Today’s thought experiment is that if you can accurately and thoroughly describe a piece of visual art, a photography, a painting, a sketch or drawing or the like, that piece of artwork has failed at some level as art.
Understanding where that come came from begins through stating the obvious: we comprehend, we take in, visual art through our sense of vision. It we approach a statement in our painting or photography that defies verbal description that work more likely adheres to its medium.
Photographers has used terms like simplicity, mystery, beauty, light, color and gesture to articulate what they’re trying to convey through visual depiction of line, shape, texture, color and the rest. A term like mystery might clear enough in that it’s expressing something that resists simply, unambiguous description. A term like gesture, when applied to visual imagery, can be confusing to a general audience who thinks of term as a bodily movement that affirms or emphasizes, or maybe precludes, a spoken message. But the average person doesn’t typically associate gesture as an element of an image, or as the defining feature of the subject of an image. Yet it’s that very characteristic—inarguably there, and at the same time, very difficult to pin down—that makes it so effective.
When a subject is as obvious as a hillside covered with foliage in its brilliant fall color scheme of reds and golds, with a still lake in the foreground and old, weathered rowboat sitting in the lake, reflecting in the still water, there’s not a lot of mystery there. Even the gesture is so obvious that it loses what’s compelling about the scene. That’s not to say the scene isn’t beautiful, peaceful, compelling even, as it is. Yet nothing in that image suggests something ambiguous, brings out the mysterious, or raises a question that will engage a viewer in anything beyond the obvious.
The mottled yellow and brown leaf that doesn’t look like much as you walk past it gives a photographer or painter material to work with. If you can find the gesture in that subject that stops someone and compels them to look again, you do the work of an artist, and you’ve succeeded in a more challenging task than capture a pretty picture.