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Essay I didn't like: Systems are inescapable, art like any other field is subject to control

This essay explores the enigmatic definition of contemporary art, focusing on the relationship between the maker and the artwork in relation to its status and the platforms used for its exhibition. Arguing that how art is encountered in contemporary society influences the perception of artistic status, the need for public display and monetary evaluation impose control over art objects.


The art historian, E.H Gombrich once famously declared that “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists” (Gombrich, 1950;15). In addition to the disputes about whether “readymade” (Tate Modern, s.d.) can be classified as art, other new art forms that are less reliant on the identity and authorship of their makers have emerged — AI art, and since this won in an art contest (See Fig. 1) it has caused controversy about what qualifies as art.

Fig. 1 News story “An A.I.-Generated Picture Won an Art Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy.” by Kevin Roose from The New York Times (2022)

The word “System” refers to the arrangement of things. It originates from the Greek, “​​σύστημα”, meaning a whole compounded of parts. To understand how art falls into one system and then another, it might be necessary to examine what art is, and to begin with, how art was first known to us in the sense we still comprehend it nowadays.


“Humanity has known sculptors, dancers, or musicians for thousands of years. It has only known Art as such - in the singular are with a capital - for two centuries…Art is not made of paintings, poems, or melodies. Above all, it is made of some spatial setting, such as the theater, the monument, or the museum” (Jacques, 2009:72)


About two centuries ago, the European Enlightenment established certain forms of fine art (such as painting and sculpture) and the means of display: the state-funded Salon in Paris (Brauer, 2013:5), and the first contemporary fine art exhibition was held in 1760 in London by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (Allen, 1991:265-269). This established a system of human control and societal norms to categorise fine art as different from decorative art, craft etc.


Within this system called “Art”, every piece of work was still what it used to be and if they are not, then they could not possibly be part of this system, i.e. a blank canvas or a raw stone could not have been works of art.


And this system of art controlled the creation of art for a very long period in art history despite the interests of subject matter and techniques changing over and over again. The production of an artwork, which requires mostly the craftsmanship of the artists, had a fundamental and profound impact on the artwork’s value, i.e. in Walter Benjamin’s words, its singularity, or in his specific term: its “aura” (Benjamin, 2008:7-10), even before an artwork is judged by the system. As suggested by Walter Benjamin also, if it is any better to summarise art history in terms of art production, then up to this point art’s development can be epitomised as the first stage, in Gombrich’s words: “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists” (1950:15), or in today’s language borrowed from the Internet: “Art 1.0” (Naik and Shivalingaiah, 2008:499).


On the other hand, works of art are chosen and displayed to a specific audience (who can afford tickets or to buy artworks), by a specific group of people. Not only art has been limited to an exhibition space, but artworks with the quality to be featured in exhibitions are often auctioned and sold for high prices. Artworks’ worth can continue to rise after their creators’ death, not to mention some famous artworks were only discovered then. Artworks have more or less been the manifestation of their buyers’ rank in society. Until now art has not escaped from trading, auctions, and basically, money.


After all, is there actually a formula or a universal standard to pick the very best art out of all good art, assuming there is a general taste for good contextually? Why do we feel pity or irony about artworks getting recognized only after the artists’ death? That is in the end asking about taste and the question of who has the power to dictate the fate of others.


For artworks deemed unfitting by the authority in the world of fine art, there was one time in history when they did not have to sit in the cold corners of the deceased artists’ storage space. In Paris, Napoleon III noticed the clamorous protests from artists rejected by the Paris Salon and called for the Salon des Refusés in 1863 (Rodgers, 2003).


Salon des Refusés was a one-off for being too contentious at the time, but took the lead to undermine the significance of the official Salon so as to diminish its financial grip on painters, trailblazing the pathway for the Impressionist exhibition held in 1874 and the unofficial Salons, like the Salon des Indépendants in 1884 (Rodgers, 2003).


In 1826, the discovery of ​​Nicéphore Niépce brought photography to the world (Silverman and Kaja, 2015:41-42), marking the unavoidable future of art. This technological change in art production, photography, and film later on, freed art from its previous existence for the first time (Benjamin, 2008:11-12), i.e. “the first system” in this essay.


Artists shifted their focus to something else. In 1917 Duchamp challenged the art world by presenting a manufactured urinal in an exhibition, as an artwork. By accepting this as a work of art, the biggest implication was art no longer had to be made by the artist. This established the second stage of art: Art 2.0(Naik and Shivalingaiah, 2008:499). The production of artwork no longer necessarily requires craftsmanship and the most complicated process is then laid in the manufacturing of the tools to facilitate all kinds of art objects, i.e. the camera or an art object itself like the urinal. Hence there were no artists, but only art.


However, the Fountain would not have worked if it was not for Duchamp who put it into that exhibition. If he was not an established artist but instead a student who had not yet had enough knowledge about art, would he have had enough power to argue ‘readymade’ can be art because art is not about what the object actually is?


This development led to the introduction of a new concept to define art, which focused on originality and breaking traditions, in particular the artwork as a commodity to be sold to a bourgeois consumer.

Fig. 2 Shoot (1971)

If ‘readymade’ is about the decisive moment of the creation of art, it also marked the beginning of the challenge about ownership of artworks. The conceptual performance art piece “Shoot” (See Fig. 2) by John Burden took the test to the limit by justifying how art can not only exist without any recognisable form but rather some happenings, and thus is not tradable or ownable, but further, it blurred boundaries of authorship of an artwork.


In this act, the artist himself and his friend are the basic components of the whole piece. But does it have to be Burden himself to experience the psychological experience of danger and pain? From the viewpoint of spectators, no one actually felt what he felt in any events and it could have been someone else to experience getting shot at with a live round on purpose and producing the same outcome. Furthermore, since the artist and the spectators did not share the same feeling, nor did spectators necessarily understand what Burden was trying to express just by watching the act, and vice versa Burden cannot dictate what the spectators regard his act as thus the ‘aboutness’ of “shoot” became open to interpretation.


Apart from conceptual art, the same also goes for all non-representational artwork. It might be suitable to borrow the summary of changes that happened in literature: the author is dead (Barthes, 1977), and the authorship of artists no longer plays any role in the interpretation of artworks. The artwork itself can also carry no artistic value, ‘aboutness’ became a necessary condition for works to be art” (van Maanen, 2009:21). The world of art is broadened to the largest.


To make a living with this kind of art would seem quite impossible, and artists would rely on side jobs, teaching, and government funding to continue making art. This established the case where the worth of art is no longer bound to trading, money, or rank. Newer types of similar art, like public art, were only made possible because of this breakthrough.


As art forms further evolve, digital art brings back the questions around authorship and ownership into the spotlight. After all, it is a technologically deterministic world we are living in. Set aside digital art in 2D or 3D and NFTs, in the following A.I. generated art will be the focus.


Back to the news story at the beginning of the essay (See Fig. 1), the artist Jason M. Allen won the Colorado State Fair’s annual art competition in the ‘digital art/digitally manipulated photography’ category, with a digital artwork generated by the A.I. art engine Midjourney (Roose, 2022) and stirred up huge controversies, with the most monstrous one being this not only the end of art but human creativity in general.


To start with, let’s have a look at the introduction of what Midjourney is.


“Midjourney is an independent research lab exploring new mediums of thought and expanding the imaginative powers of the human species” (Midjourney, s.d.)


It is not the developers’ intention to replace humans with computers. Midjourney clearly states that the team’s AI is developed to open up new possibilities.


To generate art, users need to join Midjourney’s Discord channel and use the “/imagine” command to tell it what the art is about. Then Midjourney will initiate 4 variations of images, from ‘draft’ to finish. Users may choose to make upscales or make variations with any of the output. The trial allows users to create around 25 images and after that, they will have to subscribe to generate more (Midjourney, s.d.).


Midjourney can manage to generate something no matter how the keywords do not make sense or in fact “unimaginable”. I have tried asking it to ‘imagine’ “an apple that doesn’t exist” and “yourself”. (See Fig. 3 and Fig. 4)

Fig. 3 Commanding Midjourney to imagine “an apple that doesn’t exist” (2022)

Fig. 4 Commanding Midjourney to imagine “yourself” (2022)

Although Mr. Allen claimed that he did not cheat. But who actually created the artwork? It was certain Midjourney and it is not possessed by Allen. In fact, Allen did nothing more than commission the A.I. to make art, as if it is a human artist. In the case of a commission, the artist can have or not have ownership of the artwork based on the terms of the contract.


Before human artists started commissioning A.I. to make their work, they had already been commissioning other humans to do so. Out of Damien Hirst’s approximately 1,400 spot paintings, he frankly admitted that he only painted the first few dozen and the rest were produced by a bunch of assistants (Bowley, 2013). What he believes is that art is about the idea rather than the execution and that is still disputable today; if he insists to compare himself with an architect (Riefe, 2012), then he must realise an architect is a professional with real knowledge to contribute to the world, while it requires nothing to be an artist at this moment in history.


Anyhow, what he is doing can be seen as a variation of the second stage of art, “Art 2.1” (Naik and Shivalingaiah, 2008:499), which involves the transformation of production from “other humans making objects as art” to “other humans making an artist’s art”. Substituting “human” with “A.I.” in the previous sentence would lead to a new variation of stage two, “Art 2.2” (Naik and Shivalingaiah, 2008:499) because eventually A.I. will be able to produce anything on its own.


In the interview, Mr. Allen boldly declared the death of art and the humans’ defeat against A.I. Why do some people put A.I. and humans in a conflicting position in the first place? Could it be anything other than money and the possible legal implications?


All the worries about A.I. art “replacing” or “winning over” whatever it is called, originates from its ramifications on the systems and beliefs of this world.


For one thing, the fear of robots taking over humans’ jobs stems from the fact that most humans need money to survive in a world controlled by free market and capitalism. And time is money. At this point, digital artists who make art that sells seems to be the most troubled because A.I. art takes much less time to create digital art of the same quality that humans would take. In the future, it could be sculptors or anyone in the creative industry.


Artists are not even unhappy because A.I. can achieve the same thing as humans do, which already happened in the chess world, but because it delivers the product faster and that means everything in the commercial world.


The other problem arises from legal concerns including copyrights and ownership of computer-generated artwork. But at the end of the day that is also associated with the structure of the society, i.e. the systems, in general.


Also note that money itself is also undergoing revolutionary development with the invention of digitised money and cryptocurrency, which are already altering the mode of ownership of artworks. If a dollar note and an artwork could speak, they might as well laugh at each other.


In this sense not only has the oldest form of control in art suddenly revived but also if there will ever be an escape it would require the world to transform into one without any need for trading, which might as well look like the Matrix world.


Interestingly enough, after art was released from all kinds of convention, that was only art’s liberation from its own world. It does not require an A.I. to make one realise art is still trapped in the bigger world outside the whole time. To portray this, would lead us to the final example of art against the system.

Fig. 5 Take the Money and Run (2021)

The empty canvases revealed by Jens Haaning would be yet the best example for this claim. “Take the Money and Run” (Fig. 5) is about taking $84000 given by the museum for him to create artwork and handing two empty canvases in return (Chappell, 2021). It has the feature of a conceptual performance art piece and the canvases are ‘readymade’ objects. But Haaning’s idea is opposed to what “Fountain” or “Shoot” was trying to achieve or challenge.


Essentially it is not about art but his protest against low wages. "The work is that I have taken their money," he claimed in an interview (Haaning, 2021 cited in Chappell, 2021).


Before “Take the Money and Run”, he had made another artwork with two empty canvases in different sizes as an analogy of the disparity of income between Denmark and Austria (Chappell, 2021).


Therefore, these canvases as artworks could be seen as a very pure form of art. They did not have the uniqueness and artistic value that came out of skilful handling of the raw materials. They were more than mere functional objects made by himself or someone else, nor did he do or need to commission anyone to do his work. Nothing is being done or is happening, or worth looking at, to be frank, is almost equal to non-existence. Thus the artwork must be just an idea, which is exactly what he meant. The art is an idea against the external world. This progress wraps up the third stage: “Art 3.0” (Naik and Shivalingaiah, 2008:499)—“no artists, no art, but only artworks”. It took only two decades after Danto for one to be able to whimsically announce—“After the End of Art” (1997) art ends again. Clearly even theoretically art does not exist anymore, people will still make artworks anyway.


Having reached this point in art history, one might just grasp the true ‘aura’ of art because of its continuous feature. If art means anything to humans then it also can never escape from humans, who are the best at creating systems to not just control but also organise and comprehend everything in this universe.


Art will never cease to be observed, to be interacted with, or to be manipulated. Practically speaking, right now the most imminent systems that it tries but fails to escape are our money and the legal system, which control the production and distribution of works of art.


Finally, the last system art would remain in is probably the mind of humans, a.k.a. the realm of philosophy, where it is cut open and tested inside-out, not just in the contemporary context, but forever.


So, ultimately, why escape? Across all time, ever since the first cave drawing (before “Art” was born), art encapsulates the fate of mankind in its unique way. Every piece of artwork is the trace of someone trying to capture something, be it as plain as a dot, as vivid as a beautiful/ugly scene or person, as complex as stories and emotions, as abstract as an idea, or as pure as nothing.



List of illustrations


Fig. 1 News story “An A.I.-Generated Picture Won an Art Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy.” by Kevin Roose from The New York Times (2022) [The New York Times website, screenshot] At: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/02/technology/ai-artificial-intelligence-artists.html (Accessed 26/1/2023).


Fig. 2 Burden, C. (1971) Shoot [Film] At: https://www.eai.org/user_files/images/title/_xl/burden_shoot_xl.jpg (Accessed 26/1/2023).


Fig. 3 Commanding Midjourney to imagine “an apple that doesn’t exist” (2022) [Discord, screenshot] At: https://discord.com/channels/662267976984297473/989268410171006976/1006808480411299890 (Accessed 30/01/2023).


Fig. 4 Commanding Midjourney to imagine “yourself” (2022) [Discord, screenshot] At: https://discord.com/channels/662267976984297473/1008571111530836068/1011012908026695792 (Accessed 30/01/2023).



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