[Revised to Anticipate a Digital Aesthetic]
by Joe Nalven
Imagine walking into a museum an art museum with a new exhibit called "Black on White". You approach the first image. It appears to be a line, more or less straight and more or less textured with shades of black. You look at the artist's description and it says, "A lone tree on an Alaskan snowscape as seen through snow goggles." Yes, there is the brilliant white snow. The snow goggles prevent you from being overwhelmed and blinded by the whiteness of the snow. The tree looms up a solitary pole of blackness.
The artist's intent is clear, revealing and persuasive.
Having fully absorbed the impressions crafted by the artist of a black tree on white snow, you now walk to the next painting. This image appears to be the same as the first image a line, more or less straight and more or less textured with shades of black. You look at the artist's description and it says, "A picture of the universe." Aha, now the artist has taken a photo realistic image of the object (the universe) and placed it on white canvas. A naturalistic approach to image making. Again, the artist's intent is clear, revealing and persuasive.
You continue on in the exhibit. The next image looks strikingly like the last two, except this one is titled, "The number one." An abstraction codified as blackness on whiteness. And again, the artist's intent is clear, revealing and persuasive.
You come to the fourth image. Again, the resemblance is remarkable, but here the artist states, "Black color on white canvas." It is what it is, not a fiction or symbol of something else, but only itself, as if to say "there is no art, but just color on canvas." You initially dislike the artist's intent, but wanting to be modern, you accommodate it; after all, the artist's intent is clear, revealing and persuasive.
In thinking back on the exhibition, you realize that you have just experienced the breadth of the visual artistic endeavor from impressionistic, to naturalistic, to abstract expressionist perspectives and, of course, the nihilist and Philistine who claims there is no art, but simply ego put to canvas in the nature of colored inks.
Yes, there are different traditions and individual styles within these visual perspectives, and it is very much worth the effort to appreciate these variations. However, by stepping back, we can understand the limits of human thought and by way of those limits, understand the unity of the visual artistic endeavor.
Even more so, when we realize that all art is summed up by dots on a X-dimensional plane (generally, two dimensions). Get a big enough electron microscope and even paint will dissolve into dots, or points of light. From this vantage point, one can hardly discern an image of art from a child's scratching with crayons. All are dots. What is needed to differentiate the child's play from the artist's image are the elements that comprise the "goodness" of an aesthetic object. Here, we rediscover the importance of form, composition, theme, color management, perspective, and the like. We do not need to give up any of the craft in the many traditions to creating art.
Each object must be taken on its own. Is this artistic or not? Referring to a tradition, or whether the object was painted or photographed or silk-screened merely takes us into various technologies and reputational schemes that can be applied to create the art image. Those are useful for learning about the manner and categorization of art objects.
But, truly, each image must stand on its own. Is the image compelling from an aesthetic perspective? Aesthetic? To what aesthetic should we refer? Some might be trapped inside an ethnocentric box, thinking that the object must be representational (does the man look like a correctly drawn man?) or that three-dimensional perspective is somehow "better" than an image without it. Many cling to an ethnocentric aesthetic which works for those who live inside that particular box. But the human experience, and human artistic experience is more than one box, more than two boxes, and more than boxes, too.
At the other extreme from ethnocentrism is relativism. That can lead into the trap of a world without any standards. Before we leap back into, "oh yes, western representational art" or some other easy to grab a standard, it might be more prudent to indulge ourselves in the variety of artistic images from ancient times to modern times, and from culture A to culture Z, and from painted objects to photographed objects to digitally re-mastered objects.
The human experience is not a closed enterprise: Within our limitations on thought and expression, there are yet many ways to concoct artistic imagery. Some dialogue would help in talking through what we see, some thought would help in attending to the artistry of the object, and some empathy would help in communing with the moment that the artist intends for us to experience.
And now, what about the fifth image? The show had been up thirty years ago. Today, there is a re-installation of the exhibit with a new image. It is still the "same" line inside the same white box, but the line has been tinkered with and unlike the other four previous versions. The artist notes that the line could have been identical, and in that case, he would have called it a giclee to indicate that it was a reproduction of one of the earlier original pieces. The artist argues instead that he has taken the same image and superimposed new tools and collaged the former and prior black lines: now there is a gradient, a beveling and embossing, a flipping of the line and superimposition of the new with the old line. These, the artist claims are the elements of a digital aesthetic.
The curator of the show had been tempted to exclude the fifth image because it did not look identical to the first four images even though it was composed of the identical black line. Was this, the curator reflected, simply the exercise of using a new toolset a new dimension of thought, and thus, legitimately a contribution to traditional notions of aesthetics? The digital artist titled the fifth image: That thou art.
The curator was puzzled by that title, finally deciding that not enough was known to use words to categorize this apparently new experience. The curator saw the crowds around the fifth image and accepted the digital artist's intent as a matter of faith.
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