Sunday, July 22, 2012


Every artistic choice represents a struggle over the significance of information:
  • How much information needs to be included in the picture and what should be left out ? 
  • How large should an element be in relation to other elements?  
  • What colors give it the proper emphasis?
  • How much detail should it have, before detail starts to become counterproductive?

These choices about information establish the artist's priorities; they are at the heart of what makes art great and important.  They affect not just the content but the timing of art's revelations-- the strategic places where art pauses as it lifts its petticoats.

But in our era of information technology, "information" has been radically redefined, and consequently so has the artist's struggle to manage information with taste and style.

The ability to evaluate -- "assign value to"-- information may be the central identity crisis for art in our time.  Technology enables us to automate information management with search engines, data mining and similar tools.  (For example, it would be impossible for you to make sense of those 120 cable TV channels without the software to scan and make those channels comprehensible.)  But so far such tools provide little assistance for the kind of meaningful evaluation traditionally performed by artists. 

Andy Warhol recognized very early that the mind of the artist would be outmatched by our new ability to gather information.  He abdicated the artist's editorial role in films such as Sleep which simply recorded a man sleeping for 40 minutes.  By turning the camera on and collecting information unfiltered by human taste, Warhol showed the muscularity of technology when it comes to capturing raw data.  But in the long term that revelation does not help us isolate the elements that are worth saving and thinking about.

Since Warhol's day, the ratio of information to idea has become increasingly anemic.  Live video captures and video installations drone on indiscriminately in the world of fine art.  Digital installations create immersive environments and even virtual realms but they are adrift.  In the words of Karrie Jacobs, "With information technology our reach is infinite but our grasp is weak."

Which brings me to ComicCon, the real subject of today's post.

Each year when I return to ComicCon, I am impressed with the progress that picture making and story telling have made in moving into the digital space.  I attend a dozen programs with titles such as "Reinventing the Graphic Novel for the Ipad" or "New Methods in Digital Painting" or "The Future of Graphic Novels." At these programs, talented and energetic entrepreneurs out to make a buck describe their latest innovations in curating the vast sea of information.  They talk about "the heritage of story telling colliding with the digital space," and look for solutions that "celebrate the valuable and the good in digital" while avoiding the vast quantities of "disposable junk" which has no human or commercial value.

Sometimes the images from these projects are weak, often photoshopped from photographs, but these creators have at least made a good start; they have learned to employ apps to make a monster in the background of one panel get up and crawl out of the panel and across the page of your e-book.  They have wrestled earnestly to find the best way to support a drawing with a historical film clip, and unlike Andy Warhol, they fight to remain in artistic control of the technology: "Even though it would be easy to incorporate a whole Wikipedia article at this point, we want just the right amount of content, and in the right form, to make the reader curious" and enhance the story.

Good ol' commercial art.

When "gallery" art becomes overwhelmed and superfluous and decadent, art in the service of robust commerce retains its center of gravity.  It has an economic incentive (which "art for art's sake" lacks) to put up a good fight to keep information relevant and comprehensible.

For me, art has greater value when it is integrated into life, in the service of the story or the hunt or the sacred, or even just decorating our environment with folk art the same way the bower bird decorates its nest.  Commercial art tortures artists with the need for prioritization,  but there seems to be no better antidote to the self-indulgence and pretentiousness that have robbed gallery art of the critical faculties necessary to make important judgments about digital information.

Obligatory Picture

Since this blog is all about pictures, any of you who have plowed through all this verbage deserve at least one picture.  Here is what appears to be an insightful bit of social commentary from your old friends at Playboy Magazine:  as I left my hotel one morning, I discovered  that Playboy had sent "bunny Avengers" to ComicCon. They were assembling in the hotel lobby; if you look closely, you'll see "bunny Hulk," "bunny Thor," "bunny Captain America," etc.

 What could possibly be cooler than that?


MORAN said...

"the strategic places where art pauses as it lifts its petticoats."

That's why I read this blog.



I think you are painting gallery art with a too narrow description. While I agree there is enough vapid expression to go around in both camps; there is plenty of art being made outside of the New York mindset for galleries that is thoughtful, honest and contemporary. The problems with digital illustration are many One the people making the decisions have less respect for the art than the creators do, this is reflected in the current prices paid for illustrations in the market. Two, there is no physical original which creates a mindset of disposable art for the creator. How can you care about what you do when your work has no real finished piece and no chance for permanence? Unlike traditional work the current digital illustrations is married to the technology depending on it to be seen properly. This has been true for video game art and is now moving into digital reading devices. Obviously a print of an animation is a poor substitute for the animation itself.

kev ferrara said...

Yeah, I'm in agreement with Armand, as usual.

I would add that the adaptations you are describing, David, are indistinguishable in essence from what used to be called "bottom feeding." A kind of scavenging for scraps that is genuflection in disguise..

The opposite of an eulogy: Oil paint on canvas is one of the greatest technologies ever invented. It is no more outdated than a faucet.

David Apatoff said...

Armand, you raise a good point about gallery art that I think is worth further exploration. I do not deny that there is excellent, honorable work to be done in traditional media (and in fact that you are among those who do it). But my sense is that an artist today who paints a landscape is looking at the same sun on the same hills and capturing it with the same tools (human mind/eye/hand/brush/oil paint/ canvas) that Monet and countless others used.

My concern in this post is that in recent decades, modern technologies seem to pervade the work of the "headliners" who dominate the cultural dialogue. Traditional "painters" such as Richard Estes or Chuck Close or David Hockney employ digital cameras and projectors and polaroid cameras at the heart of what they do. Artists such as Christo, earth works artists such as Smithson, performance artists are all dependent on digital technology to create and record works that could not have existed in previous centuries. Hirst, Holzer, Emin-- they all use modern technologies in their art, and often not for the better. When you refer to gallery artists outside of the NY (or LA?) mindset that qualify as "contemporary," do you have anyone in mind with the same cultural significance as the above artists?

But my main point had to do with video "fine" art or computer "fine" art or algorithm "fine" art-- art which seems to have climbed aboard a powerful, transformative medium without the power or taste to control it and shape it into something of meaningful artistic value. Warhol just flipped the "on" switch and let the camera run unguided-- not just for "Sleep" but for his many other movies such as "Eat" and "Kiss" and "Blow job." I am unimpressed with those who abdicate the responsibility for editorial coherence.

You know the gallery world better than I-- do you think I am missing something?

David Apatoff said...

Kev, I am a big fan of oil paint, and I'll raise the ante with vine charcoal (against which your oil paint is a johnny come lately). I can still be dazzled with what those media can accomplish. But would you say that Damien Hirst qualifies as a "bottom feeder" if he uses a computer to design crappy patterns with hearts and flowers, which then get tons of adulation and sell for huge sums?

Laurence John said...

"but these creators have at least made a good start; they have learned to employ apps to make a monster in the background of one panel get up and crawl out of the panel and across the page of your e-book"

put a graphic novel on a screen and throw in a few moving parts and all it looks like is an animatic for an unmade animated film. do people really need to see a hand taking a gun out of a holster (stiffly done) to enhance their experience ? the whole beauty of comics is that the reader imagines the 'movement' (and sound, and dialogue).

if you start moving little bits and pieces of a comic on a screen all you've done is made a very shoddy animated film.

अर्जुन said...

David, David, David, Katy Perry is far more popular than the above mentioned crud, which only makes the work of oil painter Will Cotton of greater "cultural significance".

Estes, Close & Hockney …what year is it …1972?

kev ferrara said...

Koons, let's face it, is an industry. And a little bird told me the paintings other people make for him on a weekly basis go for a million or more dollars per (once his name is affixed).

Is that scavenging? Seems the opposite as I see it.

Is Koons compromising his art in some way in order to just make rent? (Ha. And ha.)

Laurence John's point is a good one.



I completely agree with you when creators relinquish all control over a chosen medium. For art to exist it must contain a point of view in my opinion and that point of view can only be expressed successfully when the artist is in complete control of his medium. Gaining that control is preliminary to creating art and does not assure art will be made. The idea must exist first and then the creator must use their abilities to successfully communicate it to the viewer. They can’t renounce any part of the development which is what I think you are talking about with your examples. By excessively relying on technology for skills artists give away their singular expression and lessen any impact they could have had if they had the skills to complete their ideas with skill and creativity alone.

I don’t know what you mean when you say “someone who has the cultural significance” Andrew Wyeth is the only one who has the same status that I think you are talking about. I know this goes against the grain but I’ve never bought the idea that art had to be to be contemporary in a stylistic sense as long as it wasn’t affecting the expression of another’s work. I use contemporary in the true meaning of the word- ‘of our time’.
An artist and their belief about what they are making is part of their expression. Pretty hard to paint a landscape now with the same belief system as Monet. To me that is the significant difference between all artists; time and experience not broad style. Style can be two things, it can be contrived manifesto or the honest expression of ones experiences captured creatively in than artists chosen medium. I prefer the latter and think that it rises to the level of what art is for me more often than manifesto. Manifesto eschews facility or control or even communication. Everything is subjugated to its agenda. So much so in some cases that you need to read an explanation of the piece to understand it.

Bolivia - juegos de chicas said...

really beautiful girl, all nice

Anonymous said...

Too many Christina Hendricks quotes in the Bunny Picture. I'm not complaining though.

Re: technology. Yes, commercial art will sort it out. If we're lucky, what results will allow new horizons of creativity to dawn and maybe even "fine" art will be able to remove itself from it's own excretory orifice.

अर्जुन said...

For anyone that said, "What, no music‽" ~ Will Cotton magic. (Gil Elvgren lives!)

Li-An said...

Better than articial ugly ladies dressed in superheroes clothes ? Easy: a Gruger drawing :-)

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- What you describe is a real danger if this kind of work is not done well (and there are far more ways to do it poorly than to do it well). There will be many wrong paths and detours ahead as the aesthetics for this kind of experience are worked out. The projects that impressed me are more than crudely animating a hand removing a gun from a holster. For example, in a panel illustrating an event from the 1950s involving Richard Nixon, elements of the drawing were multi-layered for edification (including film clips of Nixon from that era, interactive material, etc.) Some of the content is just data or instructional material but some of it is additional layers of art. The reader can stick to the surface story and imagine the movement (your "comic book" scenario) or the reader can delve into other layers, some of which can be filtered for the experience you want so you aren't inundated with random, inert clutter. It is still early in the life cycle for this stuff but one can envision an art experience something akin to 3 dimensional chess.

अर्जुन-- I'm a person who loves comic books but even I recognize that Will Cotton's concept of "desire" was frozen at an infantile stage and never matured. He is a perfect artist for a generation of simpletons. As for "Estes, Close and Hockney" I think they are among the most prominent painters who first used traditional media to implement content dictated by a machine (or in the case of Hockney, to incorporate a whole bunch of polaroids to make pictures). The situation seems only to have worsened with the later artists on my list, such as Holzer and Emin.

Kev Ferrara-- I am with you on Koons, but as is often the case, I fault his audience more than I fault the artist. The gullible collectors who pay millions of dollars for his trash, the gallery owners and auctioneers who whip up a froth over his work to get a percentage of the spoils, the pedants and reviewers who write far fetched analyses of his work in an effort to make themselves culturally important-- to me, their sins are worse than the sins of some huckster who abandons high artistic standards for millions of dollars.

David Apatoff said...

Armand Cabrera wrote, "An artist and their belief about what they are making is part of their expression. Pretty hard to paint a landscape now with the same belief system as Monet. To me that is the significant difference between all artists...."

I think you make important points, and I would go one step further to say that the belief system of the viewer plays a role as well. But ultimately doesn't the work have to stand alone? If I put three landscapes on a wall, and I am ignorant of the time periods and the belief systems of the artists-- say, Bruegel, Carracci and Monet-- can't I legitimately appreciate their expressions without any regard for the "artist and their belief"? In fact, don't most people view most art that way?

I suspect that an artist who is convinced that a benevolent deity resides in the sky overhead will paint a landscape differently than a post modern cynic. But in the end, aren't we mostly relating to the colors and shapes?

As for Andrew Wyeth, I agree he has the cultural importance of a Koons or Hirst (even if his work sells for less). I would say that his themes are timeless but still very relevant and "contemporary" as you use that term. I put most of his work on a higher plane than the work of Koons or Hirst, but I think Wyeth requires a more intelligent audience to see past the old barns and recognize the mysticism, the ruthlessness, the intelligence and the weirdness in his pictures.

Finally, when you say "the artist is in complete control of his medium," I assume you are not an enemy of happy accidents? Even Wyeth summoned the courage to take a jar of paint, throw the contents at a nearly completed painting, and then come back the next day to see how it dried.

Bolivia - juegos de chicas-- I'm glad there's something here for everyone.

Anonymous-- Yes, Christina Hendricks does seem to be the look du jour. I find these bunnies more comical than alluring (with their little Captain America shield or Thor hammer) but there's no doubt the original Hendricks is dazzling.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- OK, I watched your video and I'm STILL asking, "What, no music?"

Li-An-- So I take it you're not an Avengers fan. Perhaps you prefer the Justice League?

xenides said...

Funny how a bunch of actual Playboy bunnies look so hefty against the drawn ones.

अर्जुन said...

"He is a perfect artist for a generation of simpletons." ~ I read that and nearly choked on my Bubble Yum.

Jerry Boucher said...

The idea that digital work has no permanence is somewhat inaccurate, and I think that saying in instills a disposable mindset in the digital artist is also not true. Canvas, paper, etc are just as prone to destruction as a digital file. One could, if so inclined, take the information in a digital file and boil it down to zeros and ones. A computer of some form or another in the future could then turn that back into a tangible object (i.e. an image file). One can still care about one's work even if it is digital and outwardly less 'solid' than a painted canvas. As to whether digital art is prone to the mores of the 'people making the decisions', that's no different from trad' fine done for patrons nor trad' illustration done for clients.

It seems to me that digital art is too easily written off for somewhat odd reasons (as outlined above). All methods of creating art are as disposable (or can be potentially destroyed) as another.

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Laurence John said...

i can tell that the boys from marketing have been scratching their heads about how to make a bit of extra money from these new fangled mobile devices. "Reinventing the Graphic Novel for the Ipad" translates as "Repackaging comics for a different medium". sorry David, but it's got marketing spin written all over it.

Alex said...

Wow,I never realized that Thor had such a great rack.

kev ferrara said...

I am with you on Koons, but as is often the case, I fault his audience more than I fault the artist. The gullible collectors who pay millions of dollars for his trash, the gallery owners and auctioneers who whip up a froth over his work to get a percentage of the spoils, the pedants and reviewers who write far fetched analyses of his work in an effort to make themselves culturally important-- to me, their sins are worse than the sins of some huckster who abandons high artistic standards for millions of dollars.

Seems like quibbling to ethically differentiate anybody in that milieu. The lot of them exist in necessary symbiosis.

But in the end, aren't we mostly relating to the colors and shapes?

No. We relate to the implications. "It is the invisible something in a picture that makes it a good one." ~ Harvey Dunn

David Apatoff said...

Jerry Boucher-- I think you are right; in many ways, digital art is more permanent than traditional media which fades and yellows with time (until the electrical power goes out, and all digital art disappears). It seems to me that we haven't quite made up our minds what to think about digital art yet. It may seem more "disposable" to us because Photoshop makes us treat digital art more irreverently. Art directors and clients now take liberties with digital illustrations, cropping and editing and altering colors to suit their needs, in ways that they would never have attempted when such modifications required skill and artwork was treated with more dignity.

Danielle-- Thanks, you have a lovely blog and I enjoyed reading it.

Laurence John wrote, "i can tell that the boys from marketing have been scratching their heads about how to make a bit of extra money from these new fangled mobile devices."

I agree, but I think that's OK. For all of the horrifying things that come from marketing-- the pressure to compromise, the censorship of bad taste-- it also serves an important social function. It scrubs new technologies for ways to humanize them in order to please broad audiences. It prevents introspective and self-absorbed artists from becoming totally irrelevant. It helps to inoculate contemporary art against self-indulgence and decadence. Marketing does have an ugliness for sure, but so does art.

Kev Ferrara-- I think there is a valid distinction to be drawn in some circumstances. For example, I have been tough on Chris Ware on this blog because I don't think he draws well, but Ware himself seems to be a sincere, self-effacing, hard working person. I would never single him our for ridicule if it weren't for his gushing fans at the New Yorker or the Whitney who write things like, "I don't think anyone in any visual medium is making art that is more elevating." I suspect Ware is embarrassed by such extravagant nonsense. In the case of Koons, it seems like he is having a grand old time because tasteless bankers compete to pay huge sums of money to own his art (for all the wrong reasons). In such circumstances, I'd say there is a moral hierarchy that differentiates members of that milieu.

kev ferrara said...

But who made who, David? Who is making who? The question doesn't have an end.

Those Ware quotes are just sad. Those editors are 10 minutes away from the Sorolla murals at the Hispanic society in NYC... the most awesome display of fine art available in our hemisphere, I dare say. And they're sitting there in their stuffy offices looking at twerpy doodles and genuflecting.

Which brings up the subject of brainwashing...

We shouldn't forget to indict the mediocre minds that staff the collegiate humanities, who don't have the intellectual capabilities or philosophical fortitude to fend off the various fashionable-cum-stupefying isms that have brought the academic side of things to a paralytic state, where exchanges of jargon pass for useful thought, inviting ridicule (and hopefully ruin.)

If all five pillars that hold up our cultural house are rotten, I can't see singling out any one as the particular rot that toppled us.

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अर्जुन said...

"self-indulgence" "decadence" "having a grand old time" "moral hierarchy" "philosophical fortitude" "the particular rot that toppled us." ~ Billy and Jeffy laugh.

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