• oil paintings


Oil paintings by Saint Louis artist Benjamin Guffee

Art as a voice of reason

When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famed mountaineer George Mallory simply replied, "Because it's there."  Mallory's words reflect mankind's tendency to tackle a challenge simply because of its existence - often without full consideration of the consequences.

We live in a society driven by this tendency.  We make our cars faster, our buildings bigger and our computers smaller.  Mankind is currently at a point in history where we are often only constrained by actual laws of nature - never by a lack of ambition or imagination.  

A perfect example is the iPhone, which will surely be remembered as the iconic piece of technology that defined our generation.  Throughout the 90's and the early 2000's, computers kept getting smaller and sleeker.  Phones kept getter bigger and more competent.  The "golden spike" of this convergence was the iPhone.   

Several months ago the idea occurred to me, "What if it wasn't physically possible to make an iPhone?"   The technologies that we hold in our hands every day were science fiction - impossibilities - a few decades ago (in fact, when you watch sci-fi movies from the 80's most of the technology imagined back then looks incredibly clunky next to what the average US consumer has access to today).  There is still a surreal aspect to all of it.  So what if it simply hadn't been possible to create these technologies?  What if the physical properties of the metals and elements used in microprocessors were slightly different, and the gurus of Silicon valley hit a wall somewhere along the way?  What if computers simply couldn't get small enough to fit in the palms of our hands?

There's not much of a point to all these "what ifs" because the fact is that these technologies were and are within the realm of possibility.  So the question is, was that possibility the main reason behind their creation?  

I still remember an article entitled "A Letter to the Year 2100" that appeared in the January 1, 2000 issue of Time magazine.  I kept a copy of the article and some of the quotes have been echoing around in my mind ever since.  In it author Roger Rosenblatt mused as to whether the "emerging technologies that purport to bind people together" could actually be a divisive or isolating factor.  

Rosenblatt continued, "I wonder if we really want to have as much to do with one another as we have always claimed to want.  Connectedness - that was supposed to be the desperate cry of a world frightened by modernity... Inventions were concocted to bring us closer to one another, the machinery of communication especially... Historically, there has never been as much communication as in our 20th century, or as much mass murder.  Communication, mistaken for a virtue in itself, has been substituted for sympathetic, beneficial social existence.  If living with one another merely means living in touch with one another, no wonder so many people feel closer to their computer screens than to other people."

That was January 1, 2000!   

I would add to the thoughts above the question:  Were these technologies ever truly designed to "bind people together?"  Or were they the inevitable product of a capitalist system?   An eventuality - a combination of the "Because it's there" phenomenon and possibility - the allowance of such devices by the physical properties of the materials available?  And what are the implications if possibility be the primary decision-maker on such influential, world-changing inventions?

Whatever the case, the technologies that currently shape our culture certainly are not bringing people together.  If anything, they promote a distracted, self-absorbed lifestyle.  

How does all of this impact art and shape the context of how artworks are viewed today?  For one thing, artworks have more noble and interesting reasons for being created beyond capitalistic possibility (hopefully!).  The passion and vision of the artist, a message to convey, or the desire to create a certain feeling or impact on the viewer all come into play.  Secondly, the experience of viewing art in person, while it has been impacted by the information age, remains essentially unchanged.  It is a moment of complete connection, whether you view it as a connection with the artwork, with the artist, or with yourself.  There is something wonderfully real and impactful about viewing a piece of art in a space created expressly for that purpose... especially in contrast with the disposable fluff our minds are constantly flooded with in this information-glutted age.  

I believe that artists who realize the impact of thoughtfully created art in the context of the digital age will become increasingly important as years go by.  If the role of art as a reminder to slow down and be present in the moment becomes more highly valued, then work that truly engages a viewer visually will be increasingly appreciated.  I don't want to present this as an issue of "representational vs. abstract."  But it absolutely is an issue of thoughtful, engaging artwork vs. smug, slick and inaccessible work.  It is an issue of substance - effort and technique, being favored over style and attitude alone.

Can art fill a role, not just as a reflection of a confused and overwhelmed society, but as a guide, a beacon, a voice of reason?  Can art be a reminder of what real communication is about?