily mean that I will always win.

    As for what’s good or bad – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    I generally find critics are like wine connoisseurs – I heard an interesting talk on that subject recently, and the conclusion was that practically anyone who enjoys a glass of wine has the same level of appreciation of what’s good or bad, but only the “wine connoisseurs” have all the flowery language to describe it – I suspect that much the same is true of all the other critics. It’s no earthly use discussing these things with someone whose tastes are quite different from your own – you may get a lively conversation (read – “argument”) out of it, but consensus has been sidelined by the basic rule that one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

  • Richard says:

    Hi Pascal,
    I just discovered this site and I’m really enjoying many of the articles, such as this one. But it keeps bugging me, what is the connection with Maxwell’s equations? Sorry if I’m being dim.

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