The quotation in the title exists in many forms, and dates at least as far back as Roman times. The rhetorician Quintilian (35 CE – 100 CE) said, “The perfection of art is to conceal art.” Another quotation — unattributed, but probably contemporary — says, ars est celare artem (“True art is to conceal art.”) Centuries later, Oscar Wilde said, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”
The idea obviously has considerable durability. Why? What’s being said here that manages to resonate across different cultures and ages, and what does it have to do with us? Here’s my $.02 worth:
When you love your craft — whatever it may be, but let’s assume photography for now ’cause, well, that’s what we do here — at some point or another, you’ll find yourself wanting to move beyond “mere” craft to something that’s closer to art. You work your tail off finding or developing your style, maybe engage in a little self-promotion. However, if you’re going to make a photo that’s artistic — or done with artistic intent, let’s say — you shouldn’t call attention to the fact that you’re doing something artistic.* People who like your work are going to be drawn to its honesty (real or perceived) versus its artifice, generally speaking.
Let’s get specific about this and compare two photographers, chosen more or less at random. At one extreme, you have Magnum photographer Martin Parr. Parr’s built his reputation on street and documentary photography, catching people in their element (and often, one suspsects, completely unawares). There’s a simplicity and honesty about his work that works both as document and as art because it’s honest, and refreshingly free of artifice.
At the other extreme, you have someone like Terry Richardson, the photographer whose style has come to define Vice, and without whom American Apparel would no doubt have to find a much different aesthetic sense. Like Parr, he’s got an instantly recognizable style; unlike Parr, Richardson’s style is like a Fabrege egg: all surface, but totally empty if you try to look any deeper. Richardson’s schtick, essentially making every photo look like a prepubescent heroin addict’s mugshot, gets old quick. To me, he’s a great example of what happens when you draw attention to the act of photography, explicitly calling attention to the “art.” To extend the comparison between the two photographers, Parr’s photos are about their subjects, whereas Richardson’s photos are very much about Terry Richardson.**
My take on this, for what it’s worth: worrying about whether something is art is a bit like worrying about whether something is authentic. Similarly, trying to make something an art object is like trying to make it authentic. In both cases, you end up worrying about the concept so much that you end up losing sight of the thing itself, or overdoing it in order to make it something you think it ought to be rather than letting it simply be what it is, as it is. Focus on your craft, and on doing what you do to the peak of your abilities (making sure you’re always stretching your abilities to expand the boundaries of what’s possible). The art, at that point, will take care of itself. If you call attention to the art of it, you’ve just moved beyond art to artifice, which ensures that both the art and the authenticity about which you were worried go straight out the window.
*Unless you’re cranking it up to 11 as a commentary on the fact that you’re doing art, but even that gets tired after a while.
** I say this with the awareness that any photographer’s work is, of course, quite telling about the person who made it. Having said that, I think that each photo also says a lot about where the photographer’s placed their priorities. Some photographers make what’s going on behind the camera every bit as much a locus of attention as what’s going on in front of it, which makes the photographer’s role every bit as central as the subject’s. I’m also aware that this is a highly subjective judgment on my part, and your preference/mileage may vary.