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.
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.
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.
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.