I had an idea today when I was playing with Adobe Elements, photo-editing software which came with a gift of the VisTablet Muse. I’ll try to put pen to paper now but you'll have to forgive me if the sunset looks like any other.
These days, the photo effects in Adobe Elements aren’t that extraordinary – watercolor, film grain, pencil – you could do something similar with an iPhone and a 99-cent app. But if I put my 1995 hat on, it’s almost magical what you can do with a wave of the – thumb? index finger? I’m not an art major, I didn’t study art history, and really I’m not attuned to the nuances of the thing. It’s not my business, at least not anymore (though long ago I did briefly manage a series of Topanga Canyon salons for a well-connected local artist). But I have to wonder as a layman, and a member of the masses, what is art then when you can produce something so technically intricate and so complex – so easily. And what does what is happening in technology today mean for the future of art?
Is art about the thing itself – or about the person who made the thing? If it’s easy to do, is it really art? If the Mona Lisa was easy to accomplish and not the laborious work of hours, days and weeks, would we look at it with the same awe in the Louvre? We certainly wouldn’t pay the same amount of money. We pay that kind of money because it is scarce, and was hard to make. If there were a thousand, on the same canvas and with the same brushstrokes, it wouldn’t be the same to us at all.
We live in a world of science, and yet leave art in this realm of the ambiguous. In a way, we love the mystery of it. If we looked too close, the magic would dissipate.
And in a way, this is true. If art is fundamentally intended to make us feel – feel something, feel anything, think because we feel – then it operates in its own market, the market for attention and poignancy and heartbreak and inspiration. More accurately, it operates in 7 billion markets, each consisting of a single individual. And if each individual looks too hard at art, we start thinking, and some point when we think too hard, we stop feeling.
Art’s realm – its area of competitive advantage, if you will – is outside of order and logic and our existing vocabulary. Conceptually I can carve out what art is not, but I can’t define what art is. I know it’s not brushwork or technical skill or the ability to craft an enigmatic half-smile. Because if I see a hundred enigmatic half-smiles – or the same one a hundred times – I don’t feel the same way as I did the first time I saw it when there was this fresh and intriguing story behind it, the story of the artist, his subject and his time.
And if art is that which is designed and makes the audience feel, then it can’t possibly be objective. I don’t respond to the same things that you do. But to me, it is objective - when I hear a song or watch a movie, and it calls to me, my response is objective and chemical. It’s not some soft unmeasurable reaction – it may be unmeasured but not unmeasurable. Not to hedge on the age-old question but it seems whether something can be called art is actually subjectively objective.
If I see a pattern, ten boy-meets-girl movies in a row, my reaction changes over that time, even if the tenth was precisely as cheesy as the first. Perhaps that’s why we value originality so much in art. I don’t necessarily believe that novelty has intrinsic value beyond its role as an experiment – in the same way that in science, even failed experiments have value. But in truth, I do happen to believe there is value in novelty beyond its role as an experiment, because art must have an element of originality for each person in order for them to notice. And we must notice before we can feel (though, one caveat, even novelty itself can tire over time, as we become shell-shocked and battle-weary).
So what does this all mean for art, going forward? The “art world” used to be a gated community, a place where rich people spent exorbitant amounts of money and traded those numbers for status. It was populated by collectors, curators, gallery owners, and a lucky chosen few artists. It developed its own vocabulary to keep other people out, its own subculture of values, and everyone would play the game to get a chance to make money doing what they loved. No longer. In some ways, it’s a fait accompli. Art is streaming into the world like all hell, forking into an almost infinite number of applications, with the masses taking the tools for creation, distribution and communication into their own hands. What remains and what we call art will fall into three main channels: (1) art as great stories, (2) art as the journey of the artist in their time, and (3) art as an epic endeavor.
Great stories never go out of fashion because we are narcissists and we are human beings, and stories allow us to step into the shoes of others and learn through that empathy. Stories are about people (or some entities we have imbued with human qualities). The impossibility of ever really being someone else offers a challenge to artists – how to bring their audience as asymptotically near as possible to the experience of another human being. Technology also continues to offer us new and harder ways to tell these stories – 3D movies like Hugo, epic-scale television series like Game of Thrones, interactive games like Ico, media mash-ups like Storify– and we have only brushed the water with our toes. Some of the new genres require large cross-functional teams, adding another layer of complexity to the already not-easy task of bringing something novel into being that makes someone else – and ideally many someone elses, to be commercially viable – feel.
The artist as his or her own story will continue to be compelling as art. The tragedy of the artist, the story of their work, the phases over time as they develop as people, the loves and scandals – we’re always interested in people, especially people who live different lives than our own. It was Van Gogh with his amputated ear, then Andy Warhol as the quintessential artist-as-art installation, and it has continued to this day with the outrageous Damien Hirst of Golden Calf fame and Jeff Koons with his porn star-cum-Italian politician now ex-wife. They get excoriated at times but they get noticed. The role of the critic will increasingly be to tell the story of the artist, their work and journey in the context of their times and history, and perhaps the critic’s own parallel journey as well – or else be marginalized as elitist out-of-touch academicians.
Lastly, there will remain a kind of art that calls to us because it is of immense proportions or extraordinary difficulty – the epic endeavor. In some ways, it is a spinoff of the artist-as-art except that the art itself stands independent of its creators. You may not know the story of it but you know by just looking at the scale of the thing – and I use the term “scale” loosely, to incorporate Willard Wigan’s diminutive micro-sculptures and Margaret Wertheim’s knit coral reefs and Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates – you know that it is remarkable, even if you hate it.
And finally, perhaps what we call great art - when we choose to pin that descriptor on - great art will be the sort that binds us altogether, that calls us all individually and so we come in our own way to this place where we look upon it and feel with and for each other.