Artists View Cyberspace as Their Newest Canvas

By Maksymowicz, Virginia | National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 1996 | Go to article overview

Artists View Cyberspace as Their Newest Canvas

Maksymowicz, Virginia, National Catholic Reporter

Most of us who took an art history course in high school or college were probably taught the subject in a linear fashion. Art began with cave paintings and traveled in a narrow line through Egyptian, Greek, Roman, medieval and Renaissance European cultures, to French Romanticism and Impressionism. It ended somewhere in 1945 after cubism or maybe with American abstract expressionism in the 1950s. "Modern" art moved relentlessly toward abstraction, our textbooks implied, leaving many people with a kind of nostalgia for the "good old days" when paintings and sculptures looked "realistic."

I heard this common sentiment firsthand during a conference at Villanova University on religion, art and politics, when the invited speakers -- theologians, philosophers and political theorists but not a single artist -- bemoaned the unrecognizable nature of contemporary art.

This picture can at best be called misleading (some have even called it a conspiracy).

First of all, what most of us were taught was the history of European image-making. Left out was the art of Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands and the Americas.

Second, even within our own tradition, as new styles gain favor they never really displace the older ones. so while there are artists today carrying out a new kind of landscape art -- directly manipulating the land under the label of "earthworks" -- there are probably more traditional landscape painters now than there were in the 19th century. And while there are artists transforming their own bodies and calling the process "performance art," there are still plenty painting old-fashioned portraits using oils on canvas.

In fact, if recognizability, that is, realness" of representation, is the only measure, then contemporary artists come out on top: Duane Hanson's sculptures are so lifelike that museumgoers regularly make the mistake of talking to them.


So if precise representation isn't the true measure of art, then what is? The auction houses, the trendy galleries and the IRS say it's salability.

It should be no surprise, then, that an artist like Jeff Koons has perfected commercialism by creating larger-than-life, bad-taste chachkas and selling them to a wealthy clientele. Painter Mark Kostabi has set up his own "factory" and calls it "Kostabi World." He hires young artists, not merely to help execute his own ideas, but actually to "think" for him. As long as his signature appears on the canvas, Kostabi knows the work will sell.

But then what are we to make of Tehching Hsieh who often makes no salable artistic objects at all? He instead has made the boundaries between art and life disappear by undertaking year-long symbolic actions that bring attention to uncomfortable aspects of modern life. He once punched a time clock, every hour on the hour, for 365 days. He spent one year living on the street, documenting it all, and another year of forced interdependence, tied by a rope to another artist named Linda Montano (NCR, Sept. 26, 1986).

What about artists like John Malpede, who lives among the homeless and creates theater with them? What is there for the collectors to collect?

It is all art. It all coexists and to a certain extent it has always all coexisted. The reality is that there has always been a commercial, self-promoting side to artmaking (read Vasari's biography of Michelangelo; it gives an early example of art world "hype").

It would be naive to believe that the medieval and Renaissance artists who made all those religious images worked solely out of spiritual motives. Some weren't even Christians; the famous mosaics at the Cathedral of Monreale were created by Muslim artisans who needed jobs, hired by the Normans after their conquest of Sicily. Today, without the traditional patrons of church, government or local community, the only recourse to making a living from one's art is the marketplace.

Given this stew of the traditional and the avant-garde, the representational and the abstract, the commercial and the conceptual, perhaps the only universal measure of art is whether or not it conveys something to somebody.

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