By James Chambers
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2017
As a photographer, and teacher of art and design, I commonly use the following words to clarify for my students, according to accepted standards, what the art world considers “good” or “bad.”
These definitions are from the Random House Dictionary: AESTHETIC: pertaining to a sense of the beautiful; having a sense of the beautiful characterized by a love of beauty; pertaining to, involving or concerned with pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality; a philosophical theory or idea of what is aesthetically valid at a given time and place.
POPULAR: Regarded with favour, approval, or affection by people in general; pertaining to or representing the people (the common people), suited to, intended for, the general masses of people.
ELITE: A group of persons exercising the major share of authority or influence within a larger organization (community, nation, or culture); person of the highest class; the choice or best of anything considered collectively. As one can see these terms tend to create a divide between those who are “in the know,” from those who are uninformed, when making value judgments about art. The focus of the word aesthetic seems to be centred on beauty. Accordingly, an individual looking at a work of art should feel they are before something beautiful, that they should experience strong emotion and a visceral sensation. In reality this perception is more complex. Picasso’s Guernica is not beautiful as such; it portrays a terrible event, the bombing by Nazi German forces of the Basque town on April 23, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War.
I would hazard a guess that generally most of the world population has little or no awareness of such works of art, whether good, bad, or beautiful. In terms of the definitions above, art seems to fit into the elitist category, that is, “belonging to a select or favoured” group, which is why I propose an alternative description: “The Other Aesthetic.” This is an automatic reaction by the viewer to everything we look at or experience through the senses. Elitists often take in the perceptual world through a different set of filters and parameters. The populace as a broad category is largely spontaneous and without conscious thought or evaluation of the immediate surroundings.
I search hungrily for whirly-gigs, plaster dinosaurs, plastic flamingos, and day-glow Jesus statuettes that shimmer in the dark, and play “Nearer My God to Thee” when you pull the attached string. I find these things funny, sad, outrageous, tasteless, poignant, and accessible. It’s easy to feel superior when gazing at a seductive siren painted in glowing colours, luxuriating on a field of black velvet, and to imagine your intellectual superiority over those who have spent many hours in the selection and installation of yet another figure in the growing diorama that is their front lawn.
A photographer’s art is one of selection and timing, the “decisive moment,” to quote the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Where one places the frame is intuitive, the rest is technical. When the frame is placed, what the photographer chooses to cut away from the world and present to the viewer is a reflection of what the artist finds interesting. The viewer’s sensibilities decide whether this work is good, bad, relevant, worthy, skilful, or clumsy, not the artist. When I photograph what the elitists call kitsch I am doing so because it truly fascinates me, and I want the world to see what I find interesting.
The following photos are examples of a few that I have found worthy of a frame during a trip through the Maritimes and Quebec. The accepted definitions do not necessarily apply to my subjects. Kitsch is a negative term when applied to what the elite viewer considers art, and therefore is not used as descriptive of the subject matter in my photographs here. Aesthetics is complex as a concept and always open to discussion. In this case pure emotion and sensation as mentioned above are what my photos are about, as examples of popular art within the range from kitsch through yard art and art brut (outsider art in North America). Pure intellectuality attaches to conceptual art, cold, bloodless, without soul, expressions necessary for the evolution of art as work in progress, but “footnotes to real art of the people, and for the people, and for the love of sofa-sized paintings of ethereal skylines rendered in orange and vermillion… regarded with favour, approval or affection by the people in general, pertaining to or representing the people.” The meaning of “popular” seems to have lost its original sense, as some art critics, film reviewers, and those who decry popular culture generally dismiss its products as vulgar and thus inferior.
I sound very reactionary and my working class, steelcity sensibilities (Hamilton), show like a visible wound, but I am perhaps somewhat schizoid and coloured by both my heritage and my educated self.
Collecting plaster Elvis busts could be considered elitist if we apply one of the definitions of the term, “the choice or best of anything considered collectively.” These gold, bronze, and multi-hued specimens are certainly as popular as the equally prolific Sacred Heart of Jesus statuettes and Madonna figurines favoured by some Mediterranean cultures.
The ubiquitous, pugilistic version of the “King” noted above, is certainly the most iconic celebrity of a plaster persona in circulation in the homes of the rich and the poor, the enlightened and the uninformed, in the Western world. It’s affordable and easily attained. And like Mecca, Lourdes, or Benares, a vial of holy water or a plastic Elvis can be brought back home as proof of a visit to the sacred venue. Is a shrine of the Virgin complete with waterfall and light show erected on the balcony of an inner-city row house any less venerable than Michelangelo’s Pietà sheltered in an alcove in St. Peter’s in Rome? If viewing it raises the spirits, brightens a dark corner, or covers an unsightly crack in the wall, that is enough.
I’ve photographed art and worked with artists for more than 45 years, and most are bright, creative, and engaging, but some shun the public, while the atmosphere in certain galleries can seem hostile to intrusions by the uninitiated. In the end, to invoke an overused yet pertinent cliché, beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and if the beholder likes plastic flamingos on the lawn, Virgins that light up in the living room, ashtrays that play Smoke Gets in Your Eyes in the den, there the viewer becomes the ultimate arbiter of taste and beauty.
James Chambers has been a professional photographer and artist for 45 years, formerly head photographer at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and a specialist in the publication of art books.