Top: A painting I completed over the weekend. I had been thinking about painting this design since I originally sketched it on November 16. Above: The original sketch, to which I stayed faithful in the process of painting the composition. This begs the question: Why not just upload the original sketch to the flat-panel and call it a day?
A new era of marvelous new ultra-thin flat-panel screens has arrived. But what are the implications for traditional visual art?
At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, every major electronics manufacturer showcased their version of a revolutionary kind of new plasma screen that is both incredibly thin and capable of producing vivid, lifelike images. Some screens can produce black without emitting light.
Take, for example, the Pioneer Kuro, the world’s thinnest 50-inch screen, just 9 mm (about three-eighths of an inch) thick. “The picture you see appears to be floating on a wall,” writes Pioneer in a statement, “creating an experience where the television becomes simply a canvas for great entertainment.”
Hitachi’s Ultra Thin 1.5 is just 1.5 inches thick and is encased by a translucent “crystal frame,” which the company says “has a subtle bevel to present the picture as if it were a work of art.”
Are the references to fine art merely coincidental? On face value, these manufacturers are dressing up their products by deploying metaphors for collectible art — the coveted and rare. But I couldn’t help but wonder, on a deeper level, whether these screens will be so powerful that they can rival traditional paintings’ beauty or “lifelike” qualities, and make digital painting ubiquitous.
Imagine a world in which every owner of an ultra-thin panel can “own” a digital painting collection that rivals the traditional painting collections of the best museums. If one’s tastes change, from van Gogh to Malevich to Bridget Riley, then no problem. Go download some more images!
The thought leaves me with more questions than answers. Among them:
1. Will these screens pound yet another nail into the coffin of painting, which supposedly has been dead for decades? Will traditional painting be irrelevant?
2. What does this mean for the painter who works in traditional medium? Will new market opportunities arise for digital art — paintings in particular?
3. Why not just design everything in Photoshop or Illustrator, upload it to the screen, and leave things there? Why go any further?
To the first question: I’d like to believe that painting will never die. If anything, the omnipresence of digital imagery will heighten the preciousness or rarity of the singular, handmade object, made by one person during a finite period of time. Of course, I could be wrong.
To the second: I can foresee visual artists offering high-resolution digital painting images through their sites, via download. But the problem with this idea is piracy. Digital paintings could be swapped/torrented with remarkable ease, with no financial benefit to the artist. (Now I know how musicians feel!) Those downloaded images could be appropriated for print media, as well, and wind up clothing, for example, without the artist’s consent.
Of course, the artist could get around all of this by doing what Radiohead did … the “tip jar,” pay-what-you-want model. The download itself would be free; but you could thank the artist financially. Yet, it’s hard to say whether the Radiohead model would work in the new marketplace for digital paintings. The artist will reach more people. And the physical, traditional-media piece would be more valuable because there is only one. Personally, I’d rather see 1,000 downloads at a $1 each than one sale of a traditional-media painting for $1,000.
To the third question: Painting is redundant, to a large extent. When you paint something you’ve already designed graphically, you’re pretty much making something twice. Yet, the physical act of producing a traditional painting yields a sense of satisfaction not matched by pushing pixels around.
Traditional painting is its own universe, with a unique, high addictive set of trials and triumphs.
“That’s the real legerdemain facing anyone determined to be a painter, whether the student who asked the original question gets the support of her teachers and peers or not. Painting isn’t dead — or, more precisely, it always has been and always will be. The perpetual trick is to give a painting life,” writes LA Times art critic Christopher Knight in a recent article on painting in the digital age.
I don’t know whether the genre of digital painting, or the market for it, will ever materialize. I can imagine it happening soon. Perhaps the transformation is well underway. Will I participate in this new economic opportunity, or shall I simply ignore the whole phenomenon? I don’t know.