Recent scandal with gallerist Marat Gelman, who sharply refused to indicate the poet and digital artist Evgeny Nikitin as a co-author of works at the exhibition of writer Vladimir Sorokin, caused not only a wave of indignation in the art community, but also another discussion about the status of generative art. Critics are vying with each other about the legal and ethical foundations of Gelman’s action, which, in their opinion, sacrifices banal rules of decency for the sake of the whims of the market. At the same time, artists and art historians are amazed at how tenacious the ideas of originality and uniqueness of art objects still remain, because, it would seem, in the 21st century the “myth of the Author” should have completely dissolved. Philosopher Alexandra Tanyushina tells how this myth took shape and what its fate is in the era of digital creativity.
Culture did not immediately need the author. In the archaic, ancient and medieval eras, the creator of a visual work was mentioned in extremely rare cases – as a historical character, political or religious figure, or, at worst, simply a major authority. Art itself in those days performed a predominantly cult function: it existed in close connection with religion, it was demonstrated in strictly designated sacred places (or in the premises of high-ranking gentlemen such as kings, czars and emperors, who traditionally played the symbolic role of God’s viceroy on earth). In addition, in Western European cultural discourse the opposition “artes liberales / artes mechanicæ”, which strictly distinguished between “high” free art and “low”, that is, technical, the execution of which was first assigned to hired artisans and slaves, and a little later to guild apprentices. There has been no talk yet about the rise of the figure of the Author.
It is generally accepted that the Renaissance gave European culture not only a new form of visual logic associated with linear compositional perspective, but also the phenomenon of easel painting, which allowed fine art to go beyond the limits of the architectural environment (church altar, cathedral, palace) and be embodied in an independent form – picture.
The isolation of the canvas from space, traditionally supported by the clear boundaries of the frame, became the reason why the painting began to be thought of as an object that can be removed from its usual context, endowed with independent value.
Around the same time, the emancipation of the artist also occurred: large patrons of the arts gradually freed the artisan from the power of the workshop, which until now had limited any creative independence and reduced work to the technical execution of a certain project. From now on, the uniqueness of the work’s execution and innovative (moderately) artistic techniques were increasingly valued, providing the artist with an increase in private orders.
Already in the 17th century, in the countries of Northern Europe, representatives of the middle and petty bourgeoisie began to acquire objects of fine art, slightly ousting large merchants and aristocrats in this matter. This is how the modern art market was formed: artists increasingly created works without prior orders, and also developed a new genre system focused on depicting secular subjects (landscape, still life, animal painting, etc.). At this time, the first art dealers appeared, and a little later, specialized events where painters found their buyers (just remember the famous Parisian salonsorganized by the French Academy of Fine Arts during the reign of Louis XIV and dictating artistic trends until the end of the 19th century).
The Industrial Revolution and industrialization led, on the one hand, to the strengthening of existing market relations, but, on the other hand, to a revaluation of established art forms. The spread of technical inventions like photography forced artists to take a fresh look at their work, which gave rise to the formation of many modernist schools and movements.
The turn of the 19th-20th centuries became a period of development of artistic approaches that rethought the usual ways of perceiving art (such as impressionism and pointillism with their optical experiments), the role of the heritage of the old masters (futurism, called burning historical monuments and throwing classics off the “steamboat of modernity”), traditional means of representation (cubism and experiments with combining “low” and “high” mediums in collages and assemblages), established norms for exhibiting art (remember Duchamp with his ready-mades), and, of course, the role of the Author (Dadaism, who glorified the role of chance and condemned the figure of the individual artist-creator, whom they called a rudiment of bourgeois culture). Of course, at that time the work of many famous representatives of modernism and the radical avant-garde was incomprehensible to the general public and, as a result, remained without due attention from representatives of the art market (with the exception of such rare dealers as, for example, Ambroise Vollardwho did their best to keep underrated geniuses like Van Gogh afloat).
At the same time, another significant process was taking place – the formation of the phenomenon of mass art. Urbanization and the emergence of a class of skilled workers and employees became the reason for the formation of the need for a new type of culture. Already from the 1920s, many philosophers and sociologists began to mercilessly criticize this culture, linking it with “uprising of the masses“, the widespread decline in morality and taste, the development cultural industry and, of course, fading of the “aura” true art.
If in the last decades of the modern era the discourse of “elite” and “mass” art still remained viable, then in the post-war period the ideological foundations of “high art” – originality and authorship – collapsed along with other narratives of the previous cultural era.
Despite the fact that Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco and other representatives of the postmodern intellectual environment foamed at the mouth to prove that “The author died“, this loud thesis was reflected in two ways on the European and American art scene of that time.
On the one hand, already in the 1950s–60s the idea began to develop erasing boundaries between author and viewer, whose proponents criticize traditional ideas about how art should be displayed and sold. To do this, artists turn to performance and happenings, total installations, land art, etc. On the other hand, the works of modernists, abstract expressionists and pop artists, most often framed in the format of a good old painting, still enjoy the greatest success on the market .
Indeed, despite the countless innovative trends that the second half of the 20th century gave us, the art market still demanded the creation of one-dimensional and flat “pictures.” In 1977, an exhibition of the same name was even held in New York – Pictureswhich satirized the tendency of its era to disseminate sterile and meaningless images.
For this reason, prominent philosophers of the time like Frederic Jameson or Jean Baudrillard will talk about meaningful and affective one-dimensionality such creativity, the dominance of simulacra and even “conspiracy of art“(read “art market”). Some critics even saw in traditional easel works a continuation of the logic of ideological domination (patriarchal, colonial, economic), since the paintings presented in the sterile space of the “white cube” emphasized the distance between the artist and the viewer, who received the experience of passive contemplation of the works of the eminent Creator.
The most innovative types of art were born as alternatives to the classical fine canons; they were created to overcome outdated formats for perceiving art objects. Many areas of media art initially arose as an attempt to rethink the classical picture form with its static, visual expressiveness that fetters the viewer. It was media objects that were supposed to replace the established purely pictorial function of art with a strategy for full interaction with it and the space surrounding it.
However, ephemeral interaction, blurring both the boundaries of the work itself and the boundaries of authorship, is extremely difficult to put into a market format, which is why our experience of contact with art, as in its time expressed himself artist Allan Kaprow, “I found myself burdened with old reactions for a long time”.
Nowadays, the type of classic easel painting is still the most in demand. It is precisely such art objects that are well received by the general public, are easily exhibited and stored in a gallery space, and, of course, are successfully sold. Their expressive language dictates the design rules for many other forms of art, including digital art, which is still most often shown on a painting-like screen. Going beyond the two-dimensional plane is also hampered by the relatively slow integration into everyday use of technologies that, in theory, can bypass many of the limitations of picture vision and offer the user not only the experience of passive vision, but also immersion in the media environment, bodily interaction with art objects.
In the same vein, some researchers talk about the problems of crypto art, showing how the doctrine of NFT authenticity adapts digital creative products to the needs of the market, often turning them into flat “pictures.” Thus, art critic T. R. Ryan writes:
“NFT proponents point to Walter Benjamin and argue that blockchain gives digital works an “aura,” increasing their value in a market that has relatively neglected media art products. But Benjamin concludes that the fading of aura in the age of technical reproducibility is precisely what mobilizes aesthetics as an instrument of radical politics. This suggests that rather than appreciating the value of digital works of art, NFTs have undervalued them: they represent ownership and platform capitalism at precisely the moment when digital art could contribute to conversations about alternatives such as decentralization and sovereignty, which are distinctive features Web3 […] It is imperative that we focus on creating not only profits, but also protocols that support the collectivism, activism and new ways of being that have always been one of the main goals of digital art.”
Thus, by forcibly returning “aura,” authorship and uniqueness to the media environment, some modern art practices transform digital art, which fundamentally deviates from creative inertia, into a set of repeating images or, as postmodernist critics would say, meaningless simulacra. The transformation of naturally ephemeral digital products into frozen or even tangible forms (which is especially noticeable today, when we can see the rise in popularity phygital-art) ensures a stable market value for the latest artistic production, maintains the myth of authenticity and brings the Author back from the dead again and again.
Scandals associated with the periodic appearance of individual zombie Authors where they should not be, of course, slow down the development of the art sphere, which has long been dominated by unconventional types of creativity and interdisciplinary art forms. Collaboration, enabled by the productive interaction of artists, scientists, programmers and engineers, has long become the new normal, and art historians, philosophers and media researchers are already actively developing a relevant theoretical vocabulary for understanding contemporary art in new terms and categories.
We can only hope for the gradual development of consistent legal and market norms that can guarantee the stable implementation of generative art and other types of neural network creativity. Perhaps after this the prompt engineer will finally become human too.
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