Label volunteer, Kawku Mintah, explores whether art has any use to us in contemporary society. Between AI Art, oblique artistic genres, and content creation, does Art still hold any value?
The Abstract movement is often mocked and labelled ridiculous, art schools are frequently derided, creative careers are seen as fantasy, and AI is proclaimed to be the future. The thoughts of an artist are often existential: Is there still a need for them to exist? Is Art still useful to modern society?
First, to answer that, we tackle a question which is simpler than some may try to make it seem. How would you define art? There are the many divisions: high and low, major, minor, fine, antiquities1, and so forth. Time and careers have been dedicated to defining the classes and genres and movements, comprehending the why and how and what, but none of that is needed to understand what Art is. So, how can you understand it then?
First, MAC ART says, we must define culture. Culture is how we, as a society, add a meaning to our lives, be it with our “specific behaviours” or “schools of thought”. The culture of Asante could be defined by the “specific behaviours” followed at their burials; members of the Islamic culture could be found following similar “schools of thought”. These two factors could also be, and usually are, entwined. The Egyptians followed the “specific behaviour” of embalming their rulers because their “school of thought” spoke of an afterlife; the “specific behaviour” of Christmas or Easter is observed because of the “school of thought” that Christianity is a part of. But where does Art come into this? If culture exists to add meaning to our often-nonsensical lives, with its rites and beliefs, then the purpose of art is to beautify our societies – not the same utility as a frying pan, but certainly more attractive: “Art for Art’s sake”2.
But if art exists purely to decorate the life we live, then why is there a question of its usefulness to us today? Our cultures still exist, with their behaviours and thoughts, so why would we lose the necessity to make them attractive?
This returns us to the utility of Art. In a world that digs deeper and deeper into capitalism, people often find themselves having to excuse their indulgences. Creatives on the internet, be it with videos, pictures, writing, and more, are now branded “content creators”, doomed to follow trends, break algorithms, and seek analytics. Art is considered a career path, an artist a profession: if a writer hasn’t produced a novel, then they’re a “fake”; if a musician doesn’t make it big, then they’ve “failed”. Art was once the end, the expression of one’s world and being, now it’s the means to an end. Yet, one which can be more inconsistent and unreliable – never the priority in any system or government. Movies are no longer creations, they stopped being events, they are now content for the streaming services. Under capitalism, Art, like all else, serves one purpose: to make the owner money. And now, in the later stages of the capitalist system, the owner is rarely the one making the Art.
The easiest way, though, to make money is to make what people want. So, what do the people want?
“Critics have undertaken to address… the mass of unbelievers to whom twentieth-century art is a mystery or an insult.3”James S. Ackerman
To a large fraction of the modern world, the contemporary movements of Art are seen as frivolous and lazy. There is the call for it to be more realistic; that which doesn’t perfectly reflect life is seen as a matter of skill, rather than style. “Anyone could do this” is echoed across the internet in the face of garish stunts and deconstructions. There seems to be a great movement in the populus away from the more abstract, returning to the more figure heavy work of earlier times. A time when, allegedly, visual Art served a very similar purpose to that of photographs today: to objectively relay images of the world around us. There is no space for embellishment, no time left for expressions. Art exists to present exactly what stands before the artist: the world as seen by everyone, recreated for everyone to reminisce. And if one can take an objective image in less than a second, then why waste the time?
The modern accessibility of art may appear to have somewhat lessened its value even more. Once the luxury of aristocrats and royalty, now everyone can make their own Art in their bedroom. The reverence seems to have gone away: why travel to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa when you can google a picture of it right now?
The current prevalence of AI Art hasn’t been much of a help either, conveying to any and all the idea that, only with a few prompts and a short wait, you can produce pieces worthy of display. Who needs an artist when you have a computer and some free time? The possibilities are endless, and artists should submit to the machine which is their future.
However, one could argue whether the visual creations made by AI really could be considered Art. Ignoring the controversies of stolen references and questionable hands, the concept of an Artificial Intelligence making Art in itself is a fallacy. Art is a conscious creation, “an expression of skill or imagination4”, things that an AI has neither of. “In order to write a book, do a deed, make a picture with some life in it, one has to be alive oneself5”, Van Gogh is quoted as saying, as this – though written more than half a century before the first computers were invented – is a very apt description of the issue with AI Art. Can an algorithm really produce the same creativity, heart, and deliberation that goes into every piece of art that a human makes?
And to the cries for more realism, don’t worry, your prayers have been answered. Movements do not dictate every artist, and there are still many out there who strive to convey the world as objectively as possible through their strokes. But this does not require the eradication of all else. The more abstract and conceptual could be described as “conveyed in a language [some people] cannot understand… it is not difficult or esoteric, but the observer must exert a little effort to command it.” Simply because people elsewhere start speaking Ainu, that does not make French less relevant. Those that communicate in that language still exist, and likewise, there are those “for whom abstract paintings are everyday objects… easier to read and to understand than some photographs.” There are those that appreciate the abstract, find meaning and soul in the conceptual. What may just be “shapes and colours” to one person is the deepest recesses of another’s mind, expressed in the best way they know how. “A bunch of lines” could be a rebellion, “scribbles on a page” a statement on oneself. Recent movements are not a sign of laziness, a bankruptcy of ideas, or incompetence. Within the chaos, or “irresponsible abandon”, there are found conventions, “taught in the academics”, where “beginners… have to work hard to learn how to cut loose6”. Some work may appear effortless and simple at face value when, in fact, years of dedication and careers have been applied to it, an attention and personality not easily replicated7. Effort must be exerted to understand the abstract, and effort is exerted in order to make it. After all, you need to really know a car to properly take it apart.
Today’s relationship with the internet and art is a blessing rather than a curse. Though there are the dangers, the many pitfalls of being a creative on the internet, the accessibility of artistic tools and what they create has allowed for people, who in other times may have never reached the spotlight, to display to the world the talent they hold inside. It allows those who may not be as affluent to learn how to make their own work, and to be inspired by the greatness of others which before was hidden behind the closed doors of a museum. Even through the digital screen, Art speaks.
In an evermoving world, Art is changing, but it doesn’t mean it’s no longer relevant. The internet collectively mourned over “Can’t Help Myself”8 when the robot finally powered down, sympathizing with the machine and its tired existence, asking it to rest, pleading for it to be left alone. There was great discourse and controversy when Climate Activists defaced a painting of Van Gogh’s, even after it was found to be unharmed9. Prints of “Grace” are found in American households all over the country10, and nearly everyone has a piece of art which has inspired or affected them personally. If you can’t think of one now, you’ll find it sooner or later. Art allows us to find something within ourselves, see through another person’s eyes, feel what someone else may feel. It speaks in a language we cannot speak, conveys that which we may struggle to. Art has the power to change the world, simply by its existence within it.
After all, why do we plant flowers in our gardens, decorate our rooms, add spice to our food, style our hair? Because our life is more than eating, sleeping, working, and sex. We need our world to be beautiful. And if Art exists purely to beautify, then why would we no longer need it?
Article Edited by: Rebecca Pearson – Deputy Editor
Header Designed by: Sarim Mangi – Head of Design
1 Eden Gallery (2021). The 3 Types of Visual Art [Online]. Available at: https://www.eden-gallery.com/news/3-types-of-visual-art
2 MAC ART Galleries (Undated). What is contemporary fine art culture? [Blog]. Available at: https://macfineart.com/what-is-contemporary-fine-art-culture/
3 Ackerman, J S. (1962). Abstract Art and the Critics [Online]. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1962/10/abstract-art-and-the-critics/658440/
4 Britannica (2002). Art [Online]. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/visual-arts
5 Gogh, V (1996). The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Translated by A. Pomerans. London: Penguin Books
6 Ackerman, J S. (1962). Abstract Art and the Critics [Online]. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1962/10/abstract-art-and-the-critics/658440/
7 Fecile, J (2019). The Many Deaths of a Painting [Online]. Available at: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-many-deaths-of-a-painting/
8 Hampsink, I O. (2022). Can’t Help Myself – How a Relatable Robot Offers a Critical Reflection on Modern Society [Online]. Available at: https://www.diggitmagazine.com/papers/can-t-help-myself-how-relatable-robot-offers-critical-reflection-modern-society#:~:text=With%20the%20robot%2C%20the%20artists,%2C%20border%20policing%2C%20and%20authoritarianism.
Agerbeck, B (2021). Can’t Help Myself by Sun Yuan & Peng Yu [Online]. Available at: https://www.loosetooth.com/blog/can-t-help-myself-by-sun-yuan-peng-yu
9 Gayle, D (2022). Just Stop Oil activists throw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/14/just-stop-oil-activists-throw-soup-at-van-goghs-sunflowers
Boyle, L (2022). Climate protesters hit Van Gogh’s Sunflowers with soup. Were they right? [Online]. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/protest-soup-van-gogh-sunflowers-oil-b2204000.html
10 Walsh, P (2021). Iron Range artist brought ’Grace’ photo to fame [Online]. Available at:https://www.startribune.com/iron-range-artist-brought-grace-photo-to-fame/140587173/
Austin McConnell (2023). Nothing in this famous painting is what it seems [Online Video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywpRvxFGnDc