Technology and the Arts

Armand Cabrera

“Now the man that invented the steam drill
He thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry drove fifteen feet
The steam drill only made nine”

The above lyrics are from the old American folk tale and song about ability against technology. Many people have recorded the song, but my favorite version is from Harry Belafonte, recorded in 1954. You can hear it here

I am no Luddite when it comes to technology; I have been working with computers since the mid seventies and began using Photoshop during its first version. Tech has always been a part of my life and I am always looking to use it to free myself from the drudgery of menial tasks. There is a difference though, between using tech as a tool and using it in place of thinking or ability. This is the problem with all tech; people come to rely on it to give them an advantage that they don’t have the skills for otherwise, nowhere is this more apparent than the field of visual art.

Tech affects the business side of art as well as with people who couldn’t get into a gallery, now selling their work on eBay or over the net for next to nothing. In the old days these people were confined by their lack of ability to the areas they lived in. Now, with tech, they can have a website and advertise for free to people around the world. What this does is it creates pressure to commoditize art; to make it a widget and mass produce it like any other thing being made in the same way… as much as possible and as cheap as possible. Tech allows you to have no committment to a craft. You can dabble and still teach high school or work at an office. Ebay is up 24 hours selling for you.

You see this with the daily painters and plein air painting. Because these paintings are made alla prima in a few hours, people sell them for next to nothing carrying on that factory worker mentality, working for an hourly wage. What people like the daily painters and most plein air painter groups don’t realize is any good artist paints every day and most good artists paint from life. The idea that somehow practicing these things is special or noteworthy, just shows you how low the bar is set these days. The daily painters are particularly laughable in boasting about creating paintings smaller than 6×8 every day. The focus is not on the paintings quality but its price.

Plein air painting is not far behind, with most painters lacking the skill to paint anything except the simplest of motifs. Plein air painting has now become what western art was in the seventies or wildlife art was in the eighties; a place where the least amount of ability allows you to participate and still call yourself an artist. People whose abilities are masked by the fact they paint outdoors and pass off their limitations as a style and a genre of painting, which it isn’t.

Social networking, another tech invention, has convinced people that what you are doing every minute of the day is important. This electronic voyeurism has artists racing to post their images on ning or facebook and then tell everyone on twitter. The side effect of these social media is that the painting itself becomes a byproduct of its promotion, it convinces people with mediocre skills that ability is unimportant; it is networking and marketing that creates your success. Fame is now more important than talent, and what tech does more than anything is it allows people to become noticed without having to earn that notoriety with ability and hard work.

8 thoughts on “Technology and the Arts

  1. I agree with what you are saying.
    There are a couple of other points I'd like
    to add.

    There are some really good artists on the daily
    painter type web sites. When these sites first started they were loaded with "little gems". At some point the creator realized they could create income by having others pay to join and exploit the audience the good artists have already created. Yet another good idea gone bad.

    My other point is that I think there should be a rule for those that teach workshops. They can't tell someone in their workshop that they are in the "A" league of artists when they are not. I know of people who have doubled the price of their paintings because someone that charged them a large amount (over $2000) to take a workshop told them their work is "very good" and they are not charging enough. That would be fine if it were true. From what I've seen, it looks like the the teacher wants the student to take
    more expensive workshops by telling them how much better they are.

    For me, improvement comes from taking classes, workshops, and practicing what I've been taught. It doesn't happen in one week at a workshop. It was a sad day when I realized that I won't be
    able to paint like the masters in a couple of years. It takes dedication and lots of hard work to get to that level.

  2. Wyn,

    Of course you are right when you say there are good and bad painters in every genre and group. My problem with Daily Painters and Plein Air Painting as it is now being practiced, is the idea that it is something special to paint everyday or paint from life, it isn't. Also the tech is largely responsible for elevating people beyond their abilities. This type of craft (not art) is catering to the lowest common denomimator, a commodity; buy my crap because it is fast and cheap.
    As for the teaching thing, you see it around Richard Schmid, Skip Liepke and Scott Christensen imitators, living off of someones elses abilities like artistic parasites.

  3. Interesting post Armand but I think your argument has several weak points. First, it seems to assume that there is a measurable criteria or standard for what makes great art. There isn't. If there was Warhol's silkscreen painting wouldn't have sold for $47.3 million this month. In other words, what is considered great art changes depending on the subjective taste of the critics, collectors, academic types and others in the art world.

    Second, while I agree that daily painters set their prices too low I also believe that over time the best of that group will survive and the rest will fade away. I guess if you want to find fault it's with our education system that provides practically no art education to the general public.

    Finally, the importance of fame over talent has been around for decades, not just since the emergence of the internet. Could anyone honestly believe that the person who paid $43.7 million for that Warhol did so because it was incredibly beautiful. No, he purchased a way to broadcast the fact that he is so wealthy he can afford anything he wants. So I wouldn't blame the problems with the art market on technology. Maybe blame it on human nature.

    That said, I do enjoy your posts and thank you for them.

  4. Steven,

    Thanks for taking the time to write in.
    My argument is that tech provides the ability to people who otherwise are too lazy or incompetent to succeed. While I may agree with you about Warhol in some respects, the fact is there was a filtering process that took place.
    In the old days people had to at least have the desire, and work to find an outlet for their creativity. It cost time and money. A decision had to be made to commit to the endeavor, this is no longer the case.
    When tech is expensive, the filter is still in place because of the cost involved to acquire it. Cheap tech removes almost all filters and allows for a lack of seriousness and commitment that wasn't possible before. Nothing is earned. Fame has always been a part of our society, you are correct, but cheap tech allows fame to anyone with a camera phone. In a perfect world, twitter would allow you to experience the modern day equivalent of Shakespeare but the fact is those sparks of creativity are rare, and for every Rembrandt there are a million worthless hacks who now have equal access and are clogging the bandwidth in film, photography, writing and painting. Music still has standards and so it is harder to convince someone of your take on Rachmaninoff is just as valid, without the requisite skill. The job of filtering is now placed on the viewer, not the creator.

  5. I like your blog, but I disagree with your take on this – especially grating is the 'call themselves artist' or the 'craftsman not artist' comment – its a convienent way label people without having to judge the work itself – its not an argument IMO

    the other part of it – about technology enabling the masses to particpate in making art – even taking shortcuts to make art that looks like they studied more than they did(!) – I mean – yeah of course.. wide spread technology has leveled the playing field of all sorts of fields – art included – is it any different than the technology of oil painting giving an advantage to fresco painters – is it any different than tube paintings enabling the bar for impressionist painters – or acyrlic paint when it was introducted? – technology is always enabling more people to make more art – in the internet age this is accelerated with the vast amounts of information about drawing/painting techniques thats now readily available to everyone.

    imo this is a great thing – it lowers the bar for people who want to make art but raises the bar on the art that can be made.

    When you say

    'The job of filtering is now placed on the viewer, not the creator.'

    this is certainly true today more than ever – but this too has benifits – 140 years ago, people would go to the Salon and someone picked out what they considered art for them to see – a lot of art wasnt put on display – some of this artwork millions of people appreciate today. the way artists can distribute their work today enables viewers to not have to go to a salon and be told what good art is – we can decide for ourselves – this is a good thing

  6. A.
    I'm happy you have a chance to share your opinion.

    The public has never decided what good art is; when the Salon system broke down it was replaced by the dealer/critic system. The public didn't pick the art; they had even less to do with it than they did with the salons.

    Tech never levels the playing field, this is what talentless people fail to see, the tool never raises the bar on anything it is being used for. It is the mind of the artist that creates art, not the tools they have. That is my point; a monkey with a typewriter is no closer to producing a novel than it was without it.

    Cheap tech for everyone is a bad idea. If it was a good idea, we would all have access to jet planes and nukes, which, thank goodness, we don't.

  7. Hi Armand,

    Thanks for response – I think our difference of opinion comes from you seeing the world in terms of 'artists' or non-artists 'hacks', or people with 'talent', or without 'monkeys' etc.

    I don't see it that way –

    Who gets to decide who is and isnt an artist? Is it based on sales, style, technique, a certificate – can you lose the title?

    It seems like a Salon type approach to art – 'you're not an artist, so whatever you do its not good art'

    isnt it better to just judge the work – nevermind whether you think the person is f/t artist?

    the talent label is another way to confer some special status on artist – if you spend a lot of time doing something, especially when you're young & your brain is developing, you will become good at it – you would call this talent.

    it seems self evident to me that technology raises the level of what the average person can do – if I wanted to make a realistic portrait of my mother in the 17th century – I would have had to undertake a serious study of picture making – a hundred years I could take a picture with the newly invented camera, and have a realistic portrait.

    I'm not sure I get the jet plane and nuke analogy. Yes, people shouldnt nuclear weapons. I agree with you. Photoshop, Wacoms, Ebay and blogs are okay though in my opinion. i don't think it will be slippery slope.

  8. People may have something they are good at, but not everyone can be good at everything. No one starts out good at anything. The child Mozart didn't play as well as the adult Bach, at first. He worked at it.

    You say what you want, is the work to be judged on its own merit, but if it isn't the outcome you want, then only the creator of the work can decide if it has merit.

    I am judging the work only and with that judgment comes the declaration the person making this stuff has no ability as an artist. They may acquire it, through hard work or perseverance but they would actually have to do that to earn my respect for their work.

    Your real argument is, we should accept people at something just because they want to be accepted. And on top of that, you want people to lie to them about its worth, so these people can feel a false sense of accomplishment. Your right, I vehemently disagree with that idea. This is why I no longer join art groups that don't jury their members, and why I have left some that do it poorly.

    No one had to learn to paint to have a picture in the 17th century, they did have to pay for one though. Buying something like a portrait or a photo is not the same as pretending to be a photgrapher or painter.

    The salon system didn't care who entered it, acceptance was based on the work. What happened is people argued that not everyone could produce that level of work and they had no intention of trying to; but they still wanted the accolades and rewards the Salon system offered. They wanted the chance of success without the chance of failure.

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