Art without the artist

He glowed. His jacket and trousers were luminous, extending a soft halo around his fey frame. The allusions were, of course, immediately apparent: Alec Guinness in the classic Ealing satire, The Man in the White Suit (1951); Duane Michals’ subway commuter metamorphosing into a spiral galaxy (The Human Condition 1969) and any number of sub-Spielberg sci-fi movies that use the suggestive aura of light rather than the gothic substance of make-up to conjure the other-worldly. The image was a carefully constructed complex of ironic reference and postmodern allusion.

Well, no. For this image was part of Other Pictures, an exhibition of anonymous found snapshots collected by Thomas Walther and shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.[1] The image dated back to the 1920s – some 30 years before Alec Guinness donned his indestructible attire and half a century before Michals, Spielberg and the reflexive irony of postmodernism. The white lounge suit was a coincidence of fashion and its glow a fault in exposure and processing – the print had been insufficiently fixed so that over time the paler tones had faded, creating a luminous aura around the figure. Indeed, this work, while it was showing in an art gallery, had never involved an artist. It was an old snapshot, long separated from any owner for whom it could have personal relevance, rediscovered and re-presented for cultural consumption.

That’s not to say that artists do not reclaim, collate and re-present found photographs. They do. Think of Lyndell Brown and Charles Green in Australia or Joachim Schmid in Germany. But here the act of retrieval was that of a collector, Thomas Walther. The creative impulse that made art of this image (and the exhibition of which it was a part) lay with the viewer not the initiator of the work. Like the summer-day sky gazer or the winter-night fire watcher, who imbue the clouds and flames with pictorial significance, we make the connections, constructing the pearl of imagination around the grit of chance.


The use of art

In considering the future role of the artist it is useful to consider the larger question of the use of art. What is it for?  Why does it exist? The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and eminent biologist Edward O Wilson has suggested that “the dominating influence that spawned the arts was the need to impose order on the confusion caused by intelligence”.[2] As our early ancestors began their accelerated intellectual evolution they left behind the simple existence of animal instinct and a life lived only in the moment. The oppressive burden of awareness that comes with the comprehension of past and future, cause and effect, me and the infinity of everything else sought refuge in the magic of representation. Later, art became the signifier of the deity or the visual metaphor for the collective values and aspirations of the community.

Back in the 1960s the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow identified a hierarchy of human needs. His hierarchy is usually expressed in the form of a pyramid with seven strata. Each stratum represents a generic requirement starting with the most fundamental at the base. His premise was that the individual would always seek to satisfy the lower needs before the higher. Thus the physiological requirements of food, drink and air constituted the most basic needs, after which the individual considered personal safety, then a sense of belonging, then self-esteem, then intellectual understanding, then aesthetic richness and finally what he termed ‘self-actualisation’. While this theory has obvious flaws when considering the individual – you just have to think of the artist starving in the garret – it works well when considering larger groups. And as a result Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is widely used today in management and social science circles. I would argue that it also makes a useful map on which to plot the development of Western art.

To take a few random milestones along the road… The early cave drawings of hunters and herds were an attempt, through the ‘magic’ of representation, to gain some knowledge of and influence over the food source, and perhaps also, if the animals were large and aggressive, the security of the tribe. The statues in the city-states of ancient Greece, while they are undoubtedly aesthetic in nature, were essentially the focus of civic pride, collective ideals and political propaganda.[3] The illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period not only illustrated biblical texts for an illiterate populace, but also permitted the insinuation of the individual within the process of copying and personal fantasy within the strictures of religious dogma. The Renaissance not only saw a burgeoning of interest in aesthetics and learning, but also private patronage built on personal wealth and power: art as a symbol of status, a propagator of self-esteem. Modernism attempted to set the aesthetic within the cognitive and to release art from the grip of baser values. Later conceptualism tried (and failed) to eschew the glorification of the object with all its attendant social and fiscal value. Meanwhile the avant-garde strove to cut free of (or at least take the lead in) the community’s visual tropes.

With the advent of the Digital Age we witness one of the most fundamental changes to overtake visual art – the liberation of the image from the object, from rarity value, from status symbol, from the control of the few. So where will the new, immaterial digital art take us?


Mutability and convergence

The convergence of domestic screen technologies has been long prophesied and becomes increasingly feasible. Indeed one suspects delaying tactics by those who profit from the sale of multiple single-use gadgets rather than a single multi-use system. But the amalgamation of the television, internet, telephone, hi-fi, personal computer and image viewing system (and no doubt the fridge and the aircon) is just around the corner. And at much less than it costs to acquire and run each separately, so we are not going to be slow to convert.

Corbis, Bill Gates’ electronic picture library, is currently promoting the idea of the virtual art collection displayed on flat screens rather than canvas.

Plasma screens, HDTV, and digital displays all serve as the perfect canvas for your favorite works by contemporary artists and old masters… Only Corbis offers … personal curators for creating a unique virtual art collection, hand-chosen from our vast archives. Our specialists create a customized package that suits your style and evolving needs. [4]

Already the desire to shuffle and sort – to emulate the collector and the curator – is evident, just as we compile tracks into new configurations and burn them to CD or record them onto cassette.

Perhaps it is useful here to look at what is happening in another medium that is also undergoing fundamental changes in the shift from analogue to digital – that of recorded music. The musician Moby, writing in The Economist, [5] spelt out some of the developments that are already overtaking his industry across the board from creation to consumption. Getting your music to a wide audience at a level of quality that audience would want was once a very costly business involving recording studios, and session musicians and technicians, as well as manufacture, distribution and promotion of the disks, and huge potential losses if the disks didn’t sell. Already, he argues, it is possible to compose and record a perfectly acceptable piece of popular music using an ordinary laptop and some inexpensive software, assuming you also have some talent. In digital form the new work can then be uploaded to the internet and accessed by anyone. Anywhere. The whole edifice of the recording industry is built on studio real estate, technological capital, and the manufacture and distribution of prerecorded disks. Do away with the studios and the disks and the industry becomes more or less redundant. And, as Moby points out, “there is, traditionally, a great deal of antipathy between artists and record companies”. So why would a musician stick with the costly, time-consuming and problematic record industry when s/he could create and distribute her or his own work in an afternoon? This way would certainly see more localised markets and fewer megastars. But then, as Charles Mann commented: “We might not see another Michael Jackson circa 1982, but we also wouldn’t see another Michael Jackson circa 2002. Not a bad trade off.” [6]

The recent demise of file-share websites such as Napster has done nothing to dampen this, currently illegal, free music download sector. 2001 saw an 11 per cent fall in the sale of music CDs while there was a 40 per cent increase in the sale of blank disks and a 300 per cent rise in the number of users of the largest surviving online file-sharing service Kazaa.[7] It is also worth noting that the top five major record labels are now all part of multinational conglomerates with considerably greater investment in the hardware technologies with a copying capability (such as MP3-compatible cell-phones) than in their recorded music companies.[8]

Moby points to a time near at hand when wide-band web access will mean that our computer/hi-fi hybrid will be able to download any piece of music we want. Instantly. Not only that, it will sift and order the tracks. “Just say ‘Play me Led Zepplin’s greatest hits but eliminate the slow songs from 1975 to 1977’,” he suggests, “and your music system will obey.” [9]

I would take this further. Since digitally encoded information is essentially protean – not fixed on the surface of a disk but suspended in a string of binary code – why leave it as it is? Why not make it your own – subtly or overtly. (The Apple slogan runs “Rip. Mix. Burn.” suggesting more than just copying – my emphasis.) The desire to emulate is an growing phenomenom in the pop music industry: karaoke, sampling, the shift of the role of DJ from someone who changes the disks to someone who changes the music… literally. So why not take out the repeats in Beethoven’s ninth symphony, add your own rhythm track to an Ella Fitzgerald number or sing a duet with Robbie Williams? These examples are my inventions, but last year the jazz record label Verve released a disk with DJs reworking classic songs including, among others, Ella Fitzgerald’s Wait ’Till You See Him remixed by De-Phazz. Meanwhile Robbie Williams is resisting the duet, with a new Copy Control technology making it impossible to digitally copy his latest album Escapology – at least for now.

If we apply these ideas in the realm of the digital image, harnessing the soon-to-converge domestic screen technologies (the Corbis notion of an electronic art collection displayed on flatscreen ‘canvases’), then why stop at collector/curator? Why not be a player – an artist? It is salient to remember that John Logie Baird intended his invention (television) as a two-way system.

“Why would you?” you may ask. Surely it is the unique quality of art, the creation of exceptional individuals, that gives it its value. Well, as the longer history I briefly sketched would suggest, it was less the exceptional nature of the artist than the function the artwork fulfilled that gave it use-value. We might do better to ease up on the moral outrage and look to the changing needs of the individual, to behavioural patterns and to evolving social values. In particular we might consider the increasing availability and popularity of virtual interaction.


Virtual life – real economics

Initially, notions of interactivity in video gaming were little more than an extension of multiple choice. An illusion of involvement and autonomy marshalled by some basic operating program. But back in 1979 Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at Essex University created the first multi-user game. Building on the then fashionable theatre of fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons, this game was dubbed a Multi-User Dungeon or MUD (later dignified to Multi-User Domain). It was a primitive text-based game in which players interacted directly with each other in a screen-based dialogue. Twenty years later Sony launched the now hugely popular Everquest. Set in the fictional world of Norrath, it is a series of vast virtual environments each of which boasts a subscriber population larger than many North American cities.

Players are represented in the game by avatars (digital action figures) that interact – violently, romantically, entrepreneurially as they see fit and as the game necessitates – with each avatar operated by a different player, not by the machine program. Thus, the game continuously evolves rather than being constrained within pre-programmed narratives. It takes time to establish the settler populations and basic infrastructures for such a virtual society, but when, a little over two years on, economist Edward Castronova reviewed the fiscal basis of Norrath, he made some surprising discoveries. The virtual world was becoming real – at least in economic terms. Players had begun to trade virtual artifacts, avatars and currency (the platinum piece) for hard dollars in real-world online auction houses. Castronova analysed the amounts involved and calculated that the gross national product per capita of Norrath made it the 77th richest economy in the real world, based on World Bank rankings. That is about equal with Russia and well above half of the world’s economies including China and India. And the platinum piece had rather greater unit worth than the yen, the lira or the Korean won.[10] As an indication of a behavioural shift, these hard economic facts make a persuasive case. Interactivity is powerfully engaging.

In Korea over two and half million people log on to play Lineage, a medieval fantasy game that has swept the country. And the recently launched Simsonline, which offers the first soap-opera neighbourhood environment, looks set to seduce the English-speaking world just as soon as the initial players have established the basic high street services and community hubs. The economic viability of virtual worlds is such that a Scandinavian company, MindArk, has spent the past seven years developing Project Entropia, a platform that they will make available for free online. The money will be made in selling avatars and artefacts for hard cash. They expect a turnover of more than 17 billion Australian dollars a year by 2006. Their innovation lies in a patented software program which links their own currency, the PED (or Project Entropia Dollar), to the real world exchange rate. While they are initially targeting virtual gamers, this is a self-stated strategy to establish the new platform with the most amenable user-group. Their long-term aim is no less than the “creation of a second universe” – a platform as ubiquitous as Windows or Netscape are today. [11]

Today’s screen-based art does not occupy the vanguard to which modernism aspired. Any technology available to an artist will already have been developed and exploited by the commercial interests that can afford such investment. The gaming, business and leisure applications will be familiar to a wide potential audience. What the artist does is to give richness to the form, using it to engage with more substantial meanings and experiences. The artist amplifies, just as a novelist writing in the vernacular brings depth to the language of the street. The patterns of use of screen-based art will in all likelihood follow the trends and methodologies of commercial application. Interactivity, in the real sense of all participants being creatively involved, will be the order of the day.

Perhaps, simply, the old industrial model of active producer and passive consumer will no longer hold good for art. And, like a game of tennis, art will involve both initiator and participants in a relationship that does not privilege the instigator over the other creative players but focuses on the nature and outcome of the process.


Simulation and self-actualisation

As Castronova observes, “economists believe that it is the practical actions of people and not abstract arguments that determine the social value of things.” [12] As the rapid growth in these virtual worlds would suggest, interactivity is demonstrably attractive. These games may be escapist, but their form of escapism is proving increasingly popular when compared with passively consumed, pre-packaged fantasy material. Castronova concludes that these virtual worlds constitute something “more than a mere entertainment … they offer an alternative reality”.[13]

Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what is the nature of an art that achieves self-actualisation? Maslow described self-actualisation in relation to cultural activity in terms of doing: the singer sings, the dance dances, the painter paints. But not: the art-lover consumes. It is a process of achieving full personal potential through the act of creation. Writing in the 1960s he considered self-actualisation to be within the grasp of a mere two per cent of the population – about the same number that went to university at that time. Though these two facts do not necessarily correlate there is no doubt that higher levels of education open up new horizons of possibility for the individual as new ways of thinking stimulate new forms of imagining.

The next decades will see an exponential growth in computer power, biotechnology and the yet-to-be-realised manufacturing potential of nanotechnology. Manufacture will be automated and cheap, undertaken by machines the size of molecules using commonly available materials. Work will become a luxury of the few and, if there is not to be significant social strife, some way in which the majority of non-workers can live comfortable, meaningful lives will be found. Virtual experience, as it comes to bypass the senses and play directly into the perceptions, will become as rich and stimulating as the real.[14] And education will be a function of personal growth and fulfilment rather than career options and earning capacity. But then the relationship between learning and participation has always been strong (if not always acted upon within educational institutions). There is an ancient Chinese proverb: Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.

My argument is, of course, not really about art without the artist, but rather about art that does not significantly privilege the initiator. An art in which many are actively involved in the process of creation. I don’t believe this will be a bloody revolution but, as with so many cultural changes, a process of broadening definitions.


Plus ça change…

I began my career in the film industry at a time when cinemas were closing at an astronomical rate in the face of video and satellite television. Few people wanted to traipse into town to view a no-choice movie, however palatial the building in which it was showing. But cinema did not die. We soon got bored with staying at home – choice or no choice. Filmmakers got canny and harnessed new technologies to create high-definition effects that could only be fully appreciated on the big screen. The picture palaces did not, however, reopen. Instead we visit multiplex cinemas stuck on the side of the local shopping mall, with free parking, choice and just enough comfort to make the trip worthwhile. Not only that. Just as recorded music released the concert hall from compositions that could be wholly grasped in one or two hearings, so we are now likely to view a film several times in different situations and formats. And, as a result, the language of the cinema has become more complex, less linear and substantially enriched. Things change. They do not stay the same, but neither do they become wholly different. Rather they evolve in unexpected ways that, being an adaptable species, we quickly normalise and exploit.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once [s/]he grows up.” Perhaps tomorrow’s generation of virtual gamers growing up into a world where work is a minority activity, where reality and imagining form an experiential continuum and mutability is a given, will find it easier to overcome that problem…

Meanwhile the man in the white suit glows on. Every year his aura growing larger as his imperfectly fixed image fades from the paper substrate. Until, at last, the very process which helped to make him art will ensure his eventual disappearance…


[1] Other Pictures, an exhibition of photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 28 November–3 March 2002
[2] Edward O Wilson Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge Abacus, London 1999 p250
[3] see Robert Graves The Greek Myths Pelican, London 1955 revised edition 1960
[5] Moby ‘Sounds Different’ in The World in 2002 The Economist (special edition), London p63
[6] Charles C. Mann ‘The Year the Music Dies’ Wired November 2002
[7] ibid
[8] ibid
[9] Moby op cit
[10] Edward Castronova ‘Virtual Worlds: a First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier’ The Gruter Institute Working Papers on Law, Economics, and Evolutionary Biology vol 2, 2001
[11] MindArk press release dated 6 September 2000 at
[12] Edward Castronova op cit
[13] ibid p9
[14] For a fascinating exploration of these ideas see Damien Broderick The Spike Forge Books, New York 2001
This essay was first published in Photofile magazine in April 2003.
Image: anonymous photograph © Thomas Walther Collection
One Response to “Art without the artist”
  1. yourmung says:

    Wow, really interesting.

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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