In Defense of Merit

Erik Kessels - 24 hours of photos

I can’t help but feel that in the world of photography the idea of artistic merit has receded quite a bit over the past decade or so. While it is questionable whether there is indeed a flood of images (see David Campbell’s recent article), there has been a flood of work that is being lauded one day, to be forgotten the day after. I’m not old enough to know whether this is a development caused or merely amplified by the internet, and it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter, however – at least to me – is that artistic merit often (if not usually) isn’t even considered when the latest photographic sensation is being brought up. Mind you, I like a good story. I like something uplifting, I like something edgy, I like a good provocation. I like a lot of those things. But I don’t look at photographs for those things. More precisely: I don’t look at photographs only for those things. First and foremost, I look at photographs to see great pictures, to see great art. When those great pictures then are uplifting or edgy or provocative or whatever else, that’s an added bonus.

However, when I see something that’s uplifting or edgy or provocative, or when I see something that I know is just being lauded for the great story, while the pictures are clearly lacking… Then that’s either essentially just entertainment, or it might a better form in a different medium. Think Vivian Maier: Now there’s a great story. But the images don’t even remotely hold up to what so many already well known photographers from the same period were doing. In fact, I stopped looking at any of the Maier coverage, because the majority centers on the story itself or any of the other talking points, which literally have nothing to do with photography.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain about this situation, given they reflect the times we live in. But we could also look closer to where we are, instead of pointing at larger forces that seemingly are beyond our controls. There is a dearth of serious criticism in photography. The arts in general are under fire. Mainstream magazines used to employ art critics who would write about art for large audiences. Now those critics are gone, as are many of the magazines themselves.

In fact, criticism itself is under fire, because, to simplify things just a little bit, it is said to be elitist. And the charge of elitism makes sense, albeit only to a rather limited extent. We could probably all agree that if there were that one person who’d decree what is good and what is bad, that would in fact be elitist and obviously bad. The same would be true if we had a very small, secluded group of people. People don’t seem to be concerned about the fact that in the sphere of politics and economics, we are in exactly this situation. But that’s a different subject matter (maybe it isn’t since the 1% with all their money drive a lot of what’s going on in the art world, whether it’s through buying certain pieces of work or through their seats on the boards of institutions – why does this never get discussed?).

To refer to a critic as someone who decrees what is good and what is true narrows down the critic’s role too much. Let’s start looking at it from the other end: How are we to determine what is good or bad in photography? To be more precise, how are we going to determine which body of work has artistic merit and which one doesn’t? We could just look around, and what we like is what must have artistic merit. Case settled. In the day and age of so-called “social” media, it’s then just a small step to equating the number of Facebook “Likes” with artistic merit. And it’s very hard to see what’s wrong with that (now there’s a curve ball for those who thought they knew where I was coming from, right?).

We need to talk about how to establish artistic merit so we can engage with photography on a deeper and more meaningful level, so we can enjoy what photography has to offer on a deeper and more meaningful level.

The role of the critic in fact is not be to berate “the masses” for their choices. That would indeed be a bad form of elitism. Instead, the critic’s role consists of talking about artistic merit, in particular how it can be determined. A good critic is more like an educator who helps us when we have to make our choices, who help us see photographs with a fresh set of eyes. If I like the pictures by this particular artist, maybe there is something to them that makes me appreciate them even more? Or if I don’t like the pictures by that other artist, maybe I can revisit them and look at something I haven’t seen, to build an appreciation?

Seen in this light, criticism can (should!) help us enjoy more deeply what we are already interested in. Thus when talking about artistic merit, the key is not to establish the standard to define merit. Instead, we need to talk about how artistic merit can be approached. Can we, collectively, agree on certain criteria to talk about some work? What could those criteria be? What do we learn from applying the criteria? Using this approach, we can have a larger discussion about merit, and we all might come to an agreement when talking about a specific body of work. Or maybe not. It’s not even that we have to agree – that would be boring. It’s about having discussions on levels that mirror our passion about the medium. In other words, criticism can help us appreciate photography.

Part of what makes photography so interesting is the variety of work that is being produced, large parts of which are very hard to compare. The question is how to approach this situation? A simple solution would be to simply stick with what one already knows (and likes). This obviously directly leads to the various photography groupings and to, let’s say, street-photography fans dismissing abstract photography (or vice versa) for mostly shallow, uninformed reasons. If you’re into street or abstract photography and whatever else, and you really don’t want to look at something else, then, well, enjoy. You’re good to go. You’ll be happy in the internet forums of like-minded souls, those vast echo chambers of the same old, same old.

But there is quite a bit to be gained from expanding one’s horizon, even if that initially means trying to look at photography that seemingly makes no sense or that is “boring.” Provided you are interested in this, how can you go about it? For a start, it really helps having something at one’s disposal that will make the task easier – and there we are talking about criticism again. Even a trusted friend pointing out something is a form of criticism. There are quite a few people whose taste differs widely from mine, but whose recommendations I always look at. Crucially, I can ask questions (or have long arguments over a few beers). As a result, I have come to actually really like and enjoy quite a few artists whose work I simply didn’t get before – while still disliking others.

Regardless of whether I like or dislike some work, getting closer to the its artistic merit has always helped me. The question “Why is this body of work worth looking at?” (which is a rephrasing of “what is its artistic merit?”) does not automatically entail liking it. Instead, it opens up a larger space in which to move around, a larger space in which to place (or actually find) oneself. In other words, criticism, when done well, can help us to learn something about ourselves: Instead of telling us what is good or bad, what it really does is to give us a deeper understanding of what we’re looking at, which, in turn, allows us to understand our own reactions better.

Thus instead of being elitist, good criticism is exactly the opposite: It is designed to lift everybody (willing to get lifted). And this is part of the reason why we need to have discussions about establishing artistic merit: Not just so that we will spend less time with meaningless fluff that’s only on every website, because its maker is promoting the crap out of it. We need to talk about how to establish artistic merit so we can engage with photography on a deeper and more meaningful level, so we can enjoy what photography has to offer on a deeper and more meaningful level.