On Friday, October 14, 2022, two activists poured a can of tomato soup on Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" in Room 43 in the National Gallery in London. They then each glued a hand to the wall. The painting was framed with glass over it, and it wasn't damaged. Both activists were arrested.
This is what they were protesting:
“What is worth more, art or life? … are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”@JustStop_Oil’s activists explain their action pic.twitter.com/mGNZIO6RbK— Damien Gayle (@damiengayle) October 14, 2022
There's been a lot of questions in the wake their action. Was it helpful or harmful? Is it just another symbolic performance that means nothing? What about the painting? What's up with these crazy kids?
None of the answers to these questions seem especially profound or of consequence. In fact, it seems really simple to me. It's a call to attention of our world on fire and under water. All I have to do is look around me to know that our climate is changing, and people all over the world are being impacted. (See the flooding in Pakistan, Nigeria, Kentucky, Puerto Rico, Florida... just to name a few.)
Climate change is real, and the rich and powerful don't care about anyone other than themselves. So two young activists escalating their tactics by defacing a well known painting in the National Gallery (the artistic heart of the British empire) seems about on par with the fact that our "trusted news sources" are abandoning their duty to challenge the rich and the powerful on their lack of action regarding climate change. How else will they get on the news?
A question on my mind is: Was what they did art?
About two weeks ago, I came across this tweet below:
The idea that "AI art will lessen artist workloads" is wild. That's just not how the industry works at all.— Logan Preshaw ➡️ LBX 1204 (@wickedinsignia) September 30, 2022
It prompted me to think a bit more critically about art. Specifically, I wondered, Is AI art actually art? I've seen a number of acquaintances make stuff using DALL-E or other similar AI software / algorithms. It seems like a fun way to play with archetypal imagery and create something a bit more unexpected simply due to the software / algorithms randomization. But is the end result art? And if not what exactly is art?
Over a decade ago I decided one day that I was going to call myself an artist. I had other names I called myself like youth worker, educator, mentor, writer, performer. Artist simply was not one of them.
Then, a shift occurred. I woke up one morning, and declared, "I want to be an artist." I decided to simply call what I do art. I didn't change a thing about what I was doing. I just adjusted my language around myself and watched the world adjust.
When I was asked, "What do you do?" I said, "I'm an artist." It didn't matter that I was working as a barista in a cafe and my art was customer service and cultural event production. The other person didn't know that. Artist is what / who I am, and I can stand in that truth regardless of anyone else's assumptions of what artist means.
Also, art is such a big word for being only three little letters. It's quite intimidating, and people will quickly admit, "Oh, I don't do art." Or ask, "So that means you're a painter, right?"
With either response, my kind of art-making, one that isn't contained to a single form or discipline, invites a deeper question to be asked. "What do you think is art?"
It's always surprising to me how little people really ponder bigger questions and how our acculturation creates deeply entrenched beliefs and behaviors. My granny is a source of inspiration for me to be an artist. She has always made things my entire life from clothes to painted signs to exquisite baked goods to crocheted mittens and scarves. During COVID, she picked up painting landscapes and holiday scenes.
Recently, we had breakfast and as we were chatting she mentioned she had two regrets. One was not learning to play the accordion. The second was not becoming an artist. I looked at her, and I replied, "You've always been an artist, granny."
She lamented that she couldn't draw anything without looking at a reference. She wished she could just imagine something on a canvas and paint it. That was what being an artist was. I gently pointed out that most great painters paint from some sort of reference. Yes, painting from the imagination only is a skill. And that skill isn't the art.
I know there are a lot of cultural conditions that run underneath my granny's life. She is a white woman, raised in a German Catholic family, who married a first generation Swedish Lutheran and moved to the suburbs in the 1950s. My grandfather fought in the Korean War and brought back all of his traumas and prejudices. My granny could never really be an artist, especially as art was something in galleries done by finely trained craftsmen.
Sitting across from my granny this past October 2022 while we both ate Swedish pancakes with lingonberry sauce, I felt proud to be able to offer back to her my observation of her artistry. She initially thought that I was going to be harsh or hard on her painting technique, and I told her, "Who am I to judge the way you want to express yourself?" I could see the pride in her face as she took another bite of pancake.
But what exactly do I mean by art? Who gets to be an artist?
A good framing device is:
Art is a process of making meaning, communicating, and cosmic mapping. It is not, nor ever will be, the end product that art makes.
AI "art" is thus not art. AI "art" results ONLY in a product. It takes some key words, finds things online that match those words, and composes a new image almost instantaneously. Nothing about the algorithm goes through a process of consideration about what is being communicated by the creation of the image. It just executes its function.
Viewed this way, the industries that are promoting AI products (aka "art'") are strategically moving away from meaning making, communicating, and cosmic mapping. They know that the power of art doesn't come from the final product. It comes from the act of creation.
AI "art" supplants that act with execution. And by subtly making this substitution further conflates art with product. This conflation is intentional. The companies that own and invest in these technologies don't want a deeply critical populous. Making art a product means it (and we) can be controlled.
Said another way:
Art isn't the object.
Art is the meaning made because the object exists.
The object is just an object.
If the masses were to more deeply understand and make meaning out of the climate crisis, there would be a much stronger call to action, and protests like the one in the National Gallery wouldn't even make a news cycle because there would be uprisings the world over until action at scale was taken to address this global crisis.
Or put another way:
A soup can is just a can of soup.
That is until its contents leave the can.
That you may be outraged over its contents being poured over an object is art.
It is also just soup on an object.