Aug 14, 2014 / Photography
“So” Sammy said.
“So that is not the question,” Joe prompted.
“That’s what I’m saying.”
They kept on walking.
“How? is not the question. What? is not the question,” Sammy said.
“The question is why.”
“The question is why.”
“Why,” Joe repeated.
“Why is he doing it?”
So goes the story in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a novel by Michael Chabon that my friend Kent gifted me a long time ago. It’s a story of two cousins, Sammy and Joe, during the golden age of comic books (1930s). In this short excerpt, they are discussing the motivations of their newly created character, The Escapist, a Houdini-like character.
I love this conversation between the two as it brings to mind the idea of Concept. If there is anything that I learned in MFA school, that’s it.
Concept encompasses the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of a work of art. While all of these are necessary, the Why is the most important. It is also the most difficult question to answer. Why am I creating this photograph? Why am I doing it?
I had the following answer to the Why when I started A Million Suns (AMS): I am metaphorically exploring whether I should remain an accountant or be an artist. The AMS project would be like a compass–a way of finding my direction: do I go left or right, forwards or backwards, go for it or stay put?
So AMS is about finding the future.
Like layers of an onion, the next question necessarily became:
Why is thinking about the future important?
I couldn’t answer this question for a long time. I read books. I created photographs. I read as much as I photographed. This happened throughout my MFA (which took four years as I mentioned in a previous article).
One day, I came across a book entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describing his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. As I was reading the book, it struck me that I finally found an answer to the Why.
It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future–sub specie aeternitatis [an expression describing what is universally and eternally true]. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence…The prisoner who had lost faith in the future–his future–was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness.Victor Frankl
Having faith in the future is the primary motivation for man according to Frankl. Without it, one dies or falls into an existential vacuum. According to Frankl, this vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century. This vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom, an inner emptiness, or a void within ourselves. Unknowingly, It was this feeling of being in a void that I was addressing when I decided to get my MFA.
I read Frankl’s book in 2011. Even after reading many many books since then, his reason for why looking to the future is important still rings true to me. It is why I went back to get my MFA, why I’m doing A Million Suns project, and why I became an artist.
When I look at work produced by other artists now, or when I talk to work-colleagues who do this or do that (it does not have to be related to art), the first question that always comes to mind is Why. Why is this person doing it?
Why are you doing what you’re doing?