On the Marketing of Electronic Art

Essay by Randy Morris

A Response to JD Jarvis's essay Art in Potentia

JD Jarvis in his recent editorial, "Art In Potentia" covered a broad range of issues as he discussed the immateriality of electronic media. In this article I address some of those issues in more detail, and refer repeatedly to Mr. Jarvis' editorial.

To summarize points about immateriality, our perception of art resides in the neural firing patterns of our brains, short and long term memories, the cascade of emotional associations stored within them. Perception of art is triggered by light stimulating our retinas. Though this has not changed over human history, it could within the next fifty years given the current pace of technological development. But speculation of the forms of such evolution must wait for a future article. This article addresses our current transitional state, in which we are not ready for the Vulcan mind meld.

For most of our history, the roughly flat images of visual art have been durably recorded by paint or stains on rock, wood, bone, clay, stucco, animal hides, cloth, paper, metal, plastic etc. The full range of meanings associated with the images are highly dependent on culture, though underlying aesthetic elements are remarkably universal. We still take pleasure in the artistry of cave paintings for instance. (For a thorough discussion of the universality of aesthetic elements I recommend Philip S. Rawson's book "Drawing".)

What is new within the last hundred years or so, is the ability to project high quality images onto screens, first with film onto movie screens, then through analog electronics onto television screens, and now digitally onto plasma and semiconductor screens. With the computer and digital storage, the physical (analog) film has been replaced with digital records and machine instructions. Screen images are not durable, and the digital recordings (the durable part) are not comprehensible as images without decoding and reproduction mechanisms. Traditional prints of high quality can be made from electronic storage, even though the ink jet printer with machine instruction lacks the material image of a woodblock or etching plate.

Electronic production of art presents some technical challenges to artists. Ink jet prints give no imprint texture. Technical means can be found to provide such texture or the illusion of it, as artists find it necessary. Moreover much art may never see print or film, but remain in digital form for screen projection. (The best preservation method for old movie film is now digitalization, and modern projectors do not require film.) Also with the advent of readily accessible 3D, true 3D art ("Avatar" for example) does not reside even on the screen as a fully visualizable object. The 3D effect from the displacement of the images between our right and left eyes, occurs only in our neural firing patterns. This is as close as it gets to Mr. Jarvis' "dematerialization".

The technical challenges and opportunities to the artist from advancing technology are not new, and not in themselves the main difficulty to marketing art. The primary difficulty for marketing electronically produced (and viewed) art is reproducibility, an old issue over the history of print making. Demand and production cost set price. When demand exceeds supply, the price goes up. However, the production of relatively inexpensive prints or screen images from electronic media can fairly quickly satisfy any level of demand. Demand for unique, or one of a kind, art objects is greater, since almost any demand will exceed supply. Collectors of cubism, abstract expressionism, and minimalism bank on this.

The "massive promotional effort" of the "art-marketing world" described by Mr. Jarvis for the acceptance of these artistic movements, was more the reassurance from prominent critics that the revolutionary style would become unique and sought after. This is not "conveyance of thought over materiality", but the conveyance of thought to support materiality. Appreciation of any art requires education, and art critics supplied education in a very traditional sense to "explain" modern art, that is, they clearly promoted a dogma to market the art. The purpose of the dogma was to convince the buying public of the unique value of the paintings. The hard sell for modern art has always been that it lacks intuitive appeal to many people, and the dogma used to justify it runs from obscure to nonsensical. Mr. Jarvis' quote of Ad Reinhardt, "Art begins with getting rid of nature", is a good example.

Even most artist's first reaction to the Reinhardt quote is "bullshit", followed by, "what is he talking about?". As I discussed in a previous editorial, the goal of the "minimalist" (or cubist or abstract expressionist) approach according to Greenberg is the creation of a pure, unmolested and uncorrupted (by nature and culture), non materialistic (in the sense of monetary value), aesthetic visual language of hopefully universal elements by which the artist expresses or creates an "experience" ("found in dematerialized art") which causes "(later) critics to speak in terms of metaphysics to explain". So at least in part the hard sell results from the fact that by intent, the visual language that the minimalist artist creates must be removed from ordinary experience (i.e. "stripped down to essentials" for "getting rid of nature"). By reducing to a visual language with no direct referents to nature, the minimalist artist's ability to communicate anything specific is also reduced, and the intended results harder for anyone to understand. So at best the minimalist approach is difficult by design, and to the more cynical, a way to obscure intellectual poverty. For me, the goal of art is to communicate aesthetically at every level possible. Abstract works sometimes manage to do this despite the backwardness of the minimalistic approach.

The dematerialization or "reduction to surface and materials" that characterize abstract expressionism and minimalism is very different from the dematerialization of electronic media. The former refers to specific visual content of the image, be it on a screen or on canvas, where as the latter refers to the durability of the image, that is a permanent object which reflects light to create an image verses a screen controlled by machines to create one of many possible images. Dematerialized electronic media may store the Mona Lisa or a Rauschenberg, but only the Rauschenberg is dematerialized in the minimalist sense. I think that Mr. Jarvis confuses the distinction between these two different uses of dematerialization, for instance with his discussion of "dematerialized experience" manipulated by our "central digital device". This dematerialized experience is not dematerialized in any of the senses of minimalism. The distinction is also confused in the discussion of photography. Photographers, especially photographers such as Ansel Adams, did not force "the issue of flatness (lack of texture), new tools and reduced materialism" in any of the senses of the minimalist approach. Most photographers use illusion of depth like traditional, representational painting. The flatness of texture of a photograph is a much subtler and completely different issue than the deliberate avoidance or manipulation of the depth illusion practiced by cubism or abstract expressionism. Also, many photographers take pride in creating their images with as little adulteration as possible. It is very misleading to describe this approach as a "shadowed connection to materiality". The objects in their photographs are emphatically intended to be recognized as material. Moreover, I believe that photography as an art form is an easier sell than minimalist art of any variety for public acceptance, but not for gallery marketing because of its reproducibility. Photographic marketing practices for "manufactured scarcity" have not been much different than those practiced over the history of print making.

If the modern art movements really hinge on metaphysical content, then electronic media should be as adequate as the painted surface. I believe that uniqueness is still the operating factor in price, and acceptance for gallery marketing. So if you want to make a killing with reproducible electronic art, strategies for the "mind-to-mind sharing of aesthetic experience" must focus on selling a lot of copies, just like with films, books, and music.

Go to:
Art in Potentia by JD Jarvis
On the Immateriality of Digital Art

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