All of us can name a well known work of art, such as Henri Matisse’s “The Knife Thrower,” Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies,” Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
We immediately see works such as these and we identify them as art works. Sometimes we know the name of the artist, sometimes we don’t. The original works are framed, housed in art museums and galleries, owned by private collectors and part of art collections maintained by well known foundations.
Art is traditionally understood as the outward expression of the artist’s inward genius, or the accomplishment of a strong creative impulse. In some ways this is a romantic notion, that of an artist working tirelessly, in isolation, with the need to share their ideas with others. This concept of art is closely tied to the means of creation by which an artist makes their art – a painter with a canvas, palette, and paint brushes, a writer with a typewriter and paper, a sculptor with clay and their carving tools.
This has been the artist paradigm for centuries, but now we are faced with a radical shift – that of art emerging from anywhere. The tools for creating a breathtaking photograph, a captivating film, or a throughly engaging story can be created via any number of programs that can be purchased and installed on a home computer.
This in itself is an incredible shift, but there is an even bigger change, which has not be fully examined, namely the manner in which we encounter art. As art is freely moving out of the exclusive realm of the museum, people are viewing classic (even canonical) works of art on computer monitors, iPad screens, and gallery text books. The experience of viewing artwork in a museum is something that could be likened to the religious experience of a believer inside a house of worship. In some ways this may seem like an unusual comparison, but if you think about it there are certain similarities that connect the two.
As various modes of digital technologies become more entrenched in our daily lives, is it possible that art can be democratized? Could this lead to a devaluation of art? Is it possible that anyone can become an artist now? How could this impact the future of art school programs and the study of art history?
Interestingly enough these are some of the same issues that Walter Benjamin was exploring over seventy years ago. Could advancements in digital media be understood as being the realizations of Benjamin’s mechanical prophecies? Are these developments even more complicated than Benjamin’s ideas?
What are your thoughts?