Surfing with style is hard to do, it’s an art form with a steep learning curve (ba dum dum cha).
Richie Schmidt draws lines in the water like a painter attacking a wall.
Richie’s surfing is a reminder that when you have a passion for your craft the results show in your style.
1. The ease. You ever feel that sense of flow when everything is just kind of happening gracefully and you don’t even need to push, there is just a beautiful controlled forward movement? It’s like riding a skateboard down a hill with a gentle incline and smooth surface, you can go as fast as you want or just cruise and enjoy the feeling of effortlessness.
It’s been a little like that for me at times lately with my photography. I’ve been embracing the opportunity to work on studio lighting and creating still life compositions with products and food at home. The result of that work is that sense of fluidity that allows me to work fast and get great results.
Now, I don’t want to give the illusion that this flow has come easily. It hasn’t. I’ve worked my ass off numerous times and for a long time to get where I am in my abilities. I know what feels good to me, so I can pretty reliably say when I am on or off and the results always follow that feeling.
For me, an important part of the process of shooting food is appetite. You have to be hungry. That’s why I work out so hard, doing my 700 pushups and squats and hiking or biking tons of miles. A lot of photography is sitting at a computer, so it’s super important for me to be as physically active as possible. You don’t often think of fitness and photography in the same context, but for me it is critical that they go together.
Well, when I received the text to shoot the meal kit, I was hungry as could be from working out, so I was all primed to go. For those who don’t know, Hanloh is a Thai food pop-up here in Santa Cruz and they always have delicious authentic flavors. I was excited to see what this Pad Thai kit would create.
2. The aura. The variety of color texture and form inside this meal kit made a beautiful subject to shoot. As soon as I opened the box, I could tell that it was going to be fun. Sometimes things just have that kind of magical presence to them and good marketers always try to create it for the consumer. It comes from the combination of an authentic and powerful cultural object and an enthusiastic appreciator.
It’s like when a kid sees a skateboard or an electric guitar for the first time. That thing kind of hums and glows with this magical aura and that is exactly how the ingredients appeared to me. I also feel that way about wine and beer. To me, those drinks are almost more beautiful to look at than to taste.
What makes something pleasing to look at? Where is the source of beauty? While I have studied these questions for thousands of hours, the experience is the only thing that really makes sense. We don’t know why we like things, but we’re lucky we do.
3. The people. All of my work is motivated by people I respect, and this was no exception. The beer is from my sister’s brewery Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. Through working with Emily (the best community builder I have ever known) I met Lalita Kaewswang, who is the woman behind Hanloh. An intensely smart culinary artist, Lalita is passionate about her craft, and that always inspires me.
The other people who motivate me are the people of Santa Cruz. This is the community I know best and care about most and it is the small businesses, the surfers, the entrepreneurs, the brewers, the naturalists, the teachers, the yoginis, the musicians and all the other brilliant and beautiful kinds of folk in this town. If Portland is where the dream of the 90s still exists, Santa Cruz is where the dream of the 60s was born and where its best parts still thrive. We support our own, here. We shop local. That’s how we maintain our unique character. It’s the people who are working hard every day to provide the people of Santa Cruz with the culture they enjoy who inspire me.
4. The food. Like I said earlier, I work out a lot and that makes me very very hungry. Well, let’s just say that none of this food went to waste, lol.
It was a pleasure to shoot this meal kit for Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and Hanloh Thai Food. Thanks for reading my blog and for looking at the photos and I hope you get a chance to try the food and beers!
You can order your meal kit, HERE: https://scmbrew.square.site
We get it, the economy is in trouble, people are scared and fed up at the same time, and nobody seems to have a clear answer to how to solve the problems we are facing. There are plenty of ideas, but the problem is twofold: we need enough political will to execute an idea and we need the organization to keep it going.
While everyone is stuck in this quagmire, many have increased their consumption of social media. This is very understandable as we seek connection, want answers and have nowhere else to look. Social media was already consuming an enormous portion of our collective attention and it now has an even tighter grip on us.
As someone who does social media marketing, I feel a huge responsibility to make great content. Of course, this is a subjective measurement, but I will explain my criteria for creation and selection.
Social Side Effects
First of all, you have to think about the effect your content has on people. You want to put the audience first, and as obvious as this may seem to some it is so common to see marketing that fails at this basic requirement. If you have a brand, an organization or if you are an influencer, then you have to give the audience something they want, something that gives them value.
While businesses have the goal of growing their revenue, social media is not a place to make sales. While it is possible, that is not the ideal use of social: it is more for marketing than for sales. This is possibly the biggest problem that content creators face: how do you satisfy business goals without falling into spammy sales-based content. The answer is: if you do social media well, then people will develop an affinity for the brand and that relationship will lead to an economic exchange. If someone loves your brand, they will support it. If you spam them with obnoxious sales proposals, you not only look desperate, but you repel those relationships that you seek to build.
Professional or Personal?
If you want to reach your professional goals with social media, you have to understand that what you put out there on the internet is not for you. This means separating your personal from your professional work. These spheres are blended often in social media as one of the things that people want to see is what is behind the curtain. People crave and respond to authenticity. So how do your share who you are without it becoming too much information or too self-gratifying?
This dynamic creates a tricky balance. Even if you are showing aspects of your personal life, it is not for your own joy of sharing, but because the public has some interest in connecting with a person behind the public image. Strategy is always important in social media, but now more than ever as people are in heightened psychological states it helps to pay careful attention to why you are posting and what effects it is having.
Social Good or Bad?
Social media is a relatively new phenomena in the world, and its massive influence greatly magnified with the advance of mobile technology. With the coming of 5G it only seems inevitable that phones and social media are likely to be a big part of our lives for the foreseeable future. This means that businesses and organizations really need to participate in this primary form of human communication. Like it or not, the phone is where people’s attention is going.
Because of its recency, the data that we have about social media is difficult to put into a proper context. We are in the infancy of this global development, and we haven’t grown enough with the media to use it in the best possible ways. Of course, there are dangers that we should be aware of and we should strive to create content that is safe and beneficial to human life.
Because of the vastness of social media and the billions of photographs with messages being posted every day there is no way to say if it is good or bad. It is clearly both. People organize social movements for positive change on the same channels that scammers try to steal your information by tempting you to click on a link that is supposed to lead to some kind of sexual fantasy. There are genuinely philanthropic actors making change on social media and there are parasitic mercenaries taking advantage of weakness to make a buck.
Either way, social media is not going to go away, so we can either figure out how to do it well and tip the scales in the balance of good, or we surrender our agency and just accept that the lord of the flies will reign.
What makes social media good?
When you scroll through Instagram, look at your Facebook, peruse Twitter or study LinkedIn what has a positive effect on your mental state and your well being? How does it affect you?
I think that this is a very personal question and the answers must necessarily be personal too, but it has universal importance. For me, it has become a very interesting tool of research. I have created some amazing professional relationships by reaching out to someone with whom I resonated. I like it when people are showing me something that makes me want to do something. Photographs of waves make me want to get in the ocean. Photographs of trails make me want to go for a hike. Great portraits make me want to photograph people. Seeing awesome art gets my creativity fired up. I like the food influencers who are creating delicious looking things that are also good for your body and the planet. Social media helps me to find likeminded people and brands. It can be a source of inspiration and networking
What makes social media bad?
When we see content that doesn’t inspire us or give us something to look forward to it can be a horrible time suck and a distraction from productivity. It is your responsibility to curate your timeline so that what you are looking at is beneficial to your mental state. The things that make social media bad are numerous, but they all come down to causing you to feel unworthy.
At its worst, social media is a huge distraction and a mental health hazard. If we are reckless in our consumption and production of content, then we risk it all. The Internet is a kind of pseudo-public, but we often act as though we are safely at home with the content. The failure to understand the division between real life and social media has cost a lot of people a lot of their lives.
Putting bad content out there is like littering. It is just plain bad for everyone. How do you know if your content is trash? What standards do you use when you decide whether or not to post something? Having some way of measuring what you are putting out there is a good idea. You have to develop some sort of quality control.
How is social media like books and art?
Many if not most people have some degree of discord with the culture they grew up in, whether that is their family, their hometown, or their era in history. Almost nobody is a perfect fit to their place and their time. Many people throughout history have used books and art to connect with likeminded people who are physically unavailable. I remember when I first started taking art and writing seriously, I was obsessed with William Blake. His drawings and poetry gave me a kind of buzz and excitement that I couldn’t find among the people I knew. It was across this vast distance of space and time that I found one of my artistic brothers.
Social media can do this for us, too. But even more amazingly, we have the possibility of connecting with people who never would have been accessible to us in the past. Now, I can direct message an artist in South Africa who is doing something with photography that I find compelling. In this way, social media can be an amazing enhancement to life, and not a negative thing at all.
The Social Future
As we navigate this unprecedented time, and we look at our phones hoping to find some news or inspiration, we have to take responsibility for our part in creating culture and building the world over for the future generations. This means rewarding accounts that post things that you find to be beneficial to your life and ignoring the streams of self-aggrandizing or complaining or otherwise energy sucking media holes.
Your social media is yours to do what you can to make our collective experience better. You can incite hate or promote love. The choice is up to you. What are you going to contribute to our social future?
Yesterday I set out on a photo hike. I do these hikes with a certain amount of faith that something will happen on the way that will attract my attention. So, I put on an audio book and focus on breathing while I walk. It becomes a kind of moving meditation. Lately, no content before the virus outbreak has seemed appropriate. We need to learn how to live in this world, so listening to people who are talking about our current situation seems a lot more relevant.
Yesterday, though, I decided to put on Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Philosophy. While things that were created three months ago seem absolutely obsolete, the intellectual documents of the ancient past and of the beginning of modern times can engage your mind without all of the fear of our current situation. Listening to what they were thinking about way back when can help to feel a sense of faith in our ability to have continuity. Humans have survived plagues and wars and all kinds of natural devastations and have somehow figured out the movements of the celestial beings all the while. This is an amazing accomplishment. Even with all of the brutal conditions of earlier times, there were still minds focused on the heavens and trying to figure out the nature of truth and the truth of our nature.
So, I was listening to the ideas of some great thinkers and avoiding the fuck out of people as I made my way to the base of campus by the path that leads up to the classified workers yard. I was stopped in my tracks by an apparition. It was a Great Blue Heron. There it was standing in the grass not minding anyone, just seeming to enjoy a moment in the late afternoon sun. I approached quietly and got my camera ready with a long lens.
The Heron seemed to notice me but was not bothered by me and I was able to get as close as my camera could focus. Only once as a man ran by with a dog did the bird show any signs of disturbance. But even then it merely flew twenty feet away and landed again. As I crept over to get some shots of this majestic bird it started circling back to me. I crouched and watched as it came closer and closer to me and I flashed back to when the Turkeys bum rushed me. This time, though, I actually had a moment of concern as this bird is much bigger, standing probably 4 ft. with a serious knife for a beak.
It got so close that I could only focus on its shoulders, and then it struck the ground and pierced a rodent right through the head. The photos I got are kind of graphic, as you can see the scream of the prey as its consciousness is obliterated by a massive dagger. The bird then flew a dozen yards away and proceeded to swallow the small mammal whole.
These are the kinds of experiences that I hope for on my hikes, and you cannot force them. The more time I spend out in those landscapes the more familiar I become with the patterns of the animals, but you still can’t plan for an encounter like this one.
The virtue I possess that adds the most value to my life is my desire to continue to improve myself. I have a hunger to be better, to do better and to be a better partner in all of the relationships in my life. I believe that we generally can become smarter about a lot of things in life and can build up amazing reserves of wisdom and strength by doing a little bit every day over a period of time. My desire to improve keeps me interested in the details of life, in the day to day choices we make and in the research that we are learning from as humans about what the possibilities of being human really might be.
Every day, I work on writing, photography, research, running my business, being a dad, being in a relationship and more. It is this interconnectedness that gives me the most energy and leads to the feeling that I would describe as thriving. When my energy and inspiration are at high levels and there is plenty of work to do, I feel excited to attack each task.
The question is: what do you do when you aren’t feeling inspired and your energy is flagging?
In part, my answer to myself is don’t let it get that way. It is much easier to maintain a sense of purpose and motivation when you have momentum on your side. With that said, there is always the possibility of having to start from scratch. How do you motivate yourself when the chips are down?
As with so many things, you have to embrace the feeling of growth. If you focus too much on results or numbers, then you run the risk of too much friction from the frustration of not reaching your goals. If your goals are about growth and not about some baseline standard, then you have a much better chance of pushing through. The thing is: how do you know what is enough? That is always going to be the tough part. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I have experienced what I thought were limits only to one day burst through that imagined ceiling to reach levels previously unimagined. Whether that is going from hiking 10 miles to 20, from 300 pushups to 720, from writing 3 pages to 10 there are these activities I have done where when I push myself to go twice as far as my normal limit, I have some breakthrough experiences.
The thing is, it takes a lot of discipline to break through those barriers of discomfort. For me, the hardest part is the decision to begin. Once I’ve committed to something, I generally will put my shoulder to the grindstone and get it done. So, I know for myself that working on decision making is key. Having good time management and energy management helps, too. In order to commit to doing something epic that is going to really expand my sense of the possible, I have to create the space in my schedule for that to happen. That requires a lot of daily discipline.
It takes daily discipline to get together the economy of time and energy to take on an epic task that will double your sense of the possible, and then it takes the courage to commit to that adventure, and finally it takes the discipline to follow through when the going starts to suck. At the beginning of a challenging hike you feel so great. Your legs are full of energy, you have a bounce to your step, and you are generally without pain. At the last half mile, though, you are basically causing yourself agony with every step and as much as you breathe or focus on form it doesn’t matter. Pain is an inevitable part of this growth, which is why the question might not be discipline or masochism, but how much pain is the right amount of pain?
I also do believe that fighting through the pain that you encounter when you set yourself some challenging task builds up the strength that you need in life to deal with the pain of loss and defeat. When you are hurt by things that happen to you outside of your control your response is going to depend upon your relationship with pain. I’m not suggesting that we look at pain as a positive, but that when we embrace it as inevitable, then we can fight through the resistance it can create. If we want to accomplish our goals, then we are going to have to be willing to put up with some hurting.
If it is true that it hurts to be human, and we embrace this basic fact which makes us stronger, then how do we shift our thinking about feeling? If pain is just a temporary discomfort that is the price you pay for growth, then it becomes some sort of battle between your lack of understanding of the importance of growth and the resistance to the pain required. In other words, the way we battle our demons is by reminding ourselves why it is so important to grow that we are willing to go through tremendous fear and pain. In some ways our willingness to go through pain is a direct measure of our love.
Our character is forged from the daily decisions to undergo the discomfort of discipline or to face the horrors of disappointment. When we don’t do what we can we feel a sense of wasted opportunity, of the lack of love. When we succumb to apathy our lives are unenthusiastic and dull. But even worse, they are toxic. Because growth is also often alimentary. There is something intrinsically healthy about many kinds of growth. The kind of growth that derives from consciously chosen work generally is of a healthy variety. Occasionally, as in the case of Olympic athletes or astronauts that drive can go too far into unhealthy zones of activity. And there is cancer, of course, and suburban sprawl…
Are we suffering as a culture from too little or too much discipline?
One of the most fun feelings you can experience as a writer, and as an artist generally, is to be in a flow state. When you can stop thinking for long enough to just allow something creative to happen you can really create some interesting things that are entertaining to you and to other people. I am convinced that those flow states emerge out of practice and are a result of the work you have previously done. The more reps I get in, the better the results. That is why I want to keep trying to radically increase my workflow. The more I do, the better I get, the more response, the more fun, the more I want to do, etc…
And yet, burnout is a real thing. How do you explain that? Everything requires a balance, and mental fatigue is just as much of a factor as physical exhaustion. What is the connection between burnout and not getting the results that you want? I believe that burnout is a real thing, but I also believe that the answer is more work not less. How many hours can you work in a day? What about spending time with your kids? What about fun and play?
These are all important questions and I don’t have all the answers, but it also depends on what you consider to be work. Work is anything you have a resistance to doing, right? Like if you just fucking love doing bench press then that is not really work for you. You might need help with flossing your teeth. That is where you need work. Everyone knows what they need to work on but finding the time and the courage to commit to it is another thing altogether. And, as much as people might complain about things in their lives that they don’t enjoy it is not as common to find people working hard to get through the barriers to their happiness.
Is happiness a choice or is it a result of having done something? Is happiness a decision or a side effect?
I find that my happiness comes from little things I do almost every day. When I complete a workout, while photographing the sunrise or sunset with my love, delivering photos to a client, making posts on social for a client, making slime with my daughter…there are so many little things that make me happy. I love cooking food for my family. I love listening to podcasts. The wealth of daily joys I get to experience is vast. I feel extremely lucky and I want to make the most of every day.
One thing that discipline does is it limits us in a productive way. By choosing to do certain exercises you stress your body in this way and not that way. We make decisions based on the results that we want to achieve. I think that this is also true in art, and one of the decisions that I have made recently is to radically minimize the amount of energy I use in making my art. The last thing I want to be doing is driving long distances to find some spot to get a great photograph. No, I have limited myself to a five mile radius for making art.
Because I live in such a beautiful part of the world a five-mile radius still gives me a ridiculous amount of spots to choose from, but there are two or three that are my go-to spots. By not wasting time traveling to a location and by conserving my energy in making that decision ahead of time I get to focus my drive on different kinds of innovation. That means that I have to push myself to look for more things in the same places, to think about making photographs differently and to really own these locations.
The sunrise is the best opportunity for great photographs for me because I start the day without any internet and by writing. I wake up at 4:30 and drink two cups of coffee while I write five to ten pages before I’ve even looked at my phone. Fresh from dreaming, straight into writing and then out the door to photograph the sunrise, this is a moment in the day when I have my thoughts all aligned and ready to make the most of the best light of the day. Yesterday, we headed down to the wharf and the sunrise was popping off. Watching the colors of the sunrise is the closest I come to painting these days, and it is something I enjoy wholeheartedly. I hope you enjoy this photo. Thanks for reading my thoughts about discipline, pain and mental framework.
I’m most interested in photographs that include and involve humans. I find the challenges and rewards of portraiture keep me studying this mysterious art. I value work that gets me to think and to feel something unique or universal about the human condition from looking at a photograph of a person. Sometimes less is more and in the case of my taste in portraiture that is true a lot of the time. I feel like people are so complex it can only help to give them some space.
The biggest obstacle to truth in portraiture is that sometimes we carry lifelong habits of creating masks to protect ourselves. Whether it is a smile or a neutral face, there is something that you do to preserve yourself from the intruding eyes of strangers. At least, hopefully there is. Because it can be a rough world if you don’t know how to move with an understanding of the ways people are likely to behave. If you don’t have a grasp on the business, then you are going to have to learn.
Portraits have lots of uses in our contemporary lives. We can use them for our LinkedIn profile, for any articles people may be writing about us, for other social media profiles, and for finding love. Whether you need a good Tinder shot or something to show your grandma that you are doing well, a skillful portrait can go a long way towards helping you to reach your goals.
But there is more to a portrait than that. It is something that belongs to the canons of art history and if you care that much about the result, then you can make some magic happen.
A big part of a great portrait is the lighting. The way you place the model in relation to the light is going to determine how a viewer’s eyes might travel around the composition. The light is going to give shape and interest to the form of your subject’s face, hair neck, etc. You can use light to draw attention to important parts of the face, like a catch light for the eyes. This is when you place a light in view of the subject so that a small white light appears in the dark of their pupil helping to create a sense of depth and importance in the eyes.
One huge advantage of working in the studio is having the ability to create a comfortable environment for the subject. In general, there is a lot more ability to control the results. Natural light can be amazing and the experience of being outside sometimes can make a person really shine, but there is a much higher rate of success with the advantages of studio lighting.
I like to use continuous lights, because I find it is much more comfortable for the model. Not having the flashing of the lights and the beeping of the unit recharging makes it a much more enjoyable atmosphere. The vibes of the shoot always matter. That is one reason why working with someone you really like can help to make great work, or in my case with someone you love. When I photograph Madison I know that there is going to be a whole world of energy, emotion, intrigue, mystery and fun all bundled up into one frame. The feelings. Oh the feelings. We have a lot of them, and they show up in the work. I like that. That is what I like art to be. This portrait is an expression of love, fear, lust, faith, and so many other things all at once.
The other night we set up the studio and had two continuous lights going to get this shot. What we did next was something amazing. We did an experiment with using long exposures and candle light. This is one area where it is so radical to have a model as a girlfriend because she is so beautiful and I tell her that all the time. She knows it. It’s not a question. It’s not an issue. What is great about this, is it give us the freedom to be silly and to have fun. We did a series of portraits that are not flattering even though they have a beautiful topless woman in them. I’m not going to show them here, but not for the reasons you might think.
This series is art. As a series, it is a powerful experiment that worked. The images are intriguing as fuck. She looks powerful but sometimes scary in these portraits. Because we have done a lot of work together and have a deep sense of creative trust, we were able to do something original and cool.
Now, we have a few different series going and I am super excited about the direction and shape our work is taking. Our collaboration is getting stronger and smarter at every turn and I can’t wait to see what we learn next. So many lessons. I’ll be sharing more of them here as it makes sense in the coming days. I feel as though I have made some very important discoveries and I am excited to put them into practice and to share with other people looking for ways to be more effective and to improve their outlook.
Searching for style is an interesting task in photography. Why do you choose the compositions and subjects that you do? Are you finding things that please you and sharing them with the world? How is what you are photographing representative of you as a person? How do you recognize your own photos?
In some way, style is unavoidable. It is the result of lots of work. The more work you do, the more you are able to distinguish your style from the rest of the world’s photographs. And it is a world full of images, more photographs than ever before by far. Every day it seems to increase, too.
There are different formal choices you can make that will mark your images as being yours. You could do only black and white or only focus on one color or any other number of ways to say this is your photograph. You can also do this with subject matter.
Your editing has as much to do with it as your shooting. I like to see natural looking light in photographs, so I tend to edit with an aim to having it look as close to the scene as possible. I care about color and want my photographs to show the truest version possible. Other people opt for a super saturated look. The important thing is to have a reason for your decisions. Why is this your style?
Another key distinction with style in photography comes from the use of perspective to achieve depth or flatness. Some photographs (with a foreground, middle ground and background) invite you to look into them as though mentally stepping into a world. On the other hand, some photographs lack perspective and are more for looking at than in.
You also have to choose where along the spectrum between abstract and figurative your work will exist. Some photographers focus on color, texture and geometry and exclude storytelling elements to create a formal viewing experience. Other photos attempt to show you a world, to depict a scene, to tell a story.
It is also very possible for one photographer to have several styles. It is fully possible to create different styles for your work. Different series have different elements needed for their effects.
What is enough? Enough is enough? Have we had enough? What a funny word.
First of all, there’s the spelling. What’s this shit? For one thing, it has what my daughter calls a sneaky g and h. We have a very confusing language, but English is the one I know best and I love it. It’s a funny thing to love words, but there are worse things to become obsessed with, for sure.
But back to enough. What does it mean to have enough, to give enough, to be enough? Enough is the right amount. If there is too much of something, then we say that we’ve had enough. But, if we want to buy something beyond our budget, we have to raise enough capital. Enough is a happy medium, a transactional middle, a form of health, a proper measurement. When adding salt, you taste the food to know if that’s enough. When you look to see if a task is finished you ask if it’s good enough. So, it’s qualitative as well as quantitative.
This is one of the key judgments in photography. Finding the right exposure, the right shutter speed, the desired depth of field, the clarity of shadows, the quality of light you have to experiment to find out what is enough light, speed, dynamic range, etc. Once you have a composition, photographic technique consists of experimenting with the settings to create the desired visual effect. The funny thing about this is that you have to feel it out to learn what is enough. It is a feeling. Keep pushing the settings one direction and then the other until you find the right exposure.
Moderation is a value I believe in, and it has everything to do with the idea of what is enough. Excess leads to sickness, scarcity leads to desperation, but enough leads to the zone of happiness and health. In art, there is a concept known as density, which describes the amount of visual information within a given work or collection of works. Some work is very light and minimal, and some is very dense and baroque. You have the ability to make this choice when composing photographs, too. What do you look for to make a minimalist composition? What is interesting enough? How engaging is the work? Does it ask enough? Does it give enough?
Content creation can be a tricky thing. When you are working for clients you have a much different task than when you are creating content for the public, but they are very much related. In both cases, you have to consider the purpose of your task. When you work for a client, there are multiple overlapping areas of concern. You have to create content that works for you, for the brand, for the brand’s investors, and for the public. When you do personal work, you have the same categories of viewers to consider, but their rank of importance is different.
For example, if you are a content creator and you are posting on your own page, you have different goals. You are trying to sell the service, not the content. You are showing people that you can consistently put out high level quality content.
One thing that I want to think about is the difference between content and art and where art lives in today’s world. The marketing world, the media world and the academic world all thrive on content. They are pushing messages. Art is different. What is the message of art?
On one hand, I am not sure that art has any validity in our world at the current juncture. Who are your favorite contemporary artists? What are they doing? Maybe this is a common feature of art, to be misunderstood. Isn’t that part and parcel of the experience of putting art out into the world? In order to push the boundaries of art, you can’t do work that is already accepted. This means that you are going to have to endure lots of people not understanding what it is you are doing or why you would want to do it. Not that artists always understand either. But you have to do things that are not part of the program. At least that’s my understanding of art. I remember Seth Godin talking about how there are places in developing countries where people crank out oil paintings of scenic views and that is not art; it is painting. There is no invention, no originality, no thought. It is simply craft, just a going through the steps to make something.
What is this element that we call art, then, and does it apply to content creation for brands? On the one hand, we have a definition of art as something done extremely well. There is an art to anything. When Kobe Bryant worked his magic on the court there was an artistry to his movement. This is something else, though, than Rodney Mullen figuring out the most insane flatland tricks on a skateboard. Kobe Bryant always had the goal of scoring a basket, of winning the game. In art, the goal is less clearly defined, and the expressivity is much more important. Sure, there is a technical execution to what Mullen does on a skateboard (he either succeeds in making his tricks or doesn’t), but the goal is to do something new, something innovative. Kobe Bryant wasn’t trying to play basketball in a new way, he was just trying to be the best.
It is these two competing definitions of art that leave us somewhere in the middle. Is art a form of experimental research designed to bring new things in the world, or is it a talent contest that aims to bring the best of what already exists into being? Probably both are valid even though they are so different, but they definitely contribute different values to the world. One is playing golf better than it has ever been played. The other is inventing an entirely new game. We need new games, too, since we are evolving as a culture.
I think of these two qualities that we describe as art, excellence and innovation, as being the result of technique and experimentation. In order to hit a golf ball so well that we consider it an art, you have to master the technique of golf. While there may be subtle nuances of invention in your particular version of the swing, it will be fundamentally recognizable as golfing to anyone who knows about golf. This type of “art” is recognizable based on the results and the form of the technique. It is a much easier thing to see. We already know what the activity is and how it is supposed to go, so it is a recognition of quality not of kind.
When you understand the difference between these two definitions of art, you begin to see how people get confused about contemporary art. They are looking for a display of the mastery of technique when what they should be asking is what the artwork means. Art is not just be a display of talent with technique, but it can also be evidence of originality, of invention.
On the other hand, there is the kind of art that is unrecognizable, at first. This kind of art is entirely based upon experimentation and questioning what can be interesting as an art experience or object. Think of Marcel DuChamp’s readymades. There is almost no technique required. Someone else did the work of manufacturing the object. All DuChamp had to do was select it, sign it with a pseudonym, and place it in a context where it was sure to cause people to ask questions. This changed the conversation from technique “how did the artist do this?” to concept “how did the artist dream this up?”
Robots are already making art. We have used machines to create images for almost two hundred years, now. The human element in art is the courage to experiment when failure is both highly probable and when the results matter greatly. This is the thing that defines the kind of artist I admire: the courage to experiment under fire.
And it is for this reason, that I understand art to be more about experimentation than the flawless execution of technique, that I have begun to understand business, war, and media as more related to art than not. Not only is there an art to war, but war is a form of art as well. Business, media, military force, and art all are attempts to influence others in order to create a space to exist. Through these efforts (to build a brand, to produce media, to enact military campaigns, to create art) we collectively create our way of life. Politics and Religion do this also, but I don’t like to discuss those topics because I like you too much to do that to you.
So I’m asking you next time you see something that calls itself art, that is shown in an art context, to ask different questions. Instead of looking to the work to display talent and technique, see if you can just sit with the thing long enough to see what it does to you. If it makes you mad, note that. If it makes you hate art, note that. But whatever it makes you feel, the way to get the most out of an experience of art is to ask what it could mean, what were the stakes of its being made, why does this matter to other people? If nothing else, this kind of art is a form of mental exercise to practice being open minded. Can you sit with a work of art that doesn’t go out of its way to please you long enough to listen to what it might have to say? In a world full of visual yes men, some art that keeps itself at a distance might be just the thing we need. Think about when you go to the grocery store. The cereal boxes are practically jumping off the shelves to give you pleasure. Is this a red light district or Safeway? Chill, cereal boxes, I’m not looking, lol.