|The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction
The Art History Archive - Modern Theory
The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction
This is true certainly at least in sheer bulk of paintings/art pieces, if not in overall price. Dart.fine-art.com for example, is the online version of Ebay for artists, and extremely popular. In 2001 it contained over 42,000 art pieces by over 5400 artists. Every single one of these pieces are categorized, named and have a price tag (recent updates to the site now allow for the price to be negotiable).
What does this mean for the contemporary art galleries? That depends entirely upon what direction the socially elite decide to go in, for that is predominantly the driving force behind art sales in art galleries. If the social elite maintain the status quo and continue to buy art through schmoozing at art shows, then contemporary art galleries will continue to maintain their own status quo. If the social elites (being people who are most likely to own a home that needs artworks to decorate it) decide to begin investing their money by purchasing artworks online from the vast plethora of artists available it could create a radical shift in the value of maintaining actual sale-oriented art galleries.
Walter Benjamin’s writings within "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" foretold this shift, but at the same time stressed the value of the ‘aura’ of the original piece. This ‘aura’ was the feeling of tradition, the feeling of the artist’s hand, and the uniqueness of the piece. He argued that it was this unique ‘aura’ that drove people to ownership of specific pieces of original art.
I will argue the opposite, although at the same time I will state that it is not absolute, much like his theory is not absolute. I agree that pieces do have auras that we attach to them, a sense of karma if you will, but I do not believe this is what drives us to possess these objects. Rather it is our greed and capitalist pleasure that we get from acquiring objects, especially rare objects, that drives people to spend enormous amounts in the effort to purchase rare art objects. This greed then translates into a form of elitist bragging. “I have something that you don’t. I am elite because I have this art. I own the original, therefore it is superior.” True, many people buy for aesthetics, but they do not brag about buying an aesthetically pleasing art piece from a no-name artist.
This elitist narcissism is the driving force behind the sale of elitist art. Without the pride and arrogance of the rich trying to prove their dominance, many artists would have starved to death long ago. Capitalism in many ways has been the savior of talented artists, provided they actually managed to sell their works.
Popular art by definition therefore is not elitist art. It is essentially a two-tier system of art worlds, one for the elites, and one for the general populace. The public art galleries contain the canonized works of artists that became popular during their time within the institutions of art galleries, but it is the private art galleries and private collections within the homes of the wealthy and super-wealthy that are the true elitist art pieces.
And when these wealthy families grow bored of their art piece(s), have become tired of showing them off to their friends at dinner parties/etc, the art piece(s) must be sold or auctioned off, which becomes a grand gesture of narcissism within itself.
In order for the elitist painting to maintain its popularity on the wall of the super-rich it has to also maintain a sense of what is new and unique. If the feeling of the piece changes for the people who own it, it loses its unique aura to them and it is more beneficial to sell off the piece, make a profit of several million if possible, and buy a new piece that they can brag about.
Peggy Guggenheim’s acquisition of Jackson Pollack’s paintings every year for numerous years gave her incredible self-esteem and pride in her collection, but at the same time she auctioned off the individual pieces on a regular basis so that many major art galleries now have one or two Jackson Pollack paintings that they too can brag about.
The repetitive sale of such elitist art pieces increases the price and fame of the artist every time one is sold. The art piece is often to become acknowledged by the media as “Such and Such Piece Sells for $XX Million”. The media focuses first and foremost on the supposed value of the painting, a little about the history of the artist and the piece, and if we’re lucky, actually shows a picture of the painting on TV or in the newspaper. The value of the piece according to the media is considered more important than the artist or what the art piece actually depicts.
Since full-time artists are a rarity, an artist who works a part-time or full-time job has scant time and resources to be doing their own promotional work, arranging studio visits and applying to gallery shows on such a regular basis. The Internet therefore provides an easier and cheaper source of advertising that can reach a broader audience, and requires less time and effort on the part of the artist.
The problem however lies in the over-saturation of “part-time” artists online. There is simply too many of them. Ingenuity, investment (of time and/or money), a good domain name (location is always important) and quality and quantity of work is what separates the more popular and/or successful artists from the rest of the artists hoping for recognition. Theme is also important, as sites of female nudes tend to garner the most attention as it overlaps with the booming Internet pornographic marketplace. While Fine Art has always tried to distance itself from porn, the overlap of viewers seeking erotic visual stimulation remains. This market is certainly not limited to heterosexual men either, as the market of male pin-up art is also strong.
How an artist situates himself or herself within the Internet marketplace is also a factor. Because they are free to fictionalize part of their identity (a concept I will return to later) they have the option of placing themselves in many different areas of the art market. Whether they situate themselves under a national identity, a particular style, or a particular theme is dependent upon the type of work they do.
A Scottish landscape artist living in Chicago who uses a Stipling/Impressionistic method of applying the paint would have their options open. They have to decide whether they want to classify themselves as Scottish, promote their work as purely impressionism, focus themselves locally within Chicago Illinois, or try to promote their work on an international scale with translations of their website in multiple languages, including Scottish Gaelic. The different options represent different niche marketplaces and would draw in different crowds looking for different things. Attempting to cover all of the bases is a difficult enterprise and could appear to lack cohesion to visitors to their websites.
The majority of artists online are untrained, and have only basic understanding of what makes their work look more professional. Content and writing is the key however, and sadly most artists do not even know what a curriculum vitae is. An artist statement can also be a rarity. Some artists leave their art pieces unnamed, with not even an “Untitled” listed beside their artwork and that within itself is a lack of professionalism. The Internet is very much a language-based forum. A person seeking paintings of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet has to type in “ophelia painting” to a search engine if they hope to find anything. An untitled painting of Ophelia with scant few words (or none) on the website is not going to get many visitors. In contrast however, a painting with Ophelia with the artist’s bio and an entire copy of Hamlet in text will certainly find itself getting visitors who are either researching Shakespeare or specifically looking for art of Ophelia.
In many ways this is simply a matter of playing to the audience, and giving the audience what they are looking for in both a language and visual sense. It is more contrived of course, but much of the art world is filled with levels of truth and contrived concepts, and so that is nothing new.
Artists like Jonathon Earl Bowser however have successfully integrated their artwork with a minimal level of contrivedness. Bowser’s paintings of “mythic naturalism women” have become extremely popular online and internationally, but mention his name to an art gallery curator or an university art professor and they respond with “Jonathon who?”
Online, Bowser’s work is easy to find. It is practically everywhere and most Internet users recognize his work when they see it. He is the first artist who could be considered “Net-Famous”. People online know who he is, but his artwork rarely spills over into the mainstream art market. His level of “Net-Famousity” is such that even Saddam Hussein knows who Jonathon Earl Bower is.
The Canadian artist living in P.E.I. is most famous because Saddam Hussein ripped off a copy of Bowser’s “The Awakening” from Bowser’s website and then used the painting as the cover of Hussein’s book “Zabibah and the King”. Due to the brief international attention this brought to Bowser, “The Awakening” eventually sold for $25,000 US, of which a gallery promoting the piece took a 66% commission. This was a dear price for a painting that had received such international attention. Bowser’s paintings now usually sell for around $8000 US each so the international attention was a dramatic influence.
All this shows however is that Bowser has managed to gain a stranglehold over a specific Internet niche market and then let the quality of his artwork do the rest. In this way he does not have to compete with the saturated marketplace and can focus more on the paintings that he does, allowing his already good “net-reputation” do the rest. This is provided that the Saddam Hussein incident does not become an Achilles heel to Bowser’s work and tarnish his ability to promote his work.
The popularity of the Internet can best be marked by how it was used and how it was portrayed in the mass media. During its early years it was used solely for military and market purposes, by banks, businesses and governments. Universities were big business during the 1970s, and thus the Internet was used for the transference of information. It was not until the middle of the 1990s that it truly became popular however, as shown in feature films that would make it even more popular of a phenomenon.
Movies like Hackers in 1995, The Net in 1995, and GoldenEye in 1995 all portray hackers in some form, but the interesting factor is that three high-ranking movies all portrayed Internet hackers within the same year. Add to this that GoldenEye is a James Bond movie, and it shows that the Internet has now become a staple of western society.
James Bond movies in the general are an excellent way of comparing how society has changed within the last 40 years. To some extent, they show how little society has really progressed on both social values and technology. Bond is still flirtatious with Money Penny, fictionalized people are still bent on world domination, but we still do not have flying cars (see The Man with the Golden Gun). But if the Internet is so popular that it can now be portrayed in a traditional staple such as a James Bond movie, then it must have become mainstream.
The movies of 1995 also date themselves by their technology. A 14.4 kb modem was considered fast back then. 28.8, 36.6 and 56 kb modems would soon replace them, and even so these comparatively newer modems are still considered to be obsolete. Cable, ethernet and high-speed lines are now the standard, but these advances in speed would not have been possible were not for the sudden interest in the net.
Once Internet access became a standard service, the big name companies began using it for advertising purposes. Even small time companies began expanding into the Internet, thinking it was a great way to advertise and thinking people would just start miraculously buying stuff off a website (some do, but it hardly competes with traditional shopping). Artists and art galleries followed suit, their “heads in the clouds” so-to-speak, because they were about to have a reality check as the internet stock market crashed in 1999 following the merger of Geocities (www.Geocities.com) and Yahoo Incorporated.
The original concept of Geocities was to have large online communities with shared interests, and provide a forum for which people could communicate to others with similar ideas. At its height, Geocities had millions of users and an active online community. During its ‘heyday’ the Geocities chatrooms were the most popular chatrooms online, until they were shut down due to abusive/vulgar users. Instant messaging services provided by ICQ, MSN or Yahoo! Inc. now dominate the chat market.
Geocities SoHo was a community for artists, musicians and writers. Likewise Geocities Paris was a community for French Culture, artists, and poets. The two Geocities together also boasted their own online art galleries, containing art work submitted by hundreds of artists, both amateur and professional. Some of the artists in the SoHo Art Gallery for example have gone on to increasingly popular careers.
When Yahoo! Incorporated took over after the merger in May 1999, the art galleries were shut down and the concept of Geocities as a “community” was downplayed as Yahoo! changed the focus towards drawing in more users, getting more advertising, cutting costs, and increasing the importance of the GeocitiesPlus program (users get a larger site than the free version, with a monthly fee) so that consumers would be more enticed to pay for their websites.
During this process, the controversial topic of copyright came up. In order for Yahoo! to export images and files to foreign countries, copies of files would have to be made on multiple servers and these files would have to be altered depending upon software related problems. In order to gain the right to alter images or files, Yahoo! sent out a giant email to millions of its users asking their permission to reproduce their images and files. The resulting confusion and controversy surrounded the idea of giving a corporation the rights to their images, an issue that was particularly rebuked by artists who had been using Geocities to show their art works. Many artists fled Geocities along with others in a mass exodus of millions of users, looking to find other "freeservers” who would show their images without the question of copyright. Many users also bought or rented their own servers, dramatically shifting the online marketplace. People are now more likely to buy/rent their own server rather than use a free version.
Realizing they were losing consumers, Yahoo! Incorporated’s lawyers quickly re-worded the 1999 New Terms of Service Agreement in order to avoid the misunderstanding that was taking place, but the damage was already done. Millions of consumers had suddenly become “Geocities Expatriates”.
Taking this in stride, there are now very few servers online that provide a sense of artistic community anymore. The artists online have become cut-off from each other and restricted to garnering hits from each other through link exchanges, banner exchanges and webrings. All of which amount to free advertising for artists.
There is not even national artistic communities based online. Not yet at least. There are websites that offer a fee to show and promote artists work, promising high rates of sales, but these sites border on Internet scams that likely never produce results in either sales or recognition. There are government sponsored and corporate run organizations that promote artists, but these organizations tend towards artwork that it is already successful niche market and thus a low risk factor. The concept of community is lost upon these success-driven organizations.
No, if an artist is seeking to gain recognition and receive positive/negative criticism for their work, they have to go out of their way to do so. This means promoting their work through a wide band of channels and making as many copies as they can of their art work on as many different servers and groups as they can.
Reproduction and mass advertising becomes the name of the game, and the actual quality of the artwork becomes secondary in our postmodern “who-cares-what-it-looks-like” jaded society.
Or rather, people do care what art looks like, and they may not be entirely jaded, but they are certainly confused about the wide variety of aesthetics that have become available in our postmodern “avant-garde is dead” society. Following High-Modernism and art by Jackson Pollock, it would not be inaccurate to say that society is “aesthetically confused” about what good art should look like, and since artistic understanding is something that is not valued by the public school boards making cutbacks to art programs, this aesthetic confusion will only get worse.
When Andy Warhol joined the Pop Art movement he became popular because his artwork was new and different. Except that he was getting his ideas from his background in advertising and then applying them to art pieces. This made his work avant-garde.
So then the question really is what aspects of the world have not been fully introduced into the art world proper and thus fulfilled part of the avant-garde?
Well, there is Gothic art, for starters. Or perhaps we should call it Neo-Gothic art or Neo-Gothicism so as not to confuse people with the architectural style.
The Gothic movement was formerly a section of the punk movement. During the 1980s, graffiti art became accepted into art galleries and made graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat a huge success. Since graffiti is one of the few visual tangents of the punk movement, it was also the end of the punk movement in the art gallery setting.
As a subculture however, the Gothic Movement continued to grow and branch into fashion, music, literature and art. But the artwork itself is considered a low form of art by Clement Greenberg standards, and those are the standards many contemporary art galleries tend to use.
Greenberg’s linear notions suit the art gallery format and help to explain the more “avant-garde” pieces that various galleries tend to display. A more postmodern perspective on such pieces might conclude that the pieces and concepts shown within them have already been done, and if they have already been done, they are not avant-garde anymore. They are just imitations of what was avant-garde years earlier.
In our contemporary society, many people simply do not even understand what avant-garde even is. Sometimes it is even used to describe something that is a cliché. And if it is a cliché then it has obviously been done before.
Gothic art is increasingly popular online. Indeed it is one of the few places it can be properly viewed, with the exception of fetish stores in city downtown cores and gothic clubs and pubs. Toronto’s the Green Room is one example of a restaurant/bar that displays gothic art that is for sale.
Online however, the options are near limitless, and the advertising is relatively free. Most Goths (and closet Goths) have Internet access so the audience is certainly there to appreciate the work that is shown.
Content wise, gothic art tends towards sexual, religious and violent concepts, topics that have always been popular in art. In our contemporary society these topics are more important than ever however because we are constantly being bombarded with sexual and violent imagery in the mass media. Since religions have fallen into a sense of disgrace during the last fifty years (or more importantly, ever since the Romanticist art period) people have been searching for spiritual alternatives. Gothic ideals of wicca (with a mother goddess) and various other forms of pagan beliefs are growing in popularity. Thus pagan art and gothic art, while separate, are intertwined.
Feminist beliefs are also extremely popular amongst gothic art. Since Goths have a stronger majority of females who believe in individuality and nonconformity, they also tend to embrace many feminist theories. Mind you at the same time, fashion in gothic culture tends to gravitate towards the overtly sexual (corsets for example) so many people might view this as hypocritical unless they take into account that exploring sexual identity and sexual freedom is also part of feminist ideology.
But there are no real art galleries supporting this phenomenon, despite the fact that gothic culture is steadily growing. Especially in the film industry and advertising, which seems to be intent upon cashing in on this growing market niche (everything including The Matrix Trilogy, From Hell, Underworld, Van Helsing and a slew of other movies fall into the sphere of Gothic Culture).
So at present, the only “art galleries” that show gothic art are those that are online. It may take quite a bit of time before gothic art starts appearing in real art galleries, crossing over much like Andy Warhol’s work did from advertising. It was bound to happen that the advertising industry would produce artists, so it is only natural that gothic culture will eventually start producing mainstream artists.
So is the Internet then like a very large weathervane which tells us where the art world is going to go next? It is one way to look at it. If something becomes popular online, especially if it becomes popular internationally (gothic art is very international, as the subculture is spread across every continent, every city), it will certainly have the support of a market niche when and if it does cross over into the world of real art galleries.
At that rate, this might constitute a redefinition of what it means to be avant-garde. From this perspective, avant-garde art might be considered to be the artwork that is becoming popular online, to the extent that it breaks over into the art market of conventional “white box” art galleries. The old definition of being the “front rank” of artists creating ever new and exciting things no longer applies. The new definition is quite simply “new and popular”.
Online, it is assumed that the visitor to the art gallery is already sitting. If not, they certainly have the choice of doing so since they are probably doing so in the privacy of their home (or possibly their office or a library). There is also a greater level of intimacy for the viewer who is usually alone and does not have the distractions of school trips, other visitors or security guards.
There are definite problems within the setting of contemporary art galleries. The lack of seating is just one of the issues that may annoy visitors and tempt them to leave quickly. People simply do not have the patience or will power to stay in an art gallery for any extended time period, unless they are provided a reason or excuse. The exceptions would be those people with an actual reason to be there and would suggest someone with a discernible interest in the artwork or the person who made the artwork.
The average website with plenty of internal links (links that go to different parts of the same website) usually only has 2 to 3 hits per session (meaning the visitor visits 2 to 3 different webpages within the entire site before leaving). People on websites usually do not stay very long and browse beyond what they are looking for. The trick is to get people to stay, and to do that a website has to have content that will interest the person, increase their curiousity and tempt them to stay and explore everything the website has to offer.
The staying power of art-based websites is actually quite good. The average is closer to 3 to 4 page hits per session, showing that artwork is more tempting to the viewer and tends to draw in people to explore the art website more fully. This may however simply be the result the glossy effect of a computer screen.
A well-made website can make almost any artwork look glamourous. The aesthetic principles of webpage design are not complicated and in the case of artwork, simplicity is often the best route to make a particular art piece look good. Like in real art galleries, a white background is a solid simply choice for the art piece. Black backgrounds are often used to create a heavier contrast of light and dark.
Borders around the image, like frames around a painting, are obsolete and unnecessary but sometimes used by designers who seek to mimic the traditional concepts of a real gallery, or simply to create a website aesthetic.
Many art websites go for a salon approach for showing artworks by creating a table (similar to a spreadsheet) of clickable thumbnail images which show larger better quality images when clicked upon. This approach simplifies the overall design elements of the website and allows for a central location for users to navigate between the images. In some ways it could be considered a panopticon of images, which allows the user to see everything that can be seen at the website all at once.
This method is used by many major websites: Google, Yahoo, and dart.fine-art.com all use it to show a variety of images all at once.
The panopticonic method gives the viewer more power over what they want to look at. They now have a choice of what images they want to click on and see in better quality and they know everything there is to see right away instead of having to filter through multiple webpages like a slideshow to see the images they actually want to see. It saves bandwidth costs for the servers by allowing users to go straight to the images, and thus not having to download every large file on the route.
A conventional art gallery would require the visitor to walk through the entire gallery before they found the things they were looking for. There simply is no practical way to present that much artwork to a visitor in a panopticonic fashion within the confines of a real gallery. The salon is the closest conceptual idea to a panopticon, and even then there has to be multiple rooms prepared for the visitors and the overall effect of being surrounded by artwork can be overwhelming to the extent that visitors may not notice artwork that they might otherwise enjoy.
The flaws with showing artwork within a digital setting however are such that a visitor cannot appreciate the brushwork and get a better idea of how the art piece was actually made. The colours and lighting may be drastically different since screen resolution and colour differentiation varies from monitor to monitor. What looks to be red on one monitor can actually appear to be crimson or pinkish on another. Any texture that could have been touched/sensed is lost. The size, surroundings, and context of the art piece is also lost on the viewer, and any meanings attached to that which might be important are also rendered non-existent as far as the viewer is concerned.
The loss of three-dimensionality means that only two-dimensional works can be effectively shown and cannot convey a better understanding of the art piece. Size becomes irrelevant as any image can be resized to fit onto a rectangular screen. Sculptures and installations lose part of their meaning and become re-contextualized as historical documentation. Video Art is one important exception to all of this, for it (and interactive flash art) is well suited to the Internet.
The general public however, or as Richard Nixon called them “The Silent Majority”, does not appear to care however. Brushwork means very little to people not taught about artistic practice. Abstract Expressionism is perhaps the most misunderstood art style in history simply because common society does not care about brushwork and the surface of the paint. All they see is splashes and lines forming an overall composition of colour and light and their ignorance makes brushwork totally irrelevant from their perspective.
Sculpture has long been an ignored second cousin of painting, but that factor will only get worse before it gets better. The three-dimensionality of sculpture renders it incompatible and thus obsolete within the confines of two-dimensional digital reproduction. Sculpture could even be considered to be dead by mainstream cultural standards, while it will always be kept alive by the elitist subculture of art galleries and the homes of the wealthy since those are some of the few places sculpture can be shown.
Installations simply do not function well online. For the same reasons above but also because installation art has never been accepted by the general public. The basis being that installation art is usually only shown to other artists or enthusiasts (or people taught about installations). Installation art also relies heavily upon the context in which it is displayed. Removal from this context results in a loss of the piece’s meaning and its interactive-ness.
The exception to this may be Internet installations, a concept that has yet to be explored, and would likely be even less understood than real installations.
Counterstrike is perhaps the most popular violent Internet game currently available. It is popular because of the level of three-dimensionality and realism that is achieved within its map scenarios. The game plot is based upon combat scenarios involving terrorists and counter-terrorists. Both sides, played by people connecting to the individual servers go to the different map scenarios that are available and are given a four-minute mission to accomplish. The missions for the terrorists are usually to guard hostages or to plant a bomb. Likewise, the counter-terrorists must guard the bombsites, defuse the bomb, or rescue the hostages.
The virtual map locations are well fleshed out designs, sometimes even based upon real world locations such as the White House, the Pentagon, the Statue of Liberty and even an university residence at the University of Guelph . Even fictional places like the town of Springfield, hometown of the popular TV series The Simpsons has been reproduced. The designer(s) of the maps typically research their locations quite well to give an accurate depiction of the surroundings. The surroundings therefore include things like paintings, sculptures, jukeboxes and chickens that can be shot, glass windows that can be broken, vehicles/boats that can be driven, & doors and elevators that all work. The users can even spray paint on the walls of the map as a form of graffiti, although this is technical more often used as an insult to opponents that have been killed by metaphorically “pissing” on an opponent’s dead body.
Since the maps are sometimes tourist locations, artwork is frequently used to give the maps flavour and a more enjoyable interface. After a character is killed, they can float around the map and explore as an invisible intangible “ghost” until the round/mission ends (or runs out of time) and a new round starts.
To conceive of artwork and sculptures within such a digital setting is already being done, but the artists/designers tend to keep themselves anonymous. Not everyone likes violent video games however, but the concept of online dating in such three-dimensional maps is a foreseeable use. “SimDating” with alternative meeting maps (including galleries and museums) in which people can chat and flirt. It may be artwork being used more as decoration or backdrop, but it would mean a dramatic change in how people saw artwork being displayed digitally and interacted with it.
The confines of digital interaction will not progress far beyond such three-dimensional maps for a very long time. Screen resolution is such that there are limits to the level of realism that can be depicted. Screen sizes and resolutions would have to be dramatically increased, or alternatively switched over virtual reality helmets. Virtual reality however is at this time still in a crawling stage of its development, and its popularity is extremely low due to the costs involved at this time.
For virtual reality to become a feasible alternative for showing art, it would have to reach a level of popularity that it could actually surpass the current monitor based Internet experience. A timeline for such an achievement is difficult to predict, and when such a thing does occur it would open up the topic of The Work of Art in the Age of Virtual Reproduction, a huge evolutionary step for how we perceive things spatially.
I would estimate however that overuse of virtual landscapes could result in a feeling of disorientation similar to seasickness. Virtual Motion Sickness could actually become a common ailment in the future. People sometimes get motion sickness while in IMAX movie theatres due to the visual stimulation of movement, combined with the stationary status of their seats results in mental confusion and dizziness. Short clips of virtual reality scenes in movies like the unorthodox James Bond film Die Another Day suggest that people are becoming more used to the concept of virtual reality and that the interface will take some adjustment to get used to and will likely be highly addictive. Motion sickness syndromes could result from the shock of making the transition back from the virtual to the real.
A step beyond Virtual Reality would be “Holographic Reality”, a concept that is currently shown quite commonly on the various Star Trek: Next Generation reruns with holodeck simulations and also holographic doctors (Star Trek Voyager featured a holographic doctor program), and movies like Minority Report with holographic advertising, waiters, and children. Photon emitters releasing waves of light would construct holographic worlds and scenes to explore, which would naturally include various forms of artwork.
In the opposite direction, “Mental Reality” would be the connection of people on the level of brain electrical impulses and chemical reactions. Films like The Matrix and Total Recall best illustrate this idea of a mental landscape based upon the user’s brain interacting with computer programs.
Should any of these latter concepts ever come to pass, society will likely have more important questions to think about the practice of art reproduction and what that means socially. Questions of what is real and philosophical questions of the nature of our existence will be dramatically more important.
People online commonly call these MUD characters or roleplaying characters, or to use a Dungeons and Dragons term, a “PC” (player character), which is not to be confused with the PC acronym used for personal computer. To create a pseudonym and a fake personality of an artist and then pass it off online as someone who does exist adds another dimension to this level of roleplaying. They are no longer a role, but an identity. Even if it is a fictionalized identity, it remains an identity because visitors to any sites pertaining to this identity will automatically assume that this artist is for real.
Why, because their artworks are real.
An artist made the artwork and applied it to this fictionalized identity. On some levels the artwork could be considered contrived and a lie because the person who supposedly made it is also contrived. At the same time however, the creator of both the artwork and the fictionalized artist has contributed a facet of their own personality/ideas, and a facet of their own artwork. Therefore the artwork and the history does constitute to be a facet of the original artist, regardless of its fictionalized activity online.
A person could conceivably create a series of drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures, even “self-portraits” of this fictionalized artist. They could construct a history, a birthplace, an age, a gender, a personality, and even a fictionalized education at a real university. The fictionalized artist could even die eventually, thus boosting the price of their art sales. The original artist would have to be an experienced storyteller to some extent in order to create such a vivid character that others might actually assume is real. The existence of real paintings and “real” self-portraits made by this fictionalized artist only make the artist seem more real to the viewer.
Fictionalized wealth and success could also be added to this artist’s history, allowing people to believe the artist is truly a successful and respected artist.
To pull off such a grand “Sting” (since it borders on being a con artist) the creator would have to introduce elements meant to ward off people from searching out this artist. Such elements might include the artist only working through an agent, is shy and impossible to contact for interviews, and even the admission that the artist’s name is a pseudonym & that the artist themselves has a real identity.
To take this concept one step further, the identity could even be that of a real artist, someone famous who already paved their way to success.
An artist masquerading as Cindy Sherman for example would surely get into trouble when lawyers representing the real artist get involved. The style of Cindy Sherman’s photography would not be excruciatingly hard to simulate however, once a photographer of equal training had studied her work long enough.
The legitimacy of art is therefore called into question, whether it is forgeries of real works by real artists, or simulated works using themes and styles typically used by the real artist. To the viewer online, they can only assume it is work by the real artist because that is the way it is presented to the viewer. The idea that the work is a fake will not even occur to the viewer.
On any given day, a search at Ebay.com for artwork by Picasso will turn up approximately 2300 pieces of work (statistic true as of Winter 2002).
How many of these pieces on Ebay were actually done by Pablo Picasso however is questionable. Many of the works claim to be signed by Picasso, have accompanying documentation that claims the work to be an “official” Picasso drawing or painting, or even an “official stamp of authenticity”. All of which can easily forged at a local Staples Business Supplies store, or by any teenager who has ever had to forge their parents’ signatures in order to get out of class, and enough wits to come up with a better forgery. Picasso’s signature is well documented and reasonably easy to copy.
A similar search for Cindy Sherman on Ebay shows zero number of works, suggesting forgeries or simulations of Cindy Sherman works simply is not a commodity at this time. Perhaps because her works are usually photographs in the first place.
The commodification of forgeries, whether or not a buyer knows they are real or fake is a concept many people look at differently. To some, a fake is worth nothing, not even the canvas or paper it is on. To others, a fake still retains some semblance of value depending upon the skill that was put into making the art piece and what it actually depicts. A skilled reproduction after all still maintains its ability to show what the original artist wanted to show, and therefore performs its function to entertain/inform the viewer or just to impress guests.
The digital reproduction of such works online aids dramatically a forger’s ability to duplicate the original piece. Or to simulate works that they could attribute to the original artist. With the wide variety of websites available showing high quality digital reproductions of a specific work, a forger now has the ability to make a reasonable copy of a work. They can then make a high-quality digital copy of the forged piece, and distribute the image across the internet for others to copy. Depending on the level of distribution, within time the forgery could be considered the real version and then the real version considered the fake.
Doing this with a simulated painting would be significantly easier to pass off as a fake. Internet resources could result in the painting just regarded as a “lesser known” painting by the same artist, which could eventually become canonized in art history books and few might not even question its authenticity until after it has already been made famous by art history books.
The truth online is relative to whoever wrote the original history, regardless of whether that story is fictional or not.
In 1999 I submitted a ghost story online to a website that was collecting stories about haunted locations. The story I submitted was that Mary Rutherford’s gravestone and the location was Lamlash Cemetery north of Hanover Ontario. The story had been passed down to me from my grandparents and friends. In 2002, I went online looking for the website I originally submitted it to. I had forgotten the name of the website I submitted it to, but what I found instead was a slew of websites that had popped up over several years, all about Mary Rutherford. There was even a website by an University of Waterloo professor from the English Department who had traveled to Lamlash Cemetery, taken photographs of the gravestones and interviewed the local townsfolk in search of more information. I had inadvertently made Lamlash into a tourist location for ghost hunters.
The English professor’s website was full of inaccuracies, but that is to be expected from a ghost story that is becoming more and more fictionalized. She was aware of the inaccuracies, but her interest in how ghost stories get started was what had drove her to investigate this particular story.
The history of an image online can change dramatically over time as well, especially if people with a flair for the dramatic like to add their own little fictionalized parts to the story. The whole history of an artist, the context in which they made a particular art piece and the resulting history of the piece can become more and more fabrication as time progresses.
How this effects the art world over all may actually be minimal. Artists, dealers and curators have a tendency to glamourize in an effort to gain mainstream/niche acceptance and popularity. In some ways the art world is really a huge popularity contest, which uses a combination of images and various levels of fictionalized history in an effort to further their goals.
An artist who does not like to talk, or even brag, about their work and the contexts in which they made their work may never become the successful artist they aspire to be. The glamourization of the artist’s identity, online, real, fake, or in person is always going to be an integral part of their level of success. The identity of the artist has become more subjective since the advent of the Internet.
Likewise those movies and musical files can then be pastiched to create new items of interest, whether they be movies, documentaries, small clips, variations of the original movie/music, and of course, video/sound art.
So who owns the rights to the original piece once it has been broken down, changed and transformed (perhaps only partially) into a new art piece? Does the director own the rights and have the right to sue the artist for copyright infringement? No. They don’t.
Art often mimics popular culture. Just because it is a video art piece containing an image of Elvis, that doesn’t make it any more important than a painting of Elvis. The medium may be different, but copyright issues are the same. If someone makes a painting of Elvis, does anyone care? It is basically fan art.
The Disney Corporation for example owns the rights to reproducing the image of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They can make stuffed teddy bears dressed in RCMP uniforms and other toys/paraphernalia. But this is a right that is in dispute. Any artist or craftsperson could make a painting or teddy bear of a RCMP officer. It’s a part of Canadian cultural identity, not something that can be so easily bought and sold.
Thanks to Napster, people can now easily download and reproduce movies and music, but should it be illegal? Are they making money off it by selling the copy? Or just avoiding paying the money to rent/buy a DVD? If they make an art piece out of it, are they likely to be sued for copyright infringement? Whatever their motives, people are going to keep doing it.
When VCRs and tape recorders first came out, the music and movie industries made a huge fuss and sued companies like Sony for manufacturing such things. The suit failed and now the Sony Corporation owns most of Hollywood, but has that stopped them from now trying to protect their interests against Internet piracy of movies and music? No. With one hand the Sony Corportation is mass-producing mp3 players and DVD recorders, with the other hand they are trying to sue people for downloading/distributing their copy-written material. Either way, they are making money. The more profitable route seems to be to sell mp3 players and DVD recorders and just stop worrying about the piracy issues.
But there are other legal issues online besides just corporations squabbling over money. There is pornography, and movies/images of people being tortured, raped and/or killed. The latter is known as Snuff movies. The legality of snuff films (and lack thereof) is undeniable. It is movies showing an actual murder. But the news on television and even television shows present us with real people getting killed in war, beaten to death on the street by police and even soccer hooligans having a riot and killing someone. Or worse, the New York World Trade Center burning and people jumping to their deaths. The images of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by US marines were only a few of the ones released. There were many more photos that were never released to the public (and videotapes too). All of these things and more are subject to becoming a part of someone’s art piece.
You will notice that the public does not care that people share copywritten pornography online. People make a fuss over music and movies because there is celebrities involved and it is "above the belt". Anything below the belt seems to be fair game.
Whether or not the original was legal or not becomes a moot issue once it is turned into an art piece. The original act of a person or even an animal being killed is certainly illegal. The documentation of the event, whether it is photo or video is still just documentation. An art piece that makes use of the documentation is twice removed from the actual event.
For example, there was a case in Toronto years ago where a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design made a snuff film in which he and an accomplice made a snuff film of himself killing a cat. He then submitted the video as his art piece. It was even briefly shown in an art gallery. The student was later arrested, charged and convicted of cruelty to animals. The video however is available online. Distribution of the video was never halted, despite its use as evidence in the case.
Furthermore, traditional fine art is forced to compete with the completely digital, art that is completely ephemeral and exists only as photons projected from a monitor screen. This non-tangible digital media is also international, and competes internationally, and many digital media artists promote themselves simply as artists, thus saturating related niche markets.
On a plus side however, the individual can now compete with the corporation or a large art gallery. A domain name with a good, easy to remember name can easily compete with www.moma.org, thus putting it on relatively equal standing with the Museum of Modern Art with the only difference being MOMAs huge advertising base and already existent reputation.
Art online however suffers from a loss of criticism. Few people take the time to actively write reviews about the work that is presented there, because if it is not important enough to go in a real art gallery, it must not be important enough to discuss in any real critical review of the work. While people often actively promote the ability of the Internet to communicate, the interaction tends to be only one way, with the artist showing their work and the viewer receiving it. Getting a response is a rarity for most artists.
Instead what happens is an anonymous collection practice. A viewer likes a particular work and saves the image to their hard-drive for later viewing. Such collections can become quite large depending upon the user and their surfing tastes.
And so copies of images are floating about the Internet gaining extra attention than the artist originally intended, possibly even breaking the international language barrier in the process. Such transactions are so common place now it is no surprise that Jonathon Earl Bowser’s painting mentioned above ended up on the cover of Saddam Hussein’s book. The Age of Digital Reproduction certainly has the potential to unleash art upon the world in ways the artists did not originally intend. In contrast to the conventional practice of art galleries, some ways may be beneficial and some may not. The conventional practice of art galleries may need to evolve to adapt to an entirely new marketplace, and artists will be pushing for these changes.
Wolff, Janet. The Social Production of Art. Hampshire and London, MacMillan Publishers Limited, 1981.