For hundreds, thousands of years to say the least, many have wondered about the same question. What is art? And my answer is a simple one. Art is gratification of basic urges.
Symmetry, shapes, patterns, proportions, stability and dynamics – these are a few words that constitute the outmost layer, presumably the most superficial level, of visual art, to which I will mostly devote this article. To understand these elements, I turn to evolutionary biology that explains how we have become who we are. Struggles to survive the harsh environments for millions of years have slowly shaped ourselves as a species : a unique one that is capable of creating grand ideas but still is bound, quite often, by our biological origins.
I was on a long drive. Chasing the winter clouds brought by the midlatitude jet stream over the Pacific Ocean, I drove hours to a remote region of the golden state. Emotion-provoking atmospherics and fiery skies have been my passion, and understanding the fast moving natural reflectors has been an important task, as it has enabled predictions, which have been an occupational obsession as a scientist. Intense light chasing has left this question lingering in the back of my mind, for hours and at times for days. Glaring lights on the dark windshield hypnotized my mind, and curiosity worked in the same way it always had, filling up the mind with one thought: why? Why am I attracted to colors?
An apple was my answer. Though it worked in a very different fashion than it did for Sir Newton. At the glimpse of the deep red, it dawned and started to make sense. Many fruits come in primary colors like most flora and fauna in nature, and they have been essential resources for human survival. Adaptation to the fruit and vegetation based diet has offered a strong evolutionary drive for developing color vision, which changed the human life forever. In addition to identifying much needed food sources, color perception also enabled many other activities that are not directly associated with human well-being. In this sense, being captivated by the hues in the skies may be called simple backfiring of a basic instinct. As much as this takes away the enchantment and glamour some may have about the origin of ‘beauty’, it is an explanation that no scientist can easily dismiss. Therefore I believe that no matter how aesthetically pleasing, a fine piece of visual art is no different from any suggestive photograph in its very foundation : It gratifies our basic desires.
It is not all about visual stimuli, however. A fine piece of art gives a set of wings to your imagination, tells stories, guides your mind through metaphoric hints, and conveys messages. These are the aspects of art that speak to your intellect and curiosity, encouraging us to look beyond the obvious and learn.
Jürgen Schmidhuber made this distinction very clear, discerning what is beautiful from what is interesting. Based on information theory, he defined beauty as the one with the shortest description, among several observations classified as comparable by a given subjective observer. Interestingness, on the other hand, is what can improve the observer’s predictability and compressibility : discovering regularities such as repetitions, symmetries and fractal self-similarity. I consider this a major breakthrough in the theory of aesthetics, as it shed light on the innate complexity of this seemingly simple act of visual perception.
The existence of the different facets of aesthetics, however, does not convince us to value one over the other. Interestingness, often tends to be valued over beauty by the majority of art critics or contemporary artists, is still no different in a sense that it still is to satisfy a human instinct : i.e. our intellectual curiosity. No art movement can be free from this stigma, no matter how Avant-Garde your belief is, you are still dealing with the fundamentals of our biological nature. However, the preference of many is also understandable, because success of humans as a species has largely depended upon the emphasis of intellectual capability. A pure coincidence the choice might have been, since genes do not behave in a strategic fashion in the process of evolution, but it has surely made noticeable differences in the short time period of our existence.
Landscape photography, a classic field of visual art, still deals with the same pieces of the puzzle.
A bolt of lightning may stir different kinds of desires. Its shape, a combination of symmetry, asymmetry, and patterns (fractal), can be easily transformed into both aesthetic beauty and interestingness in our minds. The rarity of the phenomenon also speaks to our curiosity. Moreover, its physical nature, a mighty strike of electricity is something to be feared, as all mortal beings are aware of its extreme destructiveness. As ironic as it may sound, the flash of light is to be admired at the same time, for all living things long for power, which has been a strong leverage for survival.
A photograph of a desert may draw a different type of audience than a photograph of meadows. Even when both photos are assumed to be comparable in aesthetic beauty, they will be appreciated in much different fashions, depending on each individual viewer. While the desert’s exoticness may be prized by our curious nature, its bleakness is likely to trigger a sense of discomfort. One thing is very clear. Appreciation of visual art is a fairly complicated process involving many different human desires.
There is, however, something unique about landscape photography. No matter what, a landscape photograph always brings us to the fundamental questions of human existence : who we are, why we are here, what kind of world we live in and what the universe is like? There is a clear logical path to the highest priority of human curiosity in landscape photographs, which instantly turn the viewers into philosophers. Some may find landscape works cliché, because the theme has not changed since the days of Saint Adams, and there may be nothing experimental about it. But why change if no need? It still shines, like that bright star in the night sky.
Please note that the rather subjective definition given in the first section did not limit art to 'mere' gratification of basic urges.
The beginning often speaks volumes about the nature of an action, but it does not necessarily dictate the outcome or pinpoint the final destination. Though it is originated from simple self-indulgence, art can inspire. And most of all, I believe art can change. Realistic and more tangible changes, perhaps not in a conventional way, can be made through art, and that is the extra dimension I would like to add to this endeavor.
A close acquaintance once told me how he considered photojournalism hit a plateau. The immunity we slowly developed over the years, by being exposed to the countless snapshots of brutal truths, may have lessened the strength of the reinforcement on our behaviors. Whatever shocked the world decades back, now more of us take it for granted, and even the most hard-fought images are easily diluted in this age of information. The tremendous respect I have for these brave journalists easily converts to a sense of concern, which also makes me wonder if there is any action waiting to be taken on my part. It also encouraged me to reflect upon the practical limitations of the visual medium, as a mean to create substantial differences in the real world.
Despite being the biggest advocate of landscape photography, I would be hard-pressed to believe a landscape photograph, most likely a romantic view of the natural world, could directly influence the harsh reality we, as a whole, face every day. How can one easily connect the beauty of the universe with the empathy for a starved child on the other side of the globe? The faint logical path, which I believe exists, cannot be carved on each and every corner of my images without the help of written words. But then again, the question is, why does it have to be explicit? Or, why does an artist need to convince viewers to take an action, when all he or she needs is support and endorsements?
Maybe what we need more is no longer persuasion. Maybe we have already written an enough number of grim reminders to ourselves in the vague hopes of changes. Maybe all we need to do now is act, since actions speak louder than words or, in this case, images, particularly in this era of affluence or excessiveness. Maybe there is a way we can focus on the best of our world or ourselves, no matter how scarce it is in reality, and still bring more tangible differences to this world. And that is the sole motive to found an organization that enables charitable donations in the name of fine art.
Or maybe it is just a ridiculous daydream of an ideologist.