Friday, August 21, 2015

Trained Monkeys

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Wow! That looks just like a photograph!”

The official opening of ArtPrize is still weeks away, but that exclamation and others just like it are bearing down on us by the boatload. The compliment is coming as sure as shootin’ and, to be honest, it bugs the crap out of me.

On the one hand, I hate to chastise well-meaning folks who are kind enough to pay a compliment, and I know those compliments come as high praise – even if they aren't intended for me. I also know that compliments and encouragement are wonderful gifts, even if they are of the equine kind, and it’s not prudent to look that gift horse in the mouth. But let’s lay those gracious gestures aside for the moment and look at what’s in the other hand.

I have a huge beef with artists who take a photograph and, with very little brain at all, turn it into a carbon copy using a pencil, brush or 900 pounds of macaroni. The exercise of copying photographs and passing it off as high art is increasing, with pieces popping up like mushrooms. Most folks seem to be immune to the fungus and are simultaneously taken by its supposed skill.  But copying photographs is wrong on so many artistic levels.

Let’s address the first and most obvious problem with it – plagiarism. That ugly, little word that dogs writers is just as ugly when thrown on a barn-sized canvas or a nine foot-long sheet of paper. Unless the artist shot the photograph in the first place, it is NOT fair game. And please don’t think that because you used dots or squiggles or packing peanuts to reproduce it, you’re off the legal hook. You’re not.
Patron admiring “Frank,” by Chuck Close.
1969. (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)
Photo courtesy of Tim Wilson

If an artist uses his own photos to copy as fine art, it raises some issues, too. Super-realists – most notably Chuck Close – did that very thing, but it’s been decades since the super-realists first got in our faces and there’s nothing new to it anymore.

Tons of artists also use photographs as reference, but they understand a photo’s limitations and proper use. A bottom line for an artist  who uses his own photos can be put in this question: If the original photo is so great, then why mess with it? A second question is like the first: If the original photo is not so great, then why mess with it?

Another problem is that very little skill is necessary in translating a photo into another medium – heck, even grade schoolers do it. One only need a grid to keep proportions under control before putting the brain on “Monkey see, monkey do” mode. Being faithful to a grid square, no matter what size, is child’s play. Further than that, it is mindless work. Cadavers could do it. For the life of me, I don’t understand why artists zombify themselves and lean on such a huge crutch.

The alternative, obviously, is to use the eyes and noodles the Good Lord gave artists. It takes so much more discipline and understanding to look at a free object in space and, without photo-mechanical aid, allow our faculties to interpret mountains of nerve impulses moving at light speed and translate the information into a reasonable facsimile via our hands. I use the word “understanding,” because the notion moves my argument into a different area.

Artists who progress through academia are educated in disciplines other than art. They are taught rudimentary physics through properties of light and how it governs our perception of the world. They are taught the delicate workings of the human body with its sophisticated mechanics covered by living tissue, and how gravitational pull affects its form. They learn  a bit about psychology and how artwork can evoke emotions and change attitudes.

Cameras – even smart ones – do not have any understanding of the world. They don’t give a rip. That is their beauty, that is what sets them apart from the artist’s eye and that is why they are no substitute for an artist’s mind.

A dear pastor once commented to a group of graduates that we are “educated” – not “trained.” “Training,” he said, “Is for monkeys.” Oddly, some art schools have trained budding artists through use of the copy-the-photograph method. At best, it is an exercise for the brain-dead. Unfortunately, the same exercise is dragged along, post-mortarboard, into the real art world, and we are the worse for it.

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