Category Archives: Term Paper – UMass Boston

If You Program a Computer to Create Art, Are You Then an Artist?

Everyday thousands of people take one of their typical bad photos and try to turn it into a masterpiece. They believe in a promise that technology will create a solution for their total lack of artistic talent. One of the many apps available get used to add a flashy technique to their image. Or maybe they just point-click an Instagram filter or a Photoshop filter. How convenient. You have created a unique image according to what the program’s algorithm has decided for you. But does this make you an artist? You feel like an artist. But let’s just say anybody can buy a box of watercolors and some brushes, and that does not make them an artist.

Everyday many people create clichéd pictures of flowers using paint and pastels. Hoping to use technology as an easy aid to create similar kinds of pictures, some use computer programs. The programs’ technology substitutes as their paint and brush. Mistakenly relying on the technology to do the work for them, less creative results do result. The lesson is: technology is only a tool to use, not a creative process in itself. Technology does not create art; people create art.

Understanding the impact of technology in our world, writer Malcom Gladwell in his essay Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted remains gleefully correct, “we are in the midst of a technology revolution” (Gladwell 424). But there are many doomsayers who think that advancing technology will wreck havoc on everything and we need be forewarned. Along those lines writer Nicholas Carr, expert on technological impact, declares: “There’s a tendency to glorify technological progress,” and likes to add “Expect the worst of every new tool or machine” (Carr 595). Of these two camps, I’m happy to be with Gladwell and his view that technology is not the enemy and should be embraced. OK, let’s all group hug with technology then. Not so fast. No matter if you are a follower or detractor, you find technology is changing everything we do. Including having a big impact on the creation of art. New technologies are allowing new directions in art that were never before possible. But as an artist, I say these new directions do not happen without talent, skill, and a new acceptance. Let us not applaud the computer, but the artist.

Would Leonardo DaVinci have used a computer if had one? Why wouldn’t he? Though he did pretty well without it, his mastery of the scientific and the artistic worlds could have benefited greatly with computer technology to assist him. Then, as customary of the times, he would have passed down his knowledge to his apprentices. Teaching the next generation to continue to explore and create aided by technology.

My apprenticeship in art school was long before today’s tech revolution. Have art curriculums kept up? What is being taught about using technology now to the next generation of artists? I interviewed Tom Barrett, art professor and instructor at the Art Institute of Boston. A successful old-style illustrator and painter, he now instructs creating art with the latest programs. Professor Barrett had to come to terms with technology and change his style to play by the new media rules as the art world changed. Tom stresses to his students the importance of getting past the flat chalky look often associated with novice Photoshop art. “No one likes looking at computer art” he begins and I nod in agreement. His reference is art that is obviously produced on a computer. His students are instructed that the success of creating art with a computer: “Is not to make it look like it was done on a computer” though today’s market calls for computer art. Simple as he may make it sound, that takes an understanding of how an original, real, tactile medium works.

Then why is anyone using computers? Let the machines do the work. Even car companies use computers in every stage of their process. Yet Gladwell informs us the design is still done by humans. Computers, or networks can’t think strategically. They are prone to conflict and error. “Computers cannot make difficult choices about tactics, strategy of philosophical direction” (Gladwell 429). They suck at the creative process.

Creativity takes thinking. And as Carr bemoans that “technology (the Net) seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” ( Carr 589), Barrett interjects with just the opposite: “Artists must stay focused,” and “look to the past to successfully apply new technology to their art.” Artists cannot let the ease of use or the flashy results of apps to cloud their thinking of creativity. The results will be more of the staid images that try to pass as creative art that I now see.

In traditional watercolor paintings there is a luminosity that makes them so desirable and pleasing to view. If an artist’s goal is to imitate watercolor, it takes one’s knowledge of how watercolor works on paper, then using a computer they need to manipulate Photoshop to imitate that watercolor process. Which is a lot different than brainlessly applying the watercolor filter on an image. Emulating the process is where the talent and skill are required most. It takes talent to understand how a brush puts watercolor on paper in the first place, and skill to be able to duplicate that process in Photoshop or any other program. This sophisticated and complex process allows creative expression and imagination to increase when an artist uses new technology. New directions are discovered, not by machines or programs, but by the artists.

Anyone can begin to guess where new art might be headed with this. As far back as 2002, ARTnews magazine posed the same question and many more. They asked: “As computer-based works are collected… are they losing their edge or gaining an audience?” (ARTnews 87). ARTnews recognized that there is a market and that art using technology has “arrived” mainstream. But they discovered this art to be creating conflict among practitioners in a medium that originally only had been part of an artistic fringe. What has proved to be naive thinking at the time was that only a “select bunch” is able to sell work or get commissions. On the contrary, this narrow view of the future sounds like they were not ready, or able to adapt to what might be coming. Just hanging a painting on your wall will continue, but make room for other possible constructs to view art.

Professor Barrett hypothesizes on one possible picture of the future:

“What if, as a collector you have a new, super thin flat screen that hangs on your wall, designed only to display art. The art is delivered on a one-of-a-kind disc that can’t be duplicated. Any attempt to duplicate will destroy the content. The art file on the disc is the only one. The disc is the “original art” you are buying. Plug in the disc and you have your art to look at.”

This concept seems to be very far off, but possible. It certainly will bring new thinking about new art.

With new art comes new ideas. Could the art market and readers of ARTnews ever adapt to such radical thinking? Belief in the future causes one to understand the old ways will no longer be able to satisfy the expanding forms of art. Many questions are raised when new art is objectified. Professor Barrett is correct that art produced with technology needs be treated differently: “The world needs to come to terms with it.” Acceptance is part of the cost.

Beyond the sale price of art, there is another price to be paid. The immediate results that technology provides in art causes efficiency and immediacy to be above all else the way is has with everything else. Weakening our capacity for deep thinking because of “efficiency” and “immediacy” is an issued raised by Carr. Rich mental connections may be lost.

When a person is using technology to create, they want one of the instant endless choices of the app or program. Many in the art world raise the concern that all this technology lowers the level of quality of art in an on-demand world. Evidence of apprehension is building. In a 2013 Pew Research Study, art organizations represented in the survey confirmed their worries with the lowering of quality across all the arts. They report technology has blurred the lines between commercial entertainment and noncommercial art. (Hint: Think Apps.) The consensus being technology has disrupted much of the traditional art world. That however might be described as technological phobia, but many, including myself view this disruption with technological enthusiasm.

“It’s a good thing” quickly quips Professor Barrett. New creativity takes deep thinking. But skill and talent must prevail over technology. Back in 1985, computer scientist and artist Hebert Franke rallied the same basic belief: “Art cannot really be mastered before the hurdle of technical and manual skills have been over come.” “Deep thinking results after the demands made by the computer are transformed from manual dexterity to the capabilities of the mind such as imagination, creativity, and self assessment” (Franke 4). In short, art making is in the hands and minds of the artist, not technology.

Taking into consideration the knowledge of other art mediums to create art on a computer, whether it is printed out, viewed from a disk or through the Internet, the title of “new art” becomes a paradox in itself. My conversation ends with Professor Barrett’s final words simplifying the paradox: “New art: It is and it isn’t.” It is new being created on a computer, but isn’t because the artist imitates old methods. “It is the synergy of everything,” talent, skill, technology. Let’s lose the fear Carr speaks of, and with eyes wide open accept new methods.

IRIS V.2 © tom barrett 2016 Detail Photoshop brush work

Works Cited

Tom Barrett, Personal interview. 28 March 2016.
Berwick, Carly. “Net Gains.” ARTnews December 2002: 86-89. Print
Carr, Nicholas. Is Google Making Us Stupid? McQuade and Atwan 588-597.
McQuade, Donald and Atwan, Robert, eds. The Writer’s Presence.
Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print
Gladwell, Malcom. Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.
McQuade and Atwan 422-431
Franke, Hebert. “The Influence of Computer Graphics on Art and Society.” DAM,
Digital Art Museum, N.p., Web. 2009.

Classifying Art by Genre Obscures Original Intent.

Go to any museum and you will find the walls covered in paintings depicting naked women. In the world of art an image of a naked woman can be classified as a nude. How does one define the dichotomy between being naked and being a nude? If you listen to English art critic John Berger in episode 2 of the BBC series Ways of Seeing, which was based on his essay of the same title, he explains the difference as a “nude” is a form of art, not to be confused with being naked, which is to be without clothes. Berger explains “A nude is to be seen naked by others, to be seen as a genre [object]” (Berger 4:21). As I spend time in front of one of my favorite nudes, I ask myself does a painting classified as a nude tell me more about the artist or the subject?

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in the gallery of modern European artists, you will find one of my favorite nudes titled Carmenlina painted in 1903 by Henry Matisse. I first saw Carmenlina forty years ago while I was an art student attending a lecture. Now I stand gazing at her for a new class trying to experience a new impression of this piece of art I know so well. As I approach Carmenlina I am confronted by her nakedness, which is front and center. From a distance, if you are not a Matisse scholar you might not recognize the painting as a Matisse. But you know it as a nude. This nude hanging among the other nudes in the gallery, like the Picasso nude on the opposite wall, does not contain any of our preconceived notions of a nude in the classic reclined pose. It is also not in what so many of us know as the Matisse style of graphic bodies and limbs in jovial activity. In contrast, silence fills the room that Carmenlina the model sits in. In his essay Berger says “all paintings are silent and still” (Berger 158), but in this painting I find the silence palpable. A visual that words cannot describe.

Very few words are present on the descriptive plaque that hangs along side the painting to indicate any intent of the artist about the work. The plaque contains the artist name, dates and the model’s name as the title, and little else. But I do not need words to see her. Berger tells us in human development “seeing comes before words” (Berger 141). To see Carmenlina one only has to look because as Berger’s theory states: seeing is a choice. What you choose to see is up to you. Once you see the title of the painting it immediately becomes more personal knowing the model’s name. Upon reading it you cannot keep your eyes from going right to Carmenlina. It forces one to deal with her nakedness as if it was now someone familiar that you know by name and you want to see. Would I change my view of her if the painting’s title is Nude like the Picasso? That nondescript title would only reference a genre. When a nude is titled the name of the model, does it become more about the model as a person?

When talking about his own work Matisse says: “What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape: it is the human figure” (Goldwater and Treves, 412). Did Matisse put Carmenlina on display because of his interest in the human figure? Did she have anything to say about it? Could she have understood she would be classified as a type of work and lose her identity as an individual? Her answers could become part of a conversation that has nothing to do with the painter’s intent or message to the viewer, which remains a mystery. But as a nude, I find Carmenlina is not alone in the painting. Investigation reveals that Matisse, all dressed, has included himself in the painting. Was this a 1903 selfie? Matisse’s inclusion of himself clothed solidifies the painting as a nude. According to Berger a nude is for the dressed to view, and Matisse’s is a dressed viewer. Perhaps he included himself wanting me to know he knows I am looking at her and also confirming her status? But to see him one must get past her full frontal nudity, which beautiful as it is, there is more to see here. The artist has included a back view of Carmenlina in a mirror. Berger tells us: “the painter’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject” but “our perception or appreciation of an image depends upon our own way of seeing” (Berger 142). We have a choice between only seeing Carmenlina facing us, or Matisse looking at us.

The composition of the painting was a topic discussed in my lecture I attended so long ago. The discussion included the importance of her posture as she sits on the table to the composition. One must understand, in the voice of the experts: “the compositional unity of a painting contributes fundamentally to the power of its image” (Berger 145). Carmenlina sits solidly and faces the viewer along with the art that hangs on the walls in the painting. But she has never looked comfortable to me. I find a discomfort in her that I will never know the origin of. It looks like she is just waiting. Waiting for what I ask? It occurs to me if this setting was a doctor’s office and the title was “The doctor will be right in” all conflict would disappear. The visual of the doctor’s office would negate the need to define her discomfort. And it would be clear what the painting is about. But such is not the case. It is just a dolorous model and the sly artist in the studio, both looking at me.

The studio they inhabit appears to be quite barren. Very few objects are in view. Placed between model and artist rests two vessels. One a square bottle with a neck and stopper in front of a small urn with handles. Upon studying the square bottle I am impressed by Matisse’s idea to repeat the square shoulders and the head of the model with this bottle that sits on the same table as Carmenlina. Turning my examination to the urn, preconceived notions come to mind that in classical painting this style of urn with two handles symbolizes the female form. Unlikely Matisse would give us two objects to support the main focus of the composition. Now I see the square glass bottle with the neck and stopper pointing upward as a phallic symbol for him. The bottle is turned on a similar angle matching the artist’s pose. The square bottle and the artist are the only objects askew in the painting relating themselves to each other. What may be more telling is these vessels sit on different surfaces with a void between them echoing the space between artist and model and perhaps what he views as their status. We have two bodies and two vessels in relationship to each other. Considering this relationship I could deduce this painting is about the two of them. There is a relationship here that may not be intended for the viewers.

But as viewers, museum attendance has been decreasing for decades. Still, thousands of museum visitors’ eyes have graced Carmenlina’s naked form. What if Matisse thought no one but himself might see this painting that it would never hang in a museum. If this was for personal enjoyment, has public viewing in a museum diminished the effect of the painting?

Well-known American author Walker Percy has ideas on the theory of diminishing impact of a site and uses the Grand Canyon as an example to explain his theory. Percy assigns a value of P. to the first seeing of the Grand Canyon as viewed by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas its discoverer. For our example Carmenlina holds the value of P. as Matisse saw the painting. According to Percy each time a viewer views P. they receive only a fraction of P. the original experience. The more views, the smaller percentage of P. one receives. While the massive Grand Canyon was formed by nature’s erosion, here Matisse created a modest-size painting that demands the main subject be seen. But by creating a nude Matisse has bequeathed it to the spectators to be seen. No matter how many times Carmenlina is viewed, nothing is lost in viewing and she remains a nude painting by Matisse. This was not an accident; this was his job. According to art theorist Rudolf Arnheim in Art and Visual Perception: “the work of the painter…is considered simply a replica of the precept” (Arnheim, 155). So no value is lost.

The precept was a moment in history captured by a painter. Here we can only see what the artist has chosen for us to see. An artist has the ability to: “improve reality or to enrich it…by leaving out or adding details” (Arnheim, 155). Is this really Carmenlina or just a nude Matisse wants us to see? If there has been any cosmetic manipulations one would never know. But we want to believe it is accurate. How can you not believe in the authenticity when a master artist has included himself in the painting? I find his presence becomes like an affidavit for me to believe this is an authentic rendering of Carmenlina. Her sharp focus can only come from careful observation by the artist, which begs the same focus from its viewers.

Suppose Carmenlina was a photograph instead of a painting. Though we hear stories on images being Photoshopped all the time, we tend to believe the photo is more accurate than the painting. Upon examining a photograph details emerge that are reflections of the fraction of a second the image was taken. With a painting you not only see the details of the history of the moment it was painted, but the details of the history of the artist’s brush strokes in the time it takes him to paint. Looking into the details again, one is faced with the ambiguity is the painting about the artist or the subject. Technique cannot be separated from the artist or the painting in the same way the photo cannot be separated from its film’s emulsion.

Upon reproduction of art either photographed or printed, the reproduction becomes separated from the source. As Carmenlina the nude hangs safely in its home in an art museum, Berger tells us, once reproduced all pictorial reproduction are no longer attached to the original. Her image can be passed freely becoming transmittable. The uniqueness of the original painting is lost or ignored. The image can be used for anything the holder wants instead of a painting in a museum, which questions her nude status. Detail is lost in any form of reproduction, but her nakedness will remain clear. Outside the museum, do these forms of reproduction of a naked woman bring us into the realm of pornography? Her blatant nudity, one hand modestly and teasingly shields the darkness of her sex. This same pose can be found repeated millions of times on porn sites across the Internet. No words are needed except a URL address to convey the kind of experience you are suppose to have. Or is the reproduction a sample of the artist’s capability? Even in mass-produced reproductions one can assign the importance of the artist or subject. The experience is in the hands of the viewer.

Back in the museum, if one sits on the bench the museum has furnished directly in front of Carmenlina one can watch other viewers pass by. These viewers come from around the world, some in small groups, and others are alone. Varying in age some listen to prepackaged taped tours while others make small talk in many languages. But no one is lingering in front of Carmenlina like I am. It is a quick look and then they look away. They may only see her nakedness, not a nude painting? It is easy that the details are hidden from their view. They have learned nothing of the painting except what is on the plaque if they go so far as to read it. Have they classified Carmenlina as just another naked women on a museum visit? One can only speculate on their intensions to visit the museum. Unimpressed by the painting, I wonder would they look at a place titled the Grand Canyon as just another hole in the ground. Of course they would not. The Grand Canyon, the thing that is, has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind through its availability in books, brochures, and the Internet. Perhaps Carmenlina is in need of a lot of PR to change her status.

Carmenlina’s naked body should be an attraction to be viewed without embarrassment of one’s admiration or enjoyment. We are in a museum and that makes it acceptable to look. Reciprocally, she needs us to look to validate her status as a nude. Matisse needs us to look to validate her status. For the artist he has accomplished a perplexing masterpiece. Perhaps that is what he wanted for us.

Time has past and I must leave the museum with no answers as to Matisse’s intended focus for his panting and its viewers. But Carmenlina the painting takes my breath away every time I see it. Am I in love with her or in love with the painting, which influences my perspective? Can the painting be about the artist though I want it to be about her? If we classify the painting first as a nude, then Carmenlina is the focus of the original painting. If we classify the painting as a Matisse, the focus is on him. Final resolution must rest with each viewer. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Ruduolf. “Art and Visual Perception.” 151-55. University of California Press, 1971. Print

Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” Bartholomae and Petrosky 141-65.

Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature.” Bartholomae and Petrosky 459-71.

Bartholomae, David, and Petrosky, Anthony, eds. Ways of Reading,
An Anthology for Writers. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print

Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” BBC4, 1972. Broadcast

Matisse, Henry. “Matisse 1869.” 412. Goldwater, Robert, and Treves, Marco, eds. Artists on Art: From the XIV to XX Century. Pantheon Books Inc., 1945. Print

Henri Matisse
Carmenlina, 1903
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston