Cheese Whiz and Cat Butts: Art is About Communicating


(I won’t lie to you, I have no sources I can cite for the positions I intend to take in this post. These are simply my opinions from having lived on this planet. And, of course, you know what they say about opinions…)

I think we can all agree that photography is an art form. (At least I hope we can, because that’s one of the central premises with which I’m working.) But what, then, is art? Why do we aspire to make it in the first place? defines “art” as:

the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

This is actually important, because if you’re going to spend a large amount of your life performing an act (i.e., laboring to create art), you should ask yourself why you’re doing it in the first place.


To chase art without understanding that it’s based on the aforementioned “aesthetic principles” is to do yourself, and thus your work, a disservice. Because inherent in the word “aesthetic” is a sense of community. Aesthetics, after all, are not defined by one person. If they were, that picture I took of my cat’s butt would make me a fortune.

Well, okay, you say. Photography is art. Art requires aesthetics. Aesthetics require communication among people. But what do we do with this information? We share it, of course. That’s what our species does best — it socializes. And while I’m not a shill for certain social media companies, I do believe that art, just like social media, exists as a way for us to communicate with each other and, in so doing, to make sense of our world and our places in it.


Thus, when I’m making a picture, I’m trying really hard to ask myself what it is I’m trying to say. I’m not talking about having some big message, necessarily, but I am attempting to convey my own point of view as thoroughly as possible. And whether or not that POV comes across as strongly as I’d like, I think about it a lot in the hopes that my subconscious will then work on the problem while I’m busy shooting. I’ve found that most of the time this becomes the case.

Art, after all, requires a minimum of two people: a creator and a viewer. Sure, I can make pictures for myself without ever sharing them, but I’m still using the communally-derived terms of “art” and “beauty” when I’m shooting. I don’t have to show it to my mother-in-law’s former roommate’s sister for the photo to take on a communicative role: I’m just communicating solely between my present self who creates the image and my future self who will view it.


Communication is a part of our species. It happens all around us, almost all the time. It helps to be aware of this fact because we can use it to improve the way we approach our attempts at making art. “Will covering my Chihuahua in Cheese Whiz tell the world something about me or my subject? Or will it just function as a note to myself (“Don’t ever do that again!”)? Even these simple questions allow me to refocus my energy on what I’m doing, and to consider the attempt for what it is — an opportunity, whether well executed or not, to communicate.

Now somebody pass the Cheese Whiz.

About the author: Greg Koch is a San Francisco Bay Area-based commercial photographer specializing in portraiture, sports, and entertainment imagery. Visit his website here.

Image credits: 60a.4thFotoWeekDC.Central.18L.NW.WDC.5November2011 by Elvert Barnes, WestLicht by schani, 95a.4thFotoWeekDC.Central.18L.NW.WDC.5November2011 by Elvert Barnes, World Press Photo Bangkok by Binder.donedat

  • bob cooley

    I’d agree that this is mostly right. But art is so hard to define precisely because it’s so subjective, communication can be subjective, too (depending on the viewpoint of the receiver).

    I’d avoid the definition, because its a one sentence capsule of an idea people have pondered for centuries.

    My viewpoint has always been that the litmus test for art is “does it evoke an honest emotional response?”. There is a lot of art that is communicative, but plenty that is abstract, may not have a definable narrative, but still makes the viewer feel strongly in some way.

    Hopefully that feeling is beyond “meh…” – if you are creating something that no one really cares about, its a failed attempt at art. There’s also art that partially successful, but not entirely (good idea, bad execution; or great execution, but no emotional connection).

    For me (and again this is MY subjective opinion) is that the most successful art either evokes a high emotional response (even revulsion) or communicates in a way that evokes such a response.

    Even cheese whiz and cat butts could be art, if it’s done right, but most of the time it won’t be… and unfortunately someone will still try to pass it off as art.

  • Renato Murakami

    The problem with defining art is that, once you start looking at what is/was considered art, it can pretty much be anything.
    I’ve spent time reading all sorts of discussions about art in several formats… photography in some places, games in others, images and sculptures (mainly coming from Japan and somehow related to manga and japanese animation), some related to technology, presentations, montages, performances, etc etc.
    In the end, not only I found out that art is something hard to evaluate, size, and analyze, it’s also hard to really tell what is art and what isn’t – because for every definition of art out there, there’s bound to be a clear example of something considered art (sometimes extremely valuable and recognizable pieces of art) that breaks that very definition.

  • Simple Man

    The problem is that “art” like “love” is manifested in many different ways. Our western culture wants to wrap up things that are complex into a simple neat package. Art does include aesthetics, communication, and requires responses from the viewer. However aesthetics deals with the perception of values. Cultures and communities vary in their perception of values therefore aesthetics is dependant on the viewer. Communication is a very important part of art but art also requires the viewer to experience “sensations” of some type. Art must also be subject to” criticism” and criticism is is subject to the values of the one criticising