Feature Articles

December Issue 2002

A View from Down Under
Visual Art is Changing its Vision

by Judith McGrath

A new artform has been evolving over the past few years; one I believe will erupt as an Over Night Sensation any day now. We've all been aware of it but no one equated it with Fine Art. However, some have grasped its potential to solve the biggest problem in the mainstream visual arts world today.

The Problem: Loss of basic skills needed to produce visual art that can relate/communicate to the wider community.

The Solution: Embrace computer technology and declare a new interactive art movement.

The New Art Movement: Relational Art also known as Relational Technique (or R-Tech) and its validating rhetoric Relational Aesthetics.

Relational Art is inspired by artists quitting the vacuous contemporary art scene for the potential of computer technology. As an art movement, R-Tech provides visual artists who no longer make images with a means of confirming their status as celebrities by connecting (relating) with others in cyber (metaphysical) space. To isolate the movement from the masses and maintain its control by the art world, it is given theoretical constructs that bestow aesthetic value on the resulting artwork. Relational Aesthetics references "mutual contextual factors" and "networking within the system" and "going beyond conceptual and participatory" as mainstream artists collaborate on-line.

I'm not surprised today's art authority wants to usurp computers and form a new art movement. It's just another step in a long progression of attempting to retain control of the visual arts in an increasingly technological world. Art originated in secluded caves where individuals replicated what they saw in the physical world in an effort to communicate with metaphysical environs. When art emerged from underground and entered the public arena, church and state authorities took control of its communication. For millennia skilled artists and artisans collaborated with each other and shared scientific knowledge that enabled them to draw and paint from nature and relate to the wider community. Then Nadar's camera captured what the eye could see and it marked the beginning of the end for drawing, painting and art's relevance to the community. It also marked the beginning of the art world establishing its own authority.

When the first Modernists (the Impressionists) were in danger of being made redundant by the camera, they effectively sold the buying public on the idea that image replication was not as important as an artist's interpretation of Modern Life. Modernism decreed the painted image was more important then the subject it referenced. This was verified in Matisse's comment to a man who remarked how the artist's painting didn't look like any woman he'd ever seen. Henri's response was to say "it's not a woman, it's a painting".

Within fifty years, two more technological image-makers, film then television, made inroads on the artist's realm of depicting contemporary life. Another shift in philosophy was needed. Enter post war Post Modernism's mantra about art being about the idea and the act of painting not the image. Without the need for a picture, drawing became superfluous but painting remained. Then Kant's philosophy of how beauty rests in the eye of the beholder not the object was resurrected to validate non-figurative abstraction.

The art world realized fighting new image making inventions was a lost cause so film, like science, was appropriated. Artists began to document the construction of ephemeral works and presentation of time-based or performance art, first with a camera then with the newest form of technology, video. Artistic authority now declared art rested in the artist's concept, statement, performance and documentation, not the object. Artists became celebrities (like film stars) and there were theoretical explanations for, and validations of, a number of ridiculous art practices, including self-mutilation.

With little importance attributed to the object, painting skills were lost and visual art became verbal. Out of touch with the wider community and no longer able to communicate beyond the art world, the artist/celebrity needed support so Art Industry was born. It included Art Theorists, Art Academics, Art Journalists, Art Institutions, Art Organizations, and Art Administrators all answerable to the Art Authority. Who you know becomes the currency.

As a result many independent artists abandoned the local contemporary art world to collaborate with other like-minded practitioners in the wider world via the web. The computer provides a venue for sharing ideas about making art and learning new skills. Here artists can display their work, access a variety of art journals, share opinions, and form networks that override parochial dictates. The Internet encourages the development of new digital imagery, the resurrection of traditional methods of making art, and a cultural/artistic interface that is truly egalitarian.

Today the visual art world and its attending industry are in danger of imploding. When those with authority saw they couldn't go back, because the skills to draw or paint in pre Post-Modern techniques were lost, all that was left was to embrace technology and commandeer the computer. The way I see it, Relational Art is the art world's response to the on-line computer game but it's gathering momentum. There are web sites offering validating documentation of art "activity", and discussions and commentaries on this new art movement. At this point it's all still just verbal, I've yet to find a site that exhibits any Relational artwork. When that happens it will provide the above mentioned Over Night Sensation.

I find it ironic that the computer should offer visual art a path back to its origins, as a means of communicating with others in the known world. The only difference between ancient and modern times is the definition of "the known world". Then it included physical and metaphysical realms, now it's just the global community. I can't help wondering if the lone artist drawing with a computer in a darkened room is the modern equivalent of a lone Neolithic hunter drawing with ochre in an ill-lit cave. Aren't they both trying to relate with those who exist in the ethers?

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).

A collection of her articles which have appeared in Carolina Arts can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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