Apparently there's quite a scandal brewing at the American Watercolor Society. Recently, they awarded the Gold Medal to an artist who allegedly used copyrighted photographs which were not her own and passed them off as original acrylic "hyper-realism" paintings.
The bare bones of the argument
The underlying argument - setting aside the ethics of stealing someone else's work and passing it off as your own -- is whether or not this artist actually painted her image or printed it off after manipulating the photographs and passed that off as a painting.
Such fraud could easily be detected by submitting the work to a conservator. An analysis of the pigments -- or inks -- used would solve the mystery -- or fraud -- quite easily.
But this argument leads to another equally important question: is the use of technology such as Photoshop to manipulate images legitimate in the creation of art?
Duchamp vs Thiebaud
Duchamp will always be remembered for his "Fountain" challenge to the art world, raising the question of whether something is "Art" simply because we say it's so. Duchamp said, "The word 'art' interests me very much. If it comes from Sanskrit, as I've heard, it signifies 'making'" ( Artist to Artist by C. Brown, p10).
So, if an artist uses technology in the "making" of her art, isn't it legitimate according to Duchamp's analysis?
But Wayne Thiebaud has this to say: "Art is one of the dirtiest words in our language, it's mucked up with all kinds of meanings. There's the art of plumbing, there's the art of almost anything that you can say. My own sense of it is that it means something very rare, an extraordinary achievement. It's not delivered like the morning paper, it has to be stolen from Mount Olympus" (Artist to Artist by C. Brown, p10).
Wouldn't this argument suggest the artistic necessity of drawing on some inner inspiration in the making of art, to reach deep and hard, and not rely on the conveniences of technology ( "the morning paper" )to create desired visual effects?
Is it Art?
With this in mind, I'm showing you a few examples of my new body of work.
Actually, I completed this entire body of work in under two hours. Amazing. But more amazing -- if you click on each image an enlarged view will appear. Look closely at these images. You will probably recognize the styles of some very successful painters.
This isn't to argue either way whether we should considere this acceptable technique or not -- particularly as I was shocked at the color, composition, and beauty in some of these images and may actually paint one or two someday.
But here is my problem with using technology: for me, it takes too much of the human element out of the act of creation. Technology is addictive. Further, you are relying on the work of someone else --the code writer who programmed the filters in Photoshop. In the end, it has the feel of little more than filling in a coloring book.
For example, looking at the enlarged image, you will see how Photoshop has actually given a road map for values, colors, edges, form. One could easily upload such an image into any of the on-line giclee services and get back fairly decent prints on either paper or canvas, hand embellish here or there and pass it off as original art. As long as the original photo is yours, there are no copyright issues.
But is it Art?
Certainly art is the product of each generation. If nothing else, we live in the technology generation. Why wouldn't we expect public taste to prefer images that mimic computer generated animations and glossy commercial graphics? Isn't this an extension of the themes first explored by Warhol with his giant screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup Cans?
Look around and count the number of influences in our daily lives that are created through technology. Now look at the number of art museums. Even our art history classes rely on photographs -- technology reproducing reality -- to acquaint us with the incredible diversity and talent of past masters. Is it any wonder that people would be captivated by "artistic output" that offers a technologically perfect version of reality? To the point of awarding it the "Gold Medal" in one of the most prestigious shows in the world?
But it isn't an argument with an easy answer. As a visual tool, being able to manipulate your images with a photo editing program can be extremely useful. I have used the grayscale often to solve value issues. And since I am still struggling to "see" what it is that I'm trying to capture, I was immediately struck by the last image, shown again here along with the original photograph and a gray scale version:
But in reading some of the discussions at Wet Canvas, I realized that artists are not just using manipulated images to help them "see" better. Artists are printing out gray scale versions and painting over them - a modern take on the traditional techniques of the Old Masters or the lazy artist's guide to painting without learning to draw?
What do you think? How far is too far in relying on technology in our artistic endeavors?
My thanks to Shanti Marie for mentioning the ASW story about Sheryl Luxenburg at David Darrow's Daily Painters Discussion Group. You can read the details here and also here. It's an education in copyright infringement as well as artistic ethics.