When Is Art, Well, Um, Art?


Good Evening:

First, the picture.

Nikon CoolPix 4300, Landscape Mode

And now, the title of the picture: “So I Asked Him, ‘Have You Ever Thought of Your Machine as a Work of Art?’ and in a Thick Irish Brogue He Replied, ‘Aw, That’s the First Time She’s Ever Looked Pretty to Me.'”

Seriously, that is the title of the picture. As is my wont, I had walked around San Francisco all afternoon, and this was the most interesting thing I had seen all day. He had seen me taking photographs of this little orange critter and interrupted his lunch break to demand what I was doing. Maybe he was concerned that I planned to steal or vandalize it later. I showed him the pictures I had taken (this is the only one I preserved), and we engaged in the above dialogue. He didn’t want me to email the picture to him, however (perhaps he was an acute critic?).

I’ve thought about our exchange ever since.

Let’s pretend for a moment that this photograph is a work of art. I mean “work of art” as a description with neutral connotations; i.e., I describe the object, but I do not evaluate its merit as such an object. This can be a good, bad or indifferent work of art, but it is a work of art. In fact, for the purposes of this discussion the quality of the photograph is irrelevant to me. The question that has intrigued me ever since 2 October 2004 (the date of the photograph) is this: why is this a work of art?

Is this part of the backhoe itself a work of art? Is it a work of art only because the photographer decided that it is a work of art? Is it a work of art only because the photographer only composed this specific shot with only this specific background and only this specific light? Or does this picture become a work of art only because someone else, such as you the reader, views it and accepts it as/decides that it is a work of art? This last question interests me because one person’s work of art is another person’s no-thanks-you-don’t-need-to-email-that-to-me.

Perhaps all of these factors must come into play, which makes things interesting because that might imply the photographic work of art must begin with the object being photographed, and the object itself must be art. So there it is, a graffiti-stained backhoe. Art? Or not?

Vonn Scott Bair


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