alan little’s weblog

on hive minds

21st January 2004 permanent link

On being part of a hive mind: some thoughts on consensus in arts and how, boring though it might seem to people who want to see themselves as avant garde free-thinkers, the consensus on what is good in any well-established art form is generally broadly right. I base this on my own experiences over the last few years with things I don’t or didn’t previously know much about, namely painting, photography and classical music.

A little over a year ago I was in the Kunstforum in Berlin – a new and impressive art gallery with a wonderful collection of Renaissance paintings. Several times I found I would walk into a room full of portraits, have a quick look round and think “well they’re all good, but that one’s amazing”; and then find that one was by somebody really famous like Holbein, and the others were by people I had heard of barely if at all. On the same visit to Berlin, my girlfriend Maria who has a good eye for pictures but knows nothing about any famous photographers, went round an exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs and said “well the ones I particularly liked were …”, and proceeded to reel off a list of Adams’ most famous classic photographs.

Similarly with the Wilhelm Furtwängler recording of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony that I heard recently. I thought it was clearly by far the best performance I had ever heard; half an hour’s research on the newsgroup revealed that I am far from being alone in that opinion.

Even if I really don’t like somebody who is generally acknowledged as a master in some artform, I can often see why other people might think they are so great. I have hardly ever managed to get through a whole novel by Charles Dickens – I find his plots and characters completely uninteresting. But I freely admit he could craft an English prose sentence like nobody else. The opening passage of Bleak House would get my vote for the best beginning ever to a totally boring novel.

It may be that the closer you get to an artform, the more likely you are to appreciate and admire people in it who are slightly off to the side of the main pantheon. In photography, I can look and appreciate the work of the “gods” like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans; but my heroes, the people whose pictures consistently make my jaw drop with amazement, are Raymond Depardon, Harry Gruyaert and Ernst Haas. Who are all famous and highly respected among photographers, but not quite to the same degree as the other three I mentioned. (Of course, photography is such an obscure and unappreciated artform that the average person in the street probably couldn’t name a single “famous” photographer. If they could, it would probably be Ansel Adams)

Finding yourself time after time agreeing with a consensus isn’t terribly exciting, though. Part of what holds me back from writing serious pieces about Art-With-A-Capital-A, (or rather, finishing and publishing them – there is no shortage of half-finished drafts on my laptop’s hard disk) is that I don’t think I have much to say that isn’t already being said rather well by people like Brian, Alice or Michael & Friedrich. That’s not the main issue – which is lack of writing time – but it’s certainly part of it. Nevertheless, coming soon (maybe) on a related theme: a currently half-finished piece on Indian traditional arts and whether originality is actually an important part of creativity or not.

related entries: Photography

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