We are immersed in a sea of art. When we go out our senses are assailed by images from signs and billboards, carefully crafted to provoke cognitive and affective responses in us. From loudspeakers or earbuds we receive a constant stream of music and literature. Many of the things we buy are sculpted to appeal to our aesthetic senses. Enormous sums are spent to provide this art to us at no charge.
Art has always intended to alter the way we think, and this tsunami of art is intended to alter the way we buy. The message conveyed by each piece is remarkably similar: buy this, eat that, wear those, vote for me! Underlying all these cries is a single shrill command, which can be expressed (as populist artist Shepard Fairey has pointed out) in a single word: Obey!
As these commercial waves break over us, we cringe if we react at all. We try to ignore them altogether, but the content of this public art is designed to deny us the ability to shut it out: impossibly nubile women, unbearably lovable children and pets, incredibly luscious-looking food. Sometimes we encounter art in public space which has no commercial message. When we do, our reactions may be completely different.
“Images that are in public space that aren’t advertising reawaken a sense of wonder,” Fairey has said. I have no question that this is so, and that it has been so since the dawn of man. The paleolithic paintings on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France illuminate the space with exactly that sense of wonder. Images of divinities and generals have inspired worshipers and soldiers from ancient Sparta and the Ch’in dynasty right down to the present day. Commissioned public artworks, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the kinetic sculptures of Alexander Calder, have stirred that same wonder, as have many uncommissioned works, from balloon-letter graffiti to the work of more gifted and disciplined artists, like Fairey and Banksy.
Public art with a commercial intent causes us to contract, be tense and defensive, resisting the command to obey. Public art with political intent invokes our sense of history and pride of citizenship, especially in times of war. Public art with religious intent can invite the better angels of our nature or, unfortunately, provoke our baser bigotries. Public art with no apparent purpose can cause us to pause and think, relaxing and expanding ourselves, becoming receptive to new ideas and feelings.
A while back I joined a Flickr group called Digital Painting 101. Some very gifted artists gather there—I recommend it highly. There is on that site a discussion thread on a subject dear to my heart: What is art? Some very thought-provoking questions are asked there, and here are my responses:
What is Art? At the end of the 19th century in Europe, art was defined by the Paris Salon: If you were in, you made art; if not you made junk. Then, by popular demand, Napoleon III created a new venue for those who didn’t make the cut: the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects). Today those who exhibited with the Refusés, including Manet, Cezanne, Pisarro, and Whistler, are recognized as the fathers of modern art, while many of those who made it into the Salon that year, Meissoner and Cabanel for instance’ have slipped into obscurity. The Refusés were introducing something powerful (Impressionism, and all that grew from that) that organized art (The Salon) did not recognize as art. Over time, it has turned out that it was art after all, more lasting than much of what was happening within the Salon.
There is something to be learned in that. Digital art stands on a similar threshold today. It is printmaking in the finest tradition, though it uses new tools. Had Rembrandt had such tools, he might have used them instead of etching. It is art. I know it. You know it. Sooner or later the gallery owners and museum curators will know it, too. Until that happens the question has little meaning and less importance. You are an artist; go do your art and forget about it.
Is anything computer-generated, art? Come on, people! These questions are born of our own insecurities, and reinforced by the criticism by others with established interests in more traditional art forms, who have their own turf to defend and simply do not understand what it is we do.
First of all, our images are not computer generated. They are generated in the right sides of our brains, and passed to the left sides for execution. That’s exactly how the cave paintings at Altamira were generated in prehistoric times, as were the mosaic floors in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the Mona Lisa, and Whistler’s Mother. The left brain (I know the left-brain/right brain is not sound neuroscience, but I find it a useful metaphor nonetheless) uses whatever tools it has at hand to convey what the right brain conceives. The cave men (or very likely women, who even then spent more time at home than men did) used red clay and soot. The Pompeii artisans used bits of colored stone and tile. DaVinci used ground minerals, berries, and spice mashed up in linseed oil. Today we order our media and tools from Dick Blick, or work on a computer. Does that make us lesser artists than the ones who came before us? I think not.
What do I say to those who say it is not art? I say it’s true, it is not painting, though sometimes it can look a bit like that. It is not drawing, though sometimes it resembles that as well. It’s closest kinship is probably to printing (etching and mezzotint, serigraphy, lithography) since a form of the image is stored in a medium that is not the finished work (copper plate, silkscreen, stone, hard drive) and multiple copies can be produced by the use of a device for that purpose (press, squeegee, giclee printer). Actually, it is something new, whose depths we have only just begun to plumb.
Not everything that comes off a printing press or silkscreen is art, of course, but some of it certainly is. This is determined not by the medium, but by the intent, skill, and vision of the creator. So it is with digital art.
Why do I participate in photo art? Because I have no choice. I am a Photoshop addict.
Is it a hobby? No, more of an obsession.
Is it a way to make money? If anyone out there has figured out a way to make this pay off, call me at once. I am in desperate need of your advice.
A narrow boardwalk crosses the broad salt marsh adjacent to Gray’s Beach in Yarmouth Port, where Chase Gardens Creek and Clay’s Creek come together at the Bass Hole, whence they flow into Cape Cod Bay. Here you can enjoy the rich and diverse estuary life without disturbing the natural habitats, or getting mud on your shoes. The boardwalk is closed in winter, and a bed of straw laid down to provide additional cover for birds that winter over here.