Two gifts coincide in a way that makes me start asking questions: a pile of magazines, and a graphics tablet.
My uncle, a retired graphic designer, sent me some old issues of Communication Arts from 1998, 2000, 2003. They’re beautiful publications, and definitely encouraging to see so many beautiful pieces of art coming from so many professional fields. But my heart ached when I read some of the captions: “commissioned to combine twentieth-century art references with [Software Company X] tradeshow elements that would result in attracting attention while communicating [Software Company X’s] message.”
Artistic Tension #1
From the artist’s point of view, it’s an intellectual and aesthetic challenge. Why not take Rene Magritte’s Son of Man and cleverly replace the apple with a speakerphone/dustcap, and then have speakers falling from the sky… and yes, I do believe artists deserve a professional challenge, and this one was successful, and yes I believe that artists should be able to make a living. But from Software Company X’s perspective, they’re not trying to make an artistic statement. They’re not even trying to make art– they’re creating pure corporate self-promotion. And in this case, it’s not just a matter of different perspectives– because the software company is the one who serves this piece to the public, repackaged as a piece of advertising. The meaning of the painting is altered: it is not artistic or intellectual, but monetary and self-serving (to the company, not the artist). As Lewis Hyde would say, it exists as a good, not a gift.
But not all the captions are like that. My favorites are from book illustrations, or posters for plays. Even if the theater poster is self-promoting just like the software company’s advertisement, the difference is that its promotion is meaningful beyond the immediate stage production. It supports and sustains the arts, and helps preserve public awareness and support for the arts– which, by nature, require public support in order to survive. Whereas software technology becomes a matter of “necessity” –people will buy it because it’s necessary to exist in the modern world. Art is not “necessary” in that same way, and that’s what makes it both fragile and of utmost importance.
Artistic Tension #2
These were published only eight or ten years ago, and almost every single piece is created with traditional media. Ahhhhhh!
This is where the stack of magazines makes me stare at my new Wacom bamboo tablet in a fit of artistic angst. It’s mindblowing that traditional media was so recently the absolute norm for artists and graphic designers. Caption after caption, works that I could swear were digital were actually created by hand: ink and watercolor. acrylic on canvas. pastel on paper. acrylic on cardboard. oil on gesso. These artists must have had such an emotional connection to the thousands of years of artists before them. They were completing the same essential act as Michelangelo, for pete’s sake: using their hands and tools to lay line and color down on a blank canvas.
I think my Bamboo tablet is pretty damn cool. I’m primarily using it to illustrate a graphic novella that I’m collaborating with a friend on. But even after just a week of playing with it, it’s so easy to get sucked in. There are a thousand graphics applications to buy or download, and it’s always becoming simpler to re-create a piece that looks hand-made. It’s scary. And I refuse to lose perspective– or to stop having ink- and charcoal-stained hands.