Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ethical Imperatives vs. Artistic Freedom

It's no secret (anymore) that pictures of celebrities are often heavily photoshopped, but that fact never hits home quite so hard as when you actually have a chance to see some before and after pictures, which are scattered across the internet and not hard to find. And when people talk about the effect this has on people's body images, in particular, it raises the question of whether publishers have an ethical imperative to present celebrities (and other models) realistically, or if they have the artistic freedom to make them appear as attractively (by a subjective judgment, admittedly) as they want?

Being an artist with a social conscience myself, I can actually see merit in both arguments. Artistic freedom is, for me, fundamental. At the same time, presenting heavily doctored images as if they were the reality for a fashionable elite that many people strive to model themselves after could be unhealthy. My general approach to photography is one that values realism. I like pictures that show things that are real. Real people, in real places. You could liken me to the movie fx guy who prefers practical effects over the convenience and sky's-the-limit approach of a digital effects artist. If something's not the way I like it in a picture, my first instinct is to change the scene, not to make changes digitally in post-production.

That having been said, there's nothing wrong with photo-manipulation, and a certain amount of adjustments are necessary for most pictures, to get them looking their best - things like color enhancements and the like. Where you end up drawing the line between enhancement and fabrication, though, is a matter of personal opinion. I, for example, don't like the look of model shots that are excessively airbrushed. I understand the thought-process that goes into wanting to even out a model's skin tone and remove "imperfections" (another matter of opinion), but super smooth airbrushed skin doesn't look realistic to me, and I can't enjoy a photo as much when I know that what I'm looking at is not actually the model's skin but a digital addition.

Now, a lot of the impression a photoshopped photo makes is in how well it is photoshopped - if you can't tell it's not real, you're more likely to be impressed with it. (Well, I am, at least). But then, that is a kind of deception. And generally I prefer the red pill. But the truth is, my photoshopping skills are rudimentary, and my digital art skills non-existent. If I actually had the ability to make incredible-looking images from nothing, or even to make incredible-looking and significant changes to an existing image, I might be more enthusiastic about using those skills. One of my great disappointments in life is not having the skill of an illustrator, to create scenes purely from imagination. Being a photographer is, in my mind, a second place occupation. I can't create images from scratch, but I can manipulate scenes in the real world to create photographic images, albeit with the incumbent restrictions of reality.

So, I deal in "real" images, as opposed to fabricated images, and maybe I feel like the fact that my images are real - which is, in reality, a limitation on what they can look like - somehow gives them a quality that less imaginatively-restrained, fabricated images aren't able to acquire - the badge of truth, of being "genuine". And heavily-manipulated photographs are blurring the line between photos that are real, and images that are fabricated, denying such photographs the badge of truth, thus placing them in the same playing field as images fabricated from nothing, where the value of the artist's talent and vision is not in how they manipulate reality to compose an image, but primarily in their digital art skills, of which I have little to none.

On the other hand, getting back to the adjustments and enhancements argument, while I may not agree to be part of the heavily-photoshopped crowd, I can't really fault their differing philosophy. When you create an image, you want it to look the best it can be. If you have the skills to remove a model's wrinkles, slim her waist, embiggen her bust, and so on, and if that's the kind of image you're trying to get, then why shouldn't you use those skills to get the image you want? Granted, not every image is about capturing perfect, flawless beauty, and especially in art, there is room (and an audience) for alternatives - like portraits of real people, in all their flawed beauty. But the advertising industry in particular is very superficial, and if having the prettiest, most perfect images is what gets the best results, then you can't really fault advertisers for using every tool at their disposal to do that. If you don't like it, maybe you should lodge a complaint against rampant commercialism, which fosters that kind of "profit matters more than ethics" mentality.

On the other side of the debate, there is merit in the idea that maybe this mentality is unhealthy, and we shouldn't be bombarding people with so many unhealthy images, passing them off as reality. Coming back to the issue of artistic freedom, I think the bottom line is that an artist should always have freedom to create the image they want to create. Even if doing so runs counter to public opinion about what is healthy. As long as they're not violating anyone's rights in the creation of an image, it's their prerogative to make the image they want, even if it upsets or has a negative effect on some or many of the people who eventually view it.

I believe that while an artist may have some responsibility to consider the effect their art has on people, they are not, however, required to censor themselves for that reason, and they are not, ultimately, responsible for how people react. That's a fundamental part of the freedom of speech, and it is required to ensure that speech remains free. Now, that doesn't mean that if an artist decides to be a dick, you can't call them out on that. That's part of free speech, too. But an artist shouldn't be obligated to make only healthy or popular art, and making art that bothers people should never be a crime.

So, I've probably just been going back and forth on the issue without making any solid conclusions. I think that if artists and publishers want to be in the business of creating heavily-photoshopped images, that's their prerogative and their right. I also think that it may be reasonable to consider such an approach potentially unhealthy, and that it may be justifiable for the public to call for more accurate representations of celebrities and models in the media. Artists and publishers have no imperative to listen, but when they don't, the public is justified in maybe making some less than totally nice comments about said artists and publishers (within reason).

And while I think it would be great if there were a larger trend of representing people accurately in the media, at the same time I think there's still room for images of "enhanced perfection" as well. It's mostly a matter of balance. And I think that it may be a good idea (or it would at least show good faith) if artists and publishers were a little more up front when they do make significant adjustments to an image. There's nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, from an artistic perspective, but unless doing so is some integral part of the artistic message (and I could imagine cases where that might be true), passing off such fabrications as reality is problematic, and could be considered kind of a dick move.

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