Recently, I was looking at the work of artist Joseph Cornell (1903–72) who is best known for his constructions: boxes filled with objects, cast offs, discarded bits of humanity that he reassembled into surreal formats. The objects themselves held little meaning when viewed in isolation, but placed and framed alongside others, they tell their stories, new stories, an imaginary history. History or our past lives give us much to go on. Our past experiences shape our present. We draw on them piecemeal and assemble those remembrances in our own little boxes—this is the material of change.
In a Union of Maine Visual Arts newsletter dated 28 July 1978, it lists some new Union members, one of whom was artist Richard (Dick) Lee.* He is described in the letter by then Arts Administrator, Shirleyann Ratajczak,* as follows:
Dick Lee has worked and shown in Afghanistan, Greece, and in other places around the world and in the USA. In each area of the world in which he has lived, Dick has taken actual elements and objects that are peculiar to that area and has incorporated them into his work.
Those “peculiar” objects were pieces of wood or stone among others. These were incorporated into his early paintings, but what he will best be remembered for are his large handmade paper pieces. In some of these he incorporated sticks or fabric and writings, all of which added a new depth of personal history to the work; the addition of these objects had the effect of changing the material value of the paper itself. Richard viewed something so basic as paper as holding the potential to change.
Pat and I had a discussion a while back. We decided that art itself doesn’t really change, because art is always in flux anyhow. What changes are the “tools'”the artist uses to create. It’s those shiny new tools that come along that bring with them new perspectives, new ways to look at what we have, but more than likely have already seen.
Slowly creeping into this landscape of new tools is the digital factor. The last two exhibitions Pat and I attended were heavily weighted with digital art work. To be clear, I have no real problem with this format. Digital video art, or “new media” has been around for some time now, and it’s growing with the help of new technology, a technology that is taking on a life of its own, which has become its own material.
Immersive art exhibitions are popping up everywhere. Large rooms projecting 360-degree imagery of Monet or van Gogh, floor to ceiling, bathing the viewer in sound and color. At the same time, theme parks will take you under their immersive wings to swim with sharks. It’s all just spectacle, bigger is better, or is it? I would much prefer to be at the Tate Modern in London, in a quiet room surrounded by the large works of Mark Rothko, letting all that color work its magic. Art surely should be about more than just spectacle, or has Elvis left the building?
I was in Dublin recently to support the Writers and Actors who are currently on strike in America. As an actor myself I found it important to be there. The strike is primarily about residual remuneration payments to actors, but more importantly it’s about artificial intelligence. AI is sapping the livelihood of writers by using trained algorithms to “create” content. AI also has the ability to capture the likeness of an actor, whereby their image can be manipulated and altered by the studio indefinitely, with no payment going to the actor for its use. Yes, the genie is out of the bottle and it ain’t going back in. Do we accept this as fate, turn our backs and pretend it will all work out in the end? Or is it possible to govern its outcome?
This shiny new piece of technology is concerning for a number of reasons. First and foremost, no one knows for certain what will happen if it is left to its own devices (remember A Space Odyssey 2001 and Hal?). To date, billions of bits of human knowledge, writings, works of art, films, etc. have been uploaded into neural networks, and with simple prompts it can generate text or imagery in seconds. An artist friend recently used it to write an artist statement for a grant submission; her excuse was that she considered herself a visual artist, not a writer. I never asked her if she got the grant.
Publishing houses are already generating book covers using AI, putting artist/designers out of work. If artificial intelligence can spit out visuals to the whim of anyone with a computer, who’s to tell what art is anymore, or where human creativity begins and ends.
For a brief time, Pat was involved with a group of printmakers here in Ireland. They had a decently sized etching press and were producing work on a daily basis. I remember one artist in the group complaining that she had to justify the price of her etchings because the buyer did not understand, let alone appreciate, what went into a hand-pulled print. Will AI change how society looks at art? Will the general public be able to fathom the depths of the human artistic experience? Or will it all be viewed like a reproduction, a toss off?
From a UMVA newsletter dated April 1982, this quote from Carlo Pittore*:
True innovation is a threat to this new would-be “artist-like” breed, in imitation of art and artists who actually have mastered their life struggle with integrity, and the pursuit of a vision with clarity and with growth and exploration.
How very true. It is also true that because art is in a constant state of change, the artist changes with it, but, let them be cautious of those shiny new things that speak so softly to us.
*Artist Richard (Dick) Lee passed away in 2008
*Artist Shirleyann Ratajczak died in 2019
*Carlo Pittore, artist and founder of UMVA, died in 2005.
Image at top: Tony supporting Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).