Monday, January 26, 2015


Once upon a time, maps were more beautiful than accurate.  Before the invention of the mechanical clock and the compass, the world was a more fluid place.  Maps were made from subjective impressions of distance combined with myths, philosophy and theology. 


Not the most direct route to your destination, but at least it gave you something to ponder along the way.

Our ancestors imagined that dragons and gods lurked in uncharted corners of the world.

Here be dragons--  Hic sunt dracones

But as they invented tools for measuring, their world came into sharper focus.   Early astrolabes enabled navigators to track their location by the stars.  Then came the quadrant and the sextant.  Maps became more precise.  Geometric grids rationalized our experience of space.

Today anyone can find their precise location, along with details about every surrounding restaurant, gas station or pot hole, by consulting their GPS. 

What they won't find is the beauty, personality or ambition of older maps.  The information element has crowded out aesthetics.  As our stockpiles of data expand, we have traded imagination and design for the benefits of useful information.

Going by your GPS, you might conclude that there are no more dragons left in the world.

Sometimes it seems that a similar trade off is taking place in the world of art.   Beauty of form is often subordinated to content.  The talent and skill necessary for the creation of fine objects seem to have become less important, while wordy explanations of artistic purpose have taken center stage.  Information technology has become the artist's new favorite tool.  It surfaces in everything from Photoshop images to video art.   There are zettabytes of inert data accumulated in the name of art, with hardly a kilobyte of human taste or judgment to manage them.
Perhaps one of the most significant developments is that artists can now effortlessly replicate and manipulate millions of historical images with ease.  The temptation to scoop up data files to make statements from previous pictures seems almost irresistible.  Information technology has given rise to new art schools such as "appropriation," "sampling," "repurposing," "recontextualizing" and "transformative use."

Appropriation artist Sherrie Levine makes art by photographing a photograph by Walker Evans


Koons: stupid scribbles superimposed on photos of a waterfall and a couple


We are assured this is OK because today "curation is creation."   Why should an artist have to start at  the very beginning with a pencil and an idea, when there are all these pre-existing building blocks that can be combined into new art?

At the dawn of the information revolution, Bernard Wolfe predicted that avant garde art could not mutate fast enough to stay ahead of everyday life in an era of computers and space programs.   His advice to modern artists: "Forget it.  The job of the decimated avant garde is to catch up with the ordinary, which means learning to live with the speed of light."  The successes of information technology are undeniable, and their images are a worthy challenge to the arts when it comes to inspiring awe in the human heart.

The "pillars of creation" seen through the Hubble space telescope.

I concede there are important reasons why our priorities have shifted away from creation and toward discovery (in both maps and art) But despite the obvious successes of the sextant and the GPS, there are plenty of uncharted territories where dragons still lurk.  They haunt the very bytes themselves, creating suitable challenges for artists who aspire to something greater than "curation." 

Lucien Freud
Saul Steinberg

Phil Hale
John Cuneo