What Place Does the Realist Painter Have in the Digital Age?

All art can be called ‘Abstract’ because to make a piece of art – by definition, an artificial thing – you must first abstract something from the actual, real world.Within a decade of the shift to New York City as the world capital of Art, several variations of Abstract Expressionism appeared, made by painters whose names resonate in Art histories. Included are Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Gorky, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell among others. Variations on the theme still influences contemporary artists.
A popular one is called ‘Colour Field’ painting. In this style, large areas of solid colour are rolled, sprayed, or stained across enormous canvases in stripes or in unbroken masses of flat, often primary, colour. Sometimes, only one colour is used and the viewer left to supply some significance to the result.
These works are deliberate attempts to divorce painting from any effort to evoke an emotional response from the viewer. Because they are without meaning, they are usually accompanied by printed dissertations filled with obtuse jargon. They are exemplars of what the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut called “paintings that are about nothing but themselves.” Abstract Art was declared the successor of all art that had come before, a new broom sweeping away the unfashionable traditions of art.
Now, in the Digital Age, painters are called on to justify their existence alongside computer software that mimics any effect a human artist can produce. I believe all artists of the Modern era are sincere in their desire to revolutionise art by experimenting with other ways of laying paint onto surfaces.
Today, many people feel it pointless to acquire the skills required by Representational art, when access to a computer can make them look like experts without effort. Left to themselves, such players do no harm. Art is the biggest game we humans have invented, and within it there is room for all manner of playfulness, with every tool or toy at our command.
Here’s the rub: like the Parisian socialites in the 1850s, some people today are suckers for whatever new fashion in Art is presented as being ‘beyond the understanding of the common people.’ They push the newer styles to unprecedented fame and obscene prices. Worse, the hyperbole of auction houses and art journalists can undermine the confidence of collectors.Instead of buying what they genuinely like, some take the advice of financial advisors and stock brokers. If they are canny, however, they will notice how many dealers hold a particular interest in the art created in times past, when Meaning in an artwork was paramount. The obvious reason is scarcity – ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ – so people with a passion for collecting are eager to acquire such works.
There is something else and it’s of vital interest to modern-day artists whose passion causes them to swim against the tide of fashion. Art that has meaning – an inspirational or emotional appeal to the mind and heart of the viewer – never loses value.
The prices achieved from re-sale of Representational artworks, even some of moderate quality, consistently reflects the return on investment to collectors. As well, those collectors are unlikely to be stung in the game of ‘price-catchup’ as uncovered by recent scandals and USA court trials of big auction houses offering pictures rendered famous only by the shock tactics of their creators and sensational media coverage.
The human artist has an inbuilt tool no machine can match. No matter how large or complex a ‘brain’ can be designed for super-computers, quantum-computers and future machines, no matter how clever an imitation of human emotion may be programmed into a robot, I’m sure one attribute of human artists will never be rivalled by machines.
This innate tool is the magical product of the human mind: imagination.

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