Does your world view influence your art?

How do you view the world?

How do you view the world?

 

There is a question that pops up every so often about how much does world view influence our work as photographers? To answer that we need to define world view. One dictionary puts it like this:

world view: world·view  (wûrld’vyü)
n. In both senses also called Weltanschauung.
1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.

I can work with that. Another way to ask the question above can be shaped in this way: do your beliefs about life and the universe influence your art? My response to that: I sure hope so. It’s inevitable. Frankly, I think it’s either a very bad artist who doesn’t let his or her art be influenced by their beliefs or they’re just not being honest with themselves in saying otherwise.

I like the term world view because it conjures up an image of a view point on an overlook on a stretch of highway or a window. Any view point or window gives us a certain and defined vantage point. We see things a certain way. Much like the lens we choose gives us a certain view to a subject. If we use a super-wide and get too close we might get a distorted view. If we use a 50 mm we might think we have a “normal” view. So it is with our world view, whether we come to it from a deep conviction of faith, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or otherwise or from a humanistic view, it is still a view point–as uncomfortable as that might sound for some people. But it isn’t only a religion that makes up our world, it is also our political views, our age, our economic background, our life experiences and more. All these things form our world view and influence us and thus our art.

So we’ve established we all have a world view. The next question is, are we preaching that world view? Are we being deliberate and thrusting that view on our viewers/readers? I certainly think many people do. I think there is a time and a place to get one’s message across. You might label what I’m talking about as social commentary and understand that I think it is important and can be very relevant.  Obviously, not everyone will agree with a commentary, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? But if all we do is preach, then I think our art becomes one dimensional, flat, repetitive and we lose our audience. Artists represent more than an agenda. Our world view is made up of more than just our faith or our politics. Good art involves a place much more complex and deep. By forcing a certain agenda we risk creating propaganda. Certainly there has been some great works of art that fall under the heading of propaganda. I am thinking about the amazing posters made by the North Vietnamese during the 1960s. So I am not saying if you have an agenda you can’t make great art, far from it. I am saying you limit your audience to a few proselytites and maybe fail at expressing the whole of who you are. Maybe you are fine with that. If so–good luck with that, personally I want to engage with, and perhaps even influence, all kinds of people; therefore, I want as wide an audience as I can get.

T.S. Eliot who many refer to as the most important English-language poet of the 20th century, and a Nobel Prize winner to boot, was a devout Christian. He certainly wrote poems that were blatantly influenced by his faith, a glaring example being his poem,  “Ash Wednesday.” Eliot wrote about how it is impossible to separate our beliefs from our art in his essay, “Religion and Literature” wherein he states, ”

I am convinced that we fail to realize how completely, and yet how irrationally, we separate our literary from our religious judgements. If there could be a complete separation, perhaps it might not matter: but the separation is not, and never can be, complete.” 1T.S. Eliot

Although he states that Christians can never separate their faith from their work, he does go on to say that he feels literature, “should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian.”2. This is where the artist flourishes, when their world view, be it Christian, Muslim, humanistic, happy or sad whatever it is, flows unconsciously through their art. When we force it, we get propaganda and it comes off contrived. When it is unconscious it is a glimpse of who we are as individuals.

How do we see it in a photograph? If I am honest, I would have to say I am not sure–but here is what I think. I think our beliefs and our views influence us by urging us to take a photo of one certain subject over another, or at a certain moment over another. One of the things I have noticed when leading workshops is that you can take ten people with cameras and one subject and all of them will come back with a different view or take on the subject. Granted, some of that is limited or directed by their abilities, but much of that is dictated by how they see the world. Even if we come from the same background, same faith, same country or hold the same political views we each have a unique perspective of the world around us and as such our art should be uniquely ours.

Let me see if I can use the image above to illustrate my point. This is an image that I think was clearly motivated by my world view. Many people might have walked right by this shop. They might have seen the sign and kept walking. But it resonated with me. It caused me to stop and stare at it. Why? I think it is because prayer is something special for me. I also relate to the shopkeeper that closes his shop for worship. My family owned a book store when I was young, and we always closed it on Sundays, our worship day. Here’s another example, many years ago when I was visiting the offices of India Picture in New Delhi, the owner Hemant Mehta was commenting to me that many of my images seemed to have a peacefulness about them, a since of serenity. He wondered how I did that when I lived in such a violent place as Kashmir. My only answer to that was because in my own life I felt a sense of serenity, I felt at peace. On the other hand, if you look at the work of someone like Bruce Gilden, the famous (infamous?) Magnum street photographer, I think you see his world view of, “I don’t really care what people think.” When I watch him work or when I view his images I get the impression that he has no compassion for the people he photographs.

I am reading a book called Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, by Steve Turner. I started reading this book after being challenged by a patron of my work (Yes, there are still patrons in this day and age, though far too few. That’s a subject for another post.) to take some time and examine what my work is saying about who I am. He challenged me to explore this topic openly with my readers and thus this post was born.

Denying that our beliefs, no matter how personal they are, have no bearing on our art to me seems a very Western view. Here in the East religion and society are much more intertwined–whether for the good or the bad. In the West we tend to compartmentalize our lives. In the East they understand that our faith,  politics and ethnicity (Ouch! That’s even more of a hot topic) all come together to create who we are. Maybe instead of fearing these things we should accept them as factors of what makes our art uniquely ours. Maybe we should do the opposite of what our parents taught us, we should talk about politics and religion, even in polite company.

  1. T.S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature”, in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.), pp 97-106 (p 100)
  2. Ibid. , p 100

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5 thoughts on “Does your world view influence your art?

  1. Matt take a look at the work Bruce Gilden has done in Haiti and around the US – I think maybe that might change your view of his world view. A lot of his work isn’t done for money but because he believes in the cause.

    • Ray, fair enough. I was a little hesitant to add that line about him in the post. So I changed it to “I get the impression” because I think that was a fair statement from what I see when I look at his work (and watch him interact with people). I think this makes a good point. When we let our world view flow unconsciously through our work then it will be subtle and maybe not easy to identify. I think we do have to look at someone whole body of work to make a stronger judgment.

  2. Matt

    This is a really thought provoking post. For me you have made me look hard at “why” I take a photograph. Whenever we click the shutter we are making a clear choice – making a picture that says something that we think is worth saying. Sometimes this is as simple as “this flower is beautiful” and sometimes it’s as complex as “how can we stand by when really bad things happen in the world”. Regardless – I feel like our world view is somewhere in every frame.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  3. Hi Matt,

    If it’s art the, in my opinion, your worldview really has to be involved. I suppose it is possible to take very competent images for commercial purposes about a subject and within a process that you feel is completely neutral to your worldview but I see that as craftsmanship rather than art. You are communicating someone else’s message, rather than one that comes from yourself. Of course many commercial photographers have an interest in their subject matter as well, in which case they may have the freedom to express themselves and at least experiment artistically.

    But, as i define it, in art you are inviting people to sit where you are and, perhaps, at least temporarily shift their viewpoint. You are inviting them to consider a different angle. Of course the viewer already has a worldview (though they may or may not have defined it or examined its implications) so they may very well filter what you say or show through their own worldview. This is particularly so for images that stand alone without verbal commentary. For example, on my image blog I have posted an image of schoolboys doing backflips. It is not difficult to imagine one person seeing their exuberance and another cringing at the risk of neck injury if they get it wrong. And perhaps thats because I felt both at the time! Images that are accompanied by commentary (or vice versa) tend to clarify what you are trying to express more clearly.

    As you say that sometimes comes subconsciously but, it seems to me, that fits with the way worldviews work. I find no problem with that, especially if you consciously examine your worldview and find it to be robust enough.

    • Good point about the commercial aspect of photography. But, I think many times a photography is given a lot of latitude there. In fact I it might be their world view coming through that getting them that job or assignment.

      I love your second paragraph. I wish I would have written that line, “in art you are inviting people to sit where you are and, perhaps, at least temporarily shift their viewpoint. You are inviting them to consider a different angle.”

      BTW, I have a hard time not calling a talented craftsman an artist. But I get your point. Thanks for chiming in.

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