There are some photographic subjects so burdened with powerful associations that it’s difficult to see any representation of them as “art.” Take, for example, this photograph of a cat. His name is Beau. I’ve always liked this portrait, but while in the darkroom printing this negative recently, I wondered if this was art, or simply a competent photo of a handsome tabby? I think most of us would agree that a portrait can simultaneously be a representative likeness and fine art. But can a photo of a cat — any photo of any cat — dare have such lofty aspirations?
Certainly pet photos do from time to time slip into the art world. Rob MacInnis’s amazing photos of barnyard animals and William Wegman’s Weimaraner portraits are obvious examples, but what about cats? A photo of a kitten can’t be art, no matter what — let’s just concede that up front. Kittens are cute, and cute artistic kryptonite. Aww, cute kitty! Not art. But what about a dignified, beautiful adult cat? What about Beau? There’s something in his facial expression that reminds me of (dare I say it?) the Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile. But not everyone is going to see that.
Perhaps the definition of art is plastic enough that a cat photo can be art. That doesn’t necessarily mean this one is though. Maybe if I jazzed it up with a lot of abstract colour — Andy Warhol style — what then? Probably that would just be bad art. But at least if it’s bad art, it’s still art, right? It’s all so confusing. No wonder critics are reluctant to define “art.” Whatever art may or may not be, and for whatever else this photo might represent, I enjoy looking at it. It brings me pleasure and makes me think. And that’s really all I expect from a work of art. Or a good photo.