Healing the Great Divide

The most important turning point in the history of fine art was the invention of photography, which resulted in such long standing turmoil, confusion, and division among artists that many have not noticed the resolution of the conflict which is finally at hand.

Prior to the advent of photography, innovative artists were always able to assimilate technological advancements in tools and materials, such as improved pigments, inks, brushes, et cetera. However, due to the difficulty of incorporating photography as a creative tool or direct element in painted or drawn images, photography was immediately seen as separate from and in opposition to painting.

This separation was disastrous for the creators of two dimensional fine art, because photography had the intrinsic ability to usurp their most important function in society. Throughout history, the fine artist's most prestigious purpose was to educate.

The education was through virtual travel in time and space. Virtual time travel took the viewer of a painting to a different moment in history, religion, or myth. Virtual space travel transported the viewer of a painting to distant lands to see people, places, and things that the average person had no other way of seeing. A painting's value as fine art was determined by the degree to which it also incorporated successful implementations of secondary functions, such as decorative beauty, inspiration, or evocation of emotion.

Although the secondary functions were more difficult to incorporate into photography, photographers easily took over the primary function of education. For example, at the beginning of the twentieth century, people that wanted to travel to the time and place of the battlefield of Gettysburg turned not to paintings of the historic Civil War battle, but instead turned to the recently published photographs of The Matthew Brady Studio and the immensely popular stereoscope.

It was also at the beginning of the twentieth century that artists generally divided into four broad camps in response to the loss of their primary purpose. The first camp was comprised of artists who may be called 'traditionalists" in the sense that they chose to ignore the whole issue and continued painting as if nothing had happened.


The Second Camp : Imagists

The second camp was comprised of artists who found an educational function that photography could not easily fulfill in the examination of imagery itself. These artists may be called "Imagists" in the sense that they examined the constituent elements of imagery, such as shape, form, color, and light. Their experiments gave rise to schools of art like Impressionism, which became very popular because the art work succeeded in combining a bit of the travel function with great beauty.

Other Imagist schools like Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, Minimalism, et cetera were somewhat less successful with the public. Their rejection seemed to grow in relation to the degree to which they abandoned the traditional primary and secondary functions of fine art, as the elements they examined grew more basic. Although much of it still served the purpose of decorative beauty, by finally presenting nothing more than elemental brush strokes, splatters, or color, many Imagists had figuratively painted themselves into a corner. You can't get much more basic than a blank white canvas that was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Unfortunately for the artists and dealers, it was obvious to all but the most gullible that anyone could create a painting that was one solid color. In fact, one well known Los Angeles gallery owner recently said that years ago, he grew so tired of hearing variations on the theme, "My four year old kid could do better," that he moved his gallery from its prominent location to a hiding place on a back street, so that only "serious" collectors could find him.

The dealer's retreat from the public was mirrored by a similar retreat by critics and museums from their traditional roles, as they found themselves doing a lot of explaining. In order to justify the importance of a painting that "anyone could do", they had to put the work of art in an historical perspective as some kind of "first."

As the Imagists began to run out of obvious "firsts" in their effort to examine the basics of image elements, the explanations of why a painting was important got more convoluted and esoteric. For that reason, the interpretation of the artwork eventually became more important than the artwork itself. As a result, many artists began creating paintings that were essentially illustrations of critics' writings. (A phenomena examined by Tom Wolfe in the book, The Painted Word.)

The class of professional art interpreters (dealers, critics, museum curators and directors) who gained power in the process of interpreting Imagism discovered that they could increase their importance by promoting a group of artists even more in need of interpretation-- the third camp formed in reaction to the invention of photography.


The Third Camp: Conceptualists

Unlike the Traditionalists and Imagists, the members of the third camp were determined to find a significant role in society by redefining art itself. One of the pioneers in this effort was Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp declared that whatever he did was art. Merely putting his name on a toilet would be art, which he did in 1917. In essence, Duchamp began a long line of artists who create "Conceptual" art. As one current conceptualist said, "Art is not necessarily the creation of an object; it's enough to create a situation."

Conceptual artists found natural allies among professional art interpreters, so that they are now very prominent in the elite art criticism, gallery, and museum world. Some of the conceptual art is very thought provoking and some very humorous. However, in a world that values "creating a situation", the line between art and publicity stunts is easily blurred, which can tend to make sensationalism a dominant value. Consequently, it's no surprise that many art exhibitions makes news by being merely outrageous or provocative.

As this treatise is being written, the main show at a highly respected art Museum in New York City consists of a garbage disposal and a series of vats and tubes which take in food and use enzymes to output a substance which is indistinguishable from human waste. The museum's promotional literature says that the artist's display is "one of the most important directional shifts in European art ... its critical significance lies in the way it brings together certain widely divergent tendencies in recent art."

Although some may see the museum's display of excretion to be quite symbolic of the genre, it certainly has some value as a science fair type exhibit about digestion. However, like so much conceptual art, the artist's display may primarily be an effort to shock or disgust -- a goal which seems to be sought by many artists in an effort to get noticed. Unfortunately, the current art establishment is a very willing accomplice in such attempts to gain celebrity in a confusion between fame and significance.


The Fourth Camp: Inclusivists

Unlike the Traditionalists, Imagists, and Conceptualists, the pioneers in the final group of artists are not well known for their contribution to a movement which now holds the key to resolving some of the art world's problems created by the invention of photography. They were the kinds of artists who had always found ways of including new technological development in the service of the primary and secondary functions of two dimensional fine art. They didn't arbitrarily restrict themselves to using tools of a certain vintage. As a result, these "Inclusive" artists attempted to incorporate photography into their painting like any other new tool.

One of the first to do so was the celebrated 19th century Philadelphia painter, Thomas Eakins. Although Eakins was famous as a traditional artist, he was a "closet" Inclusivist, because he kept his techniques for using photography a secret. We only know about them now due to some recent discoveries that show how he used photography. Essentially, he would project photographs of various groups of people onto his canvas and paint them in a totally different context from the one in which they were photographed in order to compose a larger scene.

It can be assumed that Eakins didn't want anyone to know about his use of photography, because of prejudices, fear, resentment, and misunderstanding that has continued to accompany attempts at incorporation of new technology into traditionalist two dimensional fine art. The resistance is reminiscent of screenwriters' reaction to the advent of word processors, when it seemed as if many of them went out of their way to proudly proclaim that they would never give up their typewriters. As most screenwriters have discovered by now, it is not the tool that matters, but the content created by the tool.

On the other hand, as one Hollywood literary agent during the transition from typewriters to word processors observed, "Now it's easier for people to do bad writing." And with the advent of digital technology, it's easier for people to create art of all kinds, good and bad.

Fortunately, at the highest levels, it hasn't been forgotten that a high degree of talent and a good eye are required no matter what the technology. For example, during the beginnings of Lucas Film's Industrial Light and Magic, they didn't look for people to create their digital art and animation among the technologists who had merely learned how to operate different computer programs. Instead, they recruited from the traditional art and animation schools and taught the talented non-technical artists the software appropriate for their jobs.

Such talented people have used constantly evolving sophisticated software and techniques to digitally paint images that would be virtually impossible for even the greatest artist to recreate on canvas restricted to using only a brush and paint. Unfortunately, fine artists who didn't wish to be restricted to vintage tools didn't have much choice in the matter until the recent advent of giclee technology (a printing process superior to lithography and serigraphy.)

That is why developments in giclee technology, like archival inks, oil paint layers, and most of all -- the ability to print on canvas, are so important. Now Inclusive artists can choose to paint on canvas, scan the canvas, work with the image to combine photographic elements and sophisticated digital effects, output to canvas, paint some more and repeat the process ad infinitum, or merely stay in the digital realm until final printing on canvas.


The Resolution

Finally, artists can once again incorporate the most advanced technology in the service of the traditional fine art functions that were lost to photography and its offspring. Of course, film, television, and interactive media have an advantage over fine art still images when it comes to education through travel to different times or places. And with the ability to hang a high definition flat screen monitor on the wall, they can even take on some of the decorative function of fine art. However, a movie about an historical period, or a television show about an exotic location, may have greater 'travel" value than a painting, but both film and television have an inherent disadvantage.

A frozen moment can not only have some of the educational value of a moving image, it may have more emotional impact and beauty. But more importantly, by allowing the viewer to appreciate the image at their own pace, a still image has the advantage of contemplative value not possible with the distraction of constant movement inherent in film and television. In other words, there is still a very important place for fine art images.

Although participants of the Inclusive movement may be attacked by the entrenched interpreter class, the new technology has given all artists a new defense against such attacks by elitists. In conjunction with the Internet, the new technology has given artists the ability to more easily self publish, self promote, and self distribute. As a result, to a great degree, artists can now not only be freed from the strictures of vintage tools, but can also be freed from concern about the opinions of the old garde art establishment.


© David Watkinson 2006

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All Contents Copyright 2020 by David Watkinson