Thursday, 20 March 2008

So what is Art about?

"Hot Stuff", Bob Ebdon

The new rules proposed by the UKCPS for their Exhibitions in 2009 onwards have caused a lot of discussion, most of which seems to have been very useful to many artists in helping them define what they are doing, and what this "art" stuff is really all about. This post tries to bring some of that discussion together and answer some questions that have been frequently asked in private e-mails. We are sure many others have the same questions but have not spoken up!

So why are the UKCPS stopping us copy photos?
We are not. How you do your art is entirely up to you. What we are trying to do is have competitive exhibitions that are on a level field. The field is not level if some players are copying and others are not.

Is there anything wrong with copying?
That's up to you to decide. For us it comes down to this fundamental question - what is art? We like the answer that splits any work of art up into three areas. The most important one is the CONCEPT - the idea, what the picture is about. This might be something as deep as how Brand loyalty has taken over from Patriotism in the age of the multi-nationals (Banksy's latest graffiti), or something as simple as "Isn't this flower beautiful?". Then would come the DESIGN - how would you compose your picture to get that concept across, what compositional devices - if any- would you use to make sure the viewer understands what you are trying to say, where would you put elements within your picture, what colours would you use, and so on. Then comes the EXECUTION - the technical skill with your medium that you use in constructing the picture.

Now suppose we tell judges in an exhibition to mark each of those elements of the art. If you have used someone elses photograph, how many marks do you think the judge should award for Concept? And if you have copied that picture exactly, how much of the Design is yours? You might get a high score for Execution, but you should not be a prizewinner.
The other strand to any use of photos is the copyright one. It is in most circumstances illegal to copy someone elses photo without their permission and then exhibit the work. What this new rule does is to extend the idea of what is legal into what is right.

Does this mean we can't use any photos at all?
Again, what you do with your own work is up to you. But you cannot copy someone elses photo exactly and then try to win a prize in a UKCPS Exhibition with that. The key words here though are "someone elses". If you take the photo, there is no problem - it is your concept, and your design.

There is obviously a continuum here between total exact copying, through partial rough copying to no copying at all, and where the line should come that stops work being exhibited is hard to define. So we don't. We say to anyone wishing to exhibit in our exhibitions "Is this work ESSENTIALLY yours in concept, design and execution?" and we leave it up to the artist to decide that for themselves. If you have copied something exactly you should answer "No". If you have used reference photos that you did not take, it would depend on how many and how you have used them, and it would be up to you to say whether the "line" has been crossed or not. It is entirely possible, for example, for you to have a concept, and have to use several different photos as references to show you how elements of your composition should look, without copying those elements exactly. This is how the image at the top of the post was constructed. I did not have two trained salamanders that I could photograph, nor did I have photos of salamanders in exactly the positions that I wanted. I still got a - to me - pleasing work of art that was essentially mine in concept, design and execution.

But this makes it very hard for me now as I work from photos all the time!
It makes it just as hard for everyone else - and that is the point. It is fairer this way. We also think that working to these restrictions will make you a better artist - you may of course disagree. We do not believe that we are being unfair to one particular group of artists - specifically wildlife artists who work a lot from photographs. We believe that we are being fairer to everyone. We hope that you will agree.

What if I have had some help with the picture - how do I decide if the Execution element is still essentially mine?
Again we leave this to your judgement. We make a firm decision with regard to any work conducted under the supervision of a teacher and say this calls into question the execution element, so such work is disallowed. But as always it is hard to be specific. If you take your work along to show some friends in an art group meeting and they comment on it, have they helped you? Possibly. Have they helped you enough so that the execution is no longer essentially yours? You tell us. Of course, in the internet age, the meetings do not have to be physical, and there was a lot of discussion on Wet Canvas and Scribbletalk about posting work for criticism on these sites. Again, you decide whether such criticism has invalidated the work or not. If a lot of people have just said "Wow!", there is no problem. If someone has taken your work into Photoshop, played around with it, suggested some changes and you have acted on those suggestions - then there could be a problem. Is it still essentially yours?

Many other artists have blogged along similar lines to what is discussed here, and I am particularly greatful to Maggie Stiefvater, Nicole Caulfield, Gayle Mason and Katherine Tyrrell for very helpful posts that have helped us clarify what we want to achieve enormously. Gayle in particular has posted some really useful blogs recently about how to take your own wildlife photos in this country. As always, questions adressed to or to other members of the executive will be answered as fully as we can.


Katherine Tyrrell said...

Bob - thanks for this very helpful post and the link. I'll post a link back to this post in my 'who's made a mark this week' post on Sunday.

Nicole Caulfield said...

Thanks for evrything with this Bob! I think among other things it was a very interesting conversation about the issue and I really respect what you have done.


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