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May 03, 2011
Can High-Tech still be Art?

Super Kamiokande in Japan

There is an underlying feeling in art that it should be made of simple materials and composed from ancient tradition.  That somehow old is superior to new, and that advances in technology cannot be art, until they are old as well.  For example, I often hear the judgment that oil on canvas is superior to acrylic on polymer; or that a pencil drawing is more important than a photograph.   It takes a long time for certain media to be accepted as fine art, if ever.
Why?  Technology and experimentation are woven into art.  It is in the very nature of art to be new, different, to reveal the trends surrounding society, to show us what we wouldn’t see otherwise.   The artist wants to push out to sea, while the viewer wants to stay on land, safe and dry.  But everything old, has to have been new once.

Old is new

Oil paint is not that old in the history of art.  It was new in Leonardo da Vinci’s time.  And he used this new medium with good result.  As with many of his contemporaries, he mixed oil and egg tempera to achieve the great subtlety he is known for.  Traditional egg tempera was a difficult and limited medium that required the artist to mix raw egg yokes with ground pigments while the egg was still wet.  Oil paint offered many advantages that da Vinci and many others have embraced.

Picture This

Photography until the mid-20th Century, was not considered fine art.  It took the experimental work of Man Ray and others to break this barrier that opened the door to modern photography.  Works that could never surpass the multi-hundred dollar price, now sell for hundreds of thousands.   But it took this new technology more than 100 years to break the perception that it could only be used for documentation or journalistic purposes.

Not just Static

Nam June Paik

Today in museums we can see the video art of Nam June Paik.  It is clear that he has taken this technology to an art form.  But it is the rare art collector that has such work in his home.  It is still too “technological” to be accepted by most viewers.

Computers are not just a Fad

What is the resistance that keeps technology from being accepted sooner? As long as the medium is appropriate for the work, it should not matter. I think much of the resistance to art involving computers, for example, is the heavy abuse of reproductions that pervaded the 1990’s. The so-called “giclee” or Iris print is rarely more than a digital print on good quality paper or canvas. But it is not original art, nor does it use the medium appropriately. The exception to this is when it is used for photography, and then it can be considered more than appropriate, but a monumental breakthrough in material, often far superior to photographic papers of the 20th Century.

Learning to See

The lesson is to look beyond our preconceived ideas of how art should be made and to the message the artist is conveying. If the art requires video, light, computers, or ringing cell phones, it is fine, just as long as the message could not have been done in a simpler medium. On the other hand, a painting displayed on a computer screen is not equal to the original painting. It is a facsimile, an approximation, no better than a reproduction in a book.
Perhaps distilled to its elemental, one might say: embrace technology in art when it opens our ideas to the unseen, and reject it when it cheapens the original with plagiarism or cynicism.
– Jay Magidson, Basalt, May 2011
Ps. A lot of technology was used to write this essay, which could have easily been done with pencil and paper.

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  • giclee
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  • technology in art