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.
Last Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, was built around a question each of us has probably asked, though few if any of us has ever satisfactorily answered: What is art?
Many have asked this question one way or another, with varying success. Keats, addressing an ancient Grecian urn as a stand-in for art itself, advises us that permanence, truth, and beauty come together in art:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woes
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st’
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
This is a romantic notion, but ultimately it does not feel right. Auschwitz is true, but it is not beautiful and certainly is not art. A sunset can be beautiful but is neither true nor false, and it is not art either. Neither one is permanent, but it is difficult to imagine that permanence would make either into art. We must look elsewhere for a definition.
While useful objects can be artful, their utility does not define their art. A lamp is a useful object; a lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany is art. The Mona Lisa is art, but it serves no useful purpose. Most art, in fact, has no utility other than illustration, inspiration, or both. In fact, art may be more closely related to leisure and play than utility or work. Folk philosopher Eric Hoffer has pointed out:
“The paleolithic hunters who painted the unsurpassed animal murals on the ceiling of the caves at Altamira had only rudimentary tools. Art is older than production for use, and play is older than work. Man was shaped less by what he had to do than by what he did in playful moments. It is the child in man that is the source of his uniqueness and creativeness, and the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities.”
That feels right to me. Art transcends the instinct to survive and the need to work. It arises from the compulsion to play.
Tolstoy would have us believe that art lies in a link between the artist and his audience which results in a predictable response in the latter. He likened this to the passing of a contagion, and offers the example of a man, frightened as a boy by a wolf, telling the story to his children and “infecting” them with the fear he himself had earlier felt. This is similar to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion…recollected in tranquility.”
This works for me also. Art is somehow tied up with emotion in the artist and an empathetic response in the audience. It occurs only after a period of reflection, emerging only at moments in the lives of the artist and audience are that are free from other stresses and distractions. It is not an object, but can be conveyed through objects, as well as through language, music, and performance.
Yet cataloging the properties that may pertain to art do not really bring us much closer to naming what art actually is. In the end we are left with the same sort of detached confidence as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart showed when called upon to define pornography:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
So it is with art.
art, art history, CGA, coldbrook, coldbrook studio, computer, computer art, digital, digital art, digital image, digital imaging, philosophy, photo, photograph, photography, photoshop, sargent, street art
I have noticed that in my last two entries I mentioned street artists. This surprised me, since this is a branch of art I do not think of often, and it has little to do with the kind of photography I practice. Still, art is art, and the street artists are raising interesting questions about what art is, what it is for, and what it can do.
As I mentioned in those earlier entries, our environment is filled with images, placed in our line of sight with the intent of encouraging us to buy a certain product or vote a certain way. Some of these signs are located on the premises of the businesses they advertise, while others stand apart—some on free-standing signs or billboards, others mounted or painted directly on otherwise blank walls of unrelated buildings.
It is legitimate to ask: by what right do the businesses subject us to their visual displays? The answer, of course, is that they have paid for the right—paid the owners of the venues which host the signs. The right to display imagery seems to be bound up with property rights, and thus with wealth.
Some have challenged this idea. Graffiti and street art are done on blank urban walls. Sometimes the artists are invited by patrons or museums to beautify neighborhoods, but often they are done surreptitiously on walls of abandoned buildings or unattended retaining walls, in which the artists have no ownership or lease interest.
Herein lies the controversy. Since they have no right to the walls, they can be seen as vandalizing them. Ironically, the best of the street artists are very accomplished painters, commanding six figure prices in high end galleries. Recently British street artist Banksy’s painting of a boy using a sewing machine to make union jack bunting was cut from a London wall and subsequently appeared at an art auction in Miami, where it was expected to fetch $500,000 or more. The dealer maintains he has a clear line of ownership, although the details are not now publicly known. The item was withdrawn from the auction under the strong protest of the neighborhood where it originated, which claimed that since it was painted on the outside of the building, it had been a gift by Banksy to the community, which is demanding its return. Can it be said that if a painting appears on your building which enhances its value by half a million dollars, your building has been defaced?
At the heart of this conflict is a disagreement about what art actually is. Is it an investment instrument, as the half million dollar price tag seems to imply, or is it an instrument of social change, as Banksy’s original title for the work—“Slave Labour”—suggests? How much does the intent of the artist count against the intent of the seller and buyer? Who owns these works?
High priced art has diminished political value. A painting that goes from Jasper Johns’ easel to a posh gallery, and thence to the walls of a boardroom at Goldman Sachs, has little opportunity to influence the consciousness of the man on the street. It has no need to; it is meant to be an investment. By contrast, a painting on a wall next to a sidewalk that hundreds of people walk past every day can be a potent agent of social change. That is precisely why advertisers covet such spaces.
So what happens when an artist’s talent raises the value of his guerilla art to investment portfolio levels? This is precisely what has happened to Banksy’s art. Banksy himself does not seem to benefit from the Miami auction deal, although it is impossible to be sure about this until the details of that deal are made public. The frustration felt by an artist who feels his or her social imperative co-opted by financial success is real, however hard that may be to understand by those who pursue wealth.
Some artists have tried to maintain separate gallery and street art careers. A few years ago street artist Shepard Fairey (creator of the iconic red white and blue Obama HOPE image) had a gallery show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. A huge rendition of his well-known Andre the Giant stencil peered over the city from the top of the museum like a beacon. But Fairey never made it to the opening reception. On his way to the party he was arrested for “tagging”—spray painting stenciled images onto public buildings without permission. Street art.
Does an artist retain intellectual property rights to a work on a wall owned by someone else who has not given permission to use it? Are there limits to the real property rights of the owner of a wall bearing street art valued at six figures? Does the community in which such public art appears have any claim at all?
I have no answer to such questions, but I find them fascinating.
Digital imaging and the internet enjoy a natural alliance, daughters of the digital age. As it has in many other areas, the ability to self-publish images widely and cheaply has produced a sort of democratization in the field.
There are three ways by which artwork is usually judged: by the intrinsic qualities of the artwork itself, by the pedigree of the artist, and by the established market value of the artist’s prior work. Obviously the first is the most desirable—a work should stand on its own merits. Unfortunately it is the most difficult and unreliable of the three ways, relying as it does on so many variable and subjective factors. The pedigree of the artist—an advanced degree from a prestigious art school, membership in high profile art societies, hanging in distinguished museums—involves fewer unpredictable variables and provides reassurance that the artwork is of high quality and value. The established market value of an artist is perhaps the best predictor of the sale value of an artwork, but offers less assurance regarding the aesthetic value of the work; consider the work of Thomas Kinkade, whose work was roasted by critics but sold in the millions.
The internet has enhanced visibility of artwork, increasing the importance of the qualities of the artwork itself in the assessment of its value. Just as it has in so many other areas, this is resulting in a democratization of the appreciation and distribution of art. This is happening to traditional drawing and painting, even sculpture, as well as computer generated art. Paintings and drawings can be photographed or scanned, and sculpture can be photographed, and these images can then be posted to the internet. This work can be done easily by the artists themselves, or hired out at very modest expense.
Most visual artists now have websites showcasing their work, as well as robust representation on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Collectors and curators can evaluate an artist’s body of work for its quality and consistency, providing a context within which individual works can be judged. This is most important for the emerging artist, whose résumé and sales history have just begun to build.
Digital imaging has dramatically enhanced the market for print art. Digital technology has also given rise to giclée printing, which can produce images with colors and resolution rivaling original artwork. Some qualities cannot be duplicated, of course—texture and impasto, for example. Still, with close attention to scanning and printing details, giclée prints can be made that are difficult to distinguish from the artwork that was scanned to produce them. These prints can be duplicated in limited or open editions, potentially reducing the cost to buyers of exceptional art and opening the field to many who could not otherwise afford to be collectors..
I like this democratization of the art collecting process. Some very successful artists have built careers around keeping their art accessible. Though Shepard Fairey was speaking of his street art when he said “Images that are in public space that aren’t advertising reawaken a sense of wonder,” he might as well have been speaking of cyberspace, or of his career as a printmaker, where he strives to keep his works within popular reach. I anticipate that populist art will continue to grow in quality and general acceptance, while “high art” remains the province of the cognoscenti (read “the wealthy”).
I look forward to the coming change.
art, art history, CGA, coldbrook, coldbrook studio, computer, computer art, digital, digital art, digital image, digital imaging, nature, philosophy, photo, photograph, photography, photoshop, sargent, Scenic
It is true that digital imaging does not do well today in jurored or curated venues. I believe this is at least partly due to the transitional state we are presently in. The situation is analogous to the one in which the French Impressionists found themselves at the end of the 19th century. The Paris Salon, run by the masters of the Acadamie Royale, was the arbiter of true art throughout Europe, and the paintings which hung there were pictures of things. The things could be real or imagined, historical or mythical, but they were always concrete things. These paintings were always of something.
With Manet and Monet, Morisot and Cassatt, this began to change. These men and women began to think less about how to paint stuff and more about the nature of painting itself: how could paint applied to canvas optimally represent a scene, or even a feeling or idea. Their work was not well received by the Salon, but sold reasonably well in private galleries. Eventually Napoleon III, himself a patron of the arts, declared there would be a second Salon, le Salon des Refusés, to exhibit this new art.
What the Academie masters had failed to recognize was that the Impressionists were not inferior imitators of the masters own art, but were introducing something new. They were not diluting or undermining art, but making it stronger, broadening and reinforcing its foundations. From the Salon des Refusés arose the entire panoply of modern and post-modern art. The greatness of the Old Masters lives on undiminished.
From its beginnings photography, like painting, was almost completely representational. Minor adjustments of the image were possible in the camera (fisheye distortion, focal foreshortening, and depth-of-field effects, for example), in the darkroom (such as dodging and burning, negative sandwiching, and filtering effects), and on the tabletop (cutting and pasting), but the fundamental nature of the image could not be changed. In the era of film, photography remained tethered to its intrinsic representational nature.
Digital imaging has done to photography what Impressionism did to painting. Photography’s horizon has suddenly, joltingly expanded. Photographers can now contemplate images that were never possible before the attribute-by-attribute, pixel-by-pixel control that they now enjoy became available. They can perform aesthetic feats inconceivable a generation ago. All that results from this is not art, of course, but some of it certainly is.
Understandably, an exhibition of paintings wants images that look like paintings, and an exhibition of photography wants images that look like photographs. Forward looking galleries and shows are beginning to include a new category with a name like Altered Digital Photographs, to accommodate this new art form while respecting the established aesthetics. These new categories give curators and jurors an opportunity to welcome the new art in with the old, honoring both. As it did when the Salon des Refusés opened, the world of real art has begun to slowly turn, and the world of established Fine Art, as it usually does, lags a little behind.
There is opportunity here. Like the early patrons of Monet, Renoir, and vanGogh, the patrons of modern digital arts have much to gain, if only they can identify the true artists now before the lines among the many aspirants are clearly drawn .
Digital Imaging has changed all this. Now my pictures are minutely controllable, pixel by pixel. Color, composition, exposure, contrast, and a host of other properties can be adjusted, locally or globally. I can bring each photo to almost exactly the point I feel it wants to go. I can be completely satisfied with the final digital image far more often than I ever could with straight photographs.
Not every image is intended to be art, of course. Many photographs, like the ones in the family album, are there to record our lives, help us remember the past as it recedes, and introduce our children to the relatives they cannot meet. Their purpose is representational, not artistic. People want to look their best in these photos, of course, and Lightroom and Photoshop can help with that, too, but basic snapshots that document memories serve the family album well.
Images that were meant to be art are different. They can be so much more with their propeerties are manipulated with a aesthetic guiding eye. And this digial art is only just beginning. Compare the snapshots you took with your first digital camera to the vast and scalable vistas in a modern role-playing video game, through which you can wander almost as if they were three-dimensional spaces. A couple of decades wrought that change. Who knows what wonderful electronic art we will be seeing a couple more decades down the road.