Ben Shahn; Primary Concerns and Recognition.

"The primary concern of the serious artist is to get the thing said - and Wonderfully well.  His values are wholly vested in the object which he has been creating.  Recognition is the wine of his repast, but it’s substance is the accomplishment of the work itself."  Ben Shahn

Tom's take on Shahn's idea: 

As Ben Shahn mentions, “the primary concern of the serious artist is to get the thing said – and Wonderfully well.  While I do agree with the statement, sometimes I think that in Shahn’s comment the primary concern is to have people respond to the types of things you are making.   I know that I, for one, really don’t care if the response is positive or negative but that what I do care about is that at least the work evokes a reaction or response from those who take the time to view it.  I think that all of us who make art want to get the “thing said” because we all view the world and consequently the things that we make/express through our own filter.  That filter could and is based on a myriad of factors that color the way we see, respond, and create things.  As I mentioned in a prior post, I think that without the ability to express myself through the creation of work, I would die intellectually, emotionally, and maybe even literally.  The ability to create is something that is essential to my being personally.   Any serious artist is totally and completely vested in the work that they do.  Mind you that doesn’t mean that everything they touch turns to gold but it does mean that everything they touch is a learning process.  Sometimes that learning has already been established and other times it is merely a stepping-stone to something else that lies beyond the horizon.  Whatever we make, whatever we do, whatever we read or process, helps us move forward in the world.  These “things” all allow us to become “wholly vested” in the work that we make.  While for some, recognition is the most important factor, for others it isn’t about recognition it’s about the creative process itself.  Can you, as an artist, survive without the process or the ability to create?  Will it leave a hole in your being that is so large that you won’t be able to fill the void?  I think for any serious artist, that is the issue.  The creative process, the thinking that factors into the process, the research, the agonizing about the product are all factors that motivate people to create.  Sometimes, it’s not about the response but the deed (achievement) itself. As Shahn mentions “it’s substance is the accomplishment of the work itself.” Enough said!


Eric's take on Shahn's Idea: 

Primary concerns.  

That’s a mouthful.  

There lies one sharp individual who can firstly simply identify their own primary concerns, before distilling and applying them within the artistic context.  I feel lately (lately as in the last 5 years of so) that such intellectualism has succumb to a swift and nasty death - the worst kind - not even a flameout or incineration, but a blunt and abject end.  Who as a young artist knows what they want to say?  I mean what they REALLY WANT TO SAY.  (And to whom?)

I’m writing in contrast to Tom’s assessment of what Shahn said.  I value and agree completely with his evaluation and I do believe that most artistic-types would suffer a death within themselves, however mentally or spiritually (or worse).  But, I will challenge Ben Shahns artistic value accomplishment over recognition vs. substance in the modern digital age.  

Allow me to modify the quote a bit for discussion; let’s say something like “…recognition is the hard, mainlined, unescapable drug of his repast….”  Would you agree?  Today?  The patience and respect once reserved for long term, invested projects that required dedication and persistence, tenacity and risk are not really valued like they once were.  Seems to me that making art just for the sake of it existing is really the old guard’s game - which, to me, is wrong.  

The world’s a different place now.  Gone are the days of PROVOKE, the Blue Period, going out On The Road.   Could a young artist dedicate hisself to making photographs or paintings or sculpture with reasoning so simple as to give his ideas life?  Without thought of praise or compensation?  I can think of only two right now that are well known - one a musician and the other a painter - who abide by this ‘no bullshit, no games, I do what I want’ ethos - and they’re only able to do this because of their previous financial successes.  

Art ain’t cheap.  Art takes sacrifices.  Unfortunately the buy-in to be a player in today’s world is high. 

Supplies are exhaustingly expensive.  Film, papers, chemistry - just on the analog side are rising higher than ever and the same goes for digital gear, too.  (The film vs. digital argument is old and tired - use whatever tools you want.  Nobody compliments a chef on the quality of his stove). 

Who has the mental stamina and the physical cash to dedicate nearly all waking hours in pursuit of a craft, with the reward of the doing eclipsing the expenditure to get there? 

I don’t know.  I can speak for myself and for my buddies, the few I do know who shoot what they want and where they want, with whom they want.  They’re self published.  And I mean on paper, not on a screen - which is where the root of the modern problem lies.  Why go to the trouble of honing an analog workflow, painting with real paint, carving something from real wood (like from real trees) when you can fake it on a phone?  Or YouTube someone painting? Or just say screw it, it’s too much work and time and money and I don’t really care?  If that’s you, you’re in luck,  as there is always strength in numbers.  The world will not likely acknowledge your laziness and lack of determination, nor will your peers penalize you for simply not trying (before giving up).  You’ll slip quietly into the digital mass, who will likely vanish during the course of the next cloud update.  However, if this is not you, if you do spend everything you have both mentally and physically on the hunt to materialize your vision - you deserve credit.  

Recognition (a la Shahn) might come to you in some form at some point but be clear with yourself and understand this - explaining something foreign to those who couldn’t begin to understand anything outside of their solipsisms is a struggle.  Ever been casually asked what you do for a living? Have you answered with ‘I’m a photographer?’  What kind of look did you get?  Was there a pause? Did your inquisitor smile and kinda stare at you for a moment?   Yeah, been there.  All of that is usually followed by something like:

1. Oh, interesting…

2. How’s that working out for you? 

3. My sister has a camera…


5. Why don’t you just use your phone? 

These are things to be ignored.  Always be polite and gracious for these people know not about which they speak. The primary concern of any serious artist IS to get the thing said.  The artist doesn’t need to articulate why or how or for what ends, they just need to get it out.  That crawling, scraping, tremendously infuriating feeling from within that’s got you convinced that one more breath cannot and will not come fast enough until this thing is out of you - is where primary concerns live.  Nothing worth anything is easy and the long sigh of relief when a work of art is completed is the most rewarding return we can receive.  








Henri Cartier-Bresson; Can Anybody Take Photographs?