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The Garden

The Art World Isn’t Flat

The art market booms while the art fizzles. Millionaire artists make disposable objects for billionaire patrons to hide in airport storage spaces. Designer installations move droves to stand in line for selfies yet fail to stir a single soul. What has happened to art and the people who make it? The corrupting influence of extreme wealth. The upheaval of technology that reproduces everything except lived experience. A viral media culture that spreads images faster than even the most conceptual artist can dream them up. This series seeks to examine the different issues that affect contemporary while forging a new path for the digital age.

A Very Brief History of Art

Painting is the oldest form of purely representational art. Early hominids carved sculptures, etchings and totems for both spiritual and utilitarian purposes, but art for art’s sake didn’t happen until cave dwellers dabbed pigments to depict animals on their living room walls. Since the rediscovery of linear perspective in the Renaissance, painting has been the dominant mode of fine art. 

Cave Painting, Lascaux
Cave Painting, Lascaux
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci

Think of all the painters you can name from Leonardo da Vinci to Jackson Pollack, while the history of sculpture in the same time span whittles down to Donatello, Bernini, Rodin and Brancusi. Yet starting in the early 20th century, a curious phenomenon emerged. The great cultural theorist Walter Benjamin predicted technologies that reproduced perfect facsimiles of paintings would cause art to lose its unique ability to move the observer, what he termed the “aura” of a piece. Spirited painters fought this proclamation. First, there were the innovations of abstract expressionism. Pollack dripped his paint in shamanistic patterns. Rothko channeled colors into their purest forms.

Jackson Pollock's Floor

Raging With the Copy Machine

Inspiration For Warhol's Soup Cans?

Then a group of pop artists had a breakthrough. If the mass production of images threatened their medium, the medium itself would retaliate. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol turned the mass printed image into works of high art. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf closed the loop, infusing their works with the everyday images of the street, the modern day equivalent of those early cave paintings, ironically preserving these forms that would have been pressure washed and painted over in their own works.

Perhaps it’s fitting, if undeniably tragic, that when both Basquiat and Haring died within two years of one another at the height of their artistic outputs, painting itself finally succumbed to Benjamin’s prophecy of doom. An even newer technology of digital reproduction copied even more perfectly, able to render in high definition, improve the resolution, alter to user specifications, and even create new images outright. The medium couldn’t find the answers this time.

Keith Haring at Work

The Death of Two Dimensions

So began the great unraveling of the contemporary art scene, which would be dominated in the decades since by obscene price tags on preserved sharks and shiny sculptural renderings of kiddie party tricks. The two-dimensionality of images on canvas has been outflanked by digital enhancements and the literal objectification of art. Notably, after a five-hundred year run of artistic supremacy, no painter has had even close to the same cultural impact as their legion of predecessors in the last thirty years. If we’re being honest, the closest would be the pseudonymous prankster known as Banksy.

Balloon Dog, Jeff Koons
Balloon Dog, Jeff Koons

The decline of painting wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the rot hadn’t spread across the art world. It’s tempting to draw a causal line here. Certainly, the rise of big money and all it entails – the newly created job of professional art consultant, the industrial hobnobbing of art fairs – has played a significant role. Instead of artists shaping the market for their work, the markets now dictate what artists create. Yet it would be a stretch to blame this trend on the fact that painting a simple 2D picture now bores us. Still, is it possible to find a way forward for painting, and, if so, can this save art?

One option already underway seems to be embracing the material qualities of painting itself, in a sense waving the white flag to the objectification of art. To be fair, there is a strong artistic precedent for this in works like Robert Rauschenberg’s combines. Altering the dimensionality of the canvas, or even the conception of what a canvas is or can be, presents an intriguing method to combat the flatness of the surface. Layering the paint itself or experimenting with different types of materials to create new forms and textures also presents an answer. After all, no painted image is truly two-dimensional except when reproduced on a screen. Luminescent qualities of the medium don’t translate to pixilation in quite the same manner.

Rhyme, Robert Rauschenberg

The other option is to view technology not as the enemy of painting, but as another technical breakthrough like the understanding of linear perspective. A budding generation of post-Internet artists like Amalia Ulman and Jon Rafman have already produced fascinating works that use digital imagery and computer-generated forms as a new canvas. However, this begs the somewhat paradoxical question as to whether New Media forms a new medium or simply extends the work that began on the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet.

Maybe the answer is even simpler than that. Painting emerged and evolved because humans wanted to see the world in new ways. Is it simply returning to this eternal concept that can push art forward once again?

-The Gardener

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