End of the Original: Old Masters vs Artists of the Digital


"The dominance of the art market – not to mention the art object – is
being challenged by hackers, code warriors, and artistically motivated
nerds who prefer networks, websites, and $19.95 posters to glitzy shows
and art-star fame."

Thus begins the article ‘My Art World is Bigger Than Your Art World’ in December’s issue of The Believer (I’m a huge fan). The scope of the article is wide, covering ‘net.art’, the history of ‘video art’ and the work of some ‘hacker art’, exemplified by the piece ‘Super Mario Clouds‘ by Cory Arcangel (screenshot below, cartridge above) which he created by hacking the code of the Super Mario game. The result of this intervention is a ‘minimalist game environment – no iconic Mario figure in red coveralls, no coin-generating brick blocks, and no poisonous mushrooms – all that remains are the puffy white clouds gently drifting across a clear blue sky’

Beyond the artistic merits, or otherwise, of such pieces, the article raises a far more interesting – and for my thoughts on Emerging Church issues, pertinent, question about what constitutes ‘an original’.

The art world makes its money out of the concept of ‘originals’ – a case of the economics of scarcity – and artists have long sought ways to subvert – or at least appear to subvert – the ‘insularity and pomp of art-world conventions’. Photography was an early example. As mechanical image, could it be called art? And, more to the point, how could one distinguish one print from the negative from another? There was no ‘original’, and thus the art world had to invent ways of creating an ‘aura’ around a piece, by limited edition numberings, signatures, framings etc.

Warhol took this idea of mechanical reproduction further in much of his work, as did Duchamp with his signed ‘bog-standard’ urinial. But all of these examples, with a little tweaking, can be distilled to some ‘original’, whether it be photographic negative or screen. What is interesting about the work of the digital artists that the article explores is that, with many of the media they are working in, there is simply no concept of original at all. And this causes the art world a great deal of trouble, for how can it create profit, aura, buzz, exclusivity…power, if it cannot control access to the object?

In building this argument the writer notes:

"A work of video art is simply a video signal on a tape. Early analog video technology is termed ‘lossy’ – meaning that with every successive copy there is a noticable degradation in quality. Analog technologies still had some claim to the construction of an ‘original’ – the photograph had the negative, and the video has the master copy, from which further copies are struck. The negative and master thus have more value than their offspring.

"Digital video formats released by Sony in the 1990’s changed this condition completely, as they alloweds for perfect reproduction. Video is now simply a piece of code – a string of ones and zeros that, unlike its analog parent, is wholly duplicable. Enabling the production of infinite clones with no discernable value hierarchy thus renders ‘original’ a meaningless term."

Reflecting back on Arcangel’s work with the Super Mario hack, his release of the method for producing his pieces, and admission that the ‘original’ cartridge got lost, again forces us to re-think whether the term has any meaning for his work. Anyone following the right instructions can perfectly create the ‘work of art’ that he did. So what of it can be bought or sold? What value does it have? There are millions of Mona Lisa prints for a penny, but only one priceless original. If you could have a perfect reproduction to gaze at, would it spoil your visual enjoyment?

The question then comes round to ‘what is art?’ It is clearly not just about enjoyment of a created environment. We like the ‘aura’ of the gallery where the ‘original’ hangs – exclusive, live, real… It gives us a sense of power – because the original is invested with such power by ArtWorld™.

Paul said with relief that he was glad he hadn’t baptized many of the Corinthians. Why? Because he didn’t want to participate in the heresy of ‘the original’. Being baptised by him was no different to being baptised by anyone else. There was no special power the closer you got to him. "Is Christ divided?" he asked? No. We all have the same access to Christ by the Spirit, unmediated by the high priests of art, culture, church or anywhere. This is dangerous speech, a gift many think ‘the common people’ are not responsible/wise/intelligent/cultured enough to handle. But the truth is, it is a free gift, one which is devoid of human power, which is all about the Other, not about us.

The Emerging Church must avoid the ‘aura’ offered by mega-churches, experts or names. They have wise experience to offer – let’s not forget that. But they don’t mediate our access.

The Spirit hacks us with the same code. We are all a unique original. Priceless. Signed. Not cloned. Not reproduced by Graham, Robertson, Gumbel, Wimber or McClaren (insert Male Pastor Name here). Without "value hierarchy." It’s a gift. It can’t be bought or sold. Or gallaried; hung up in a stale white cube.

So remember, whatever you do, View the Source.
That’s the bomb.

Happy New Year.


2 responses to “End of the Original: Old Masters vs Artists of the Digital”


    My fave artists were the Russian Proletkult who built and ran a hospital. I’d like to see a geek hack that!!!
    Of course the greatest digital artwork and creative forum is a MMORPG. The rest is a poor substitute… photoshop, pah!
    (apart from my amazing work, of course!)
    We don’t use false modesty in Echurch do we?


    BTW… hi Krusty, hope the piles clear up soon and see you in my city in a couple of weeks. I’ll wear a tee-shirt that says “Damn Flanders”.