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What Place Does Digital Art Have in the WVAL?

by Mark Love, Wimberley Valley Art League President

When new technology meets art it sometimes creates a crisis. Not in the sense of a disaster, but more like a crossroads. That’s what crisis means, really. An intense moment of decision. Once, when I was a young apprentice, I had a front row seat to such a crisis. I watched as my mentor, who is widely considered to be among the woodworking elite, locked philosophical horns with the chief editor of the premier woodworking magazine. At issue was whether or not the newly-affordable CNC (a robot that shapes wood) had any place in “real” woodworking. By the end of the heated argument, which spontaneously combusted in front of a booth at a woodworking convention, an audience had gathered. Not just people who loved a fight, but woodworkers who knew that we were all standing at a pretty big intersection. Like it or not, as individuals -- and in groups -- we’d have to decide on our relationships with these digital elephants in the woodshop. Was this real woodworking? Or was it cheating? Wannabe music historians like me know about the night in 1965 when Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar and infuriated half of the Newport Folk Festival crowd (while delighting the other half). The chorus of loud boos might have stopped another artist from even reaching the refrain of “Like a Rolling Stone” before giving up, but Dylan knew it was good. He knew they’d eventually get it. Or maybe he just couldn’t hear the angry derision over his electrified devil music. Whatever the case, with one fuzzy chord he lifted the world’s folk music purists from their happy Beatles-free acoustic campfires and set them down in the middle of a decision they probably didn’t want to be forced to make. “How does it feel?,” he taunted. Pete Seger answered, legend says, by taking an ax to the sound cables, trying to make it stop. But the part of that story you never hear is what happened at the planning meeting for the 1966 festival. Or what I’m guessing happened. Because someone in charge would now have to decide how electric guitars fit into the Newport Folk Festival. They would now need a rule. And that rule might well alienate half the crowd. These and other stories are in my mind as the WVAL stands at our very own tech-meets-art fork in the road, trying to decide whether to go left or right when it comes to digitally-created art. Some of our endlessly innovative members are doing what good artists often do by pushing the boundaries of tools and techniques. They know that the old ways sometimes aren’t enough to express new visions. That if you’re lucky you might be alive and making art when a whole new toolbox drops from the sky. And it has. The digital revolution has rolled into the art studio, in all its forms, and art-promoting organizations everywhere have to decide how to feel. Our gallery committee (the group of tireless volunteers who do all the un-fun-but-necessary things to put together our beautiful juried art shows) is receiving an increasing flow of digitally-created art among the entries, and is understandably not sure what to do about it. On the one hand, to hang art made with the aid of computers alongside pieces that have been made by traditional means might seem strange, even unfair. It might seem that the old ways are being eclipsed by the new. Maybe a “real artist” is someone who expresses themselves using the traditional tools. A paint brush, a hand plane, an acoustic guitar. On the other hand, perhaps art is more about the vision that grows from the mind and the heart before it even reaches the physical. Maybe it would be small-minded and unfair to fence out media that finally allows artists who might not be as experienced in traditional forms to express themselves vividly. Maybe to limit the media this way would actually be to deprive ourselves and the art-loving community of Wimberley from some really beautiful work. Maybe you are getting worked up right now as you read this, wanting to set me straight about what art is and is not! If so then you understand that emotions around this sometimes get high, which is why the gallery committee came to the WVAL board for help sorting it out. They rightly perceived this as a defining dilemma for the art league. Will digital art be under the umbrella of the visual arts that the Wimberley Valley Art League has committed to “promoting, inspiring, and supporting?” Before I tell you what we decided I want to let you know a couple of things: First, the group of people who make up this board are the smartest, hardest working, most conscientious group of volunteers I’ve ever been a part of. I mean that. Second, most of the people on the board are artists who are deeply in love with our own media and have pretty strong personal opinions about it, and as we discussed this question at great length I witnessed them setting those personal opinions aside for the larger good of our art community. It was a beautiful thing. Third, we began our discussion by framing it tightly: We were not there to decide what is and what is not legitimate art (a question that nobody has ever been able to definitively answer), but simply what forms of art our organization would like to promote, inspire, and support at this moment in time. Which leads to the fourth thing I want you to know, which is that “this moment in time” means the year 2024. We recognize that the culture is always changing and art is always evolving. For that reason we decided to leave room for revisiting the question again after next year, should the need arise. And fifth, we dedicated our entire October board meeting to this question. We talked it out until we all agreed. To more accurately define what we meant by “digital art” for the sake of our conversation, we put forth four different examples of art that can be created using computer programs and printed on paper or canvas to be hung.

  • A photograph that has been enhanced in a way that makes it obviously very different from the original.

  • A collage of images that has been assembled and stylized.

  • A “digital painting” that has been created on an iPad.

  • An image created by artificial intelligence (A.I.) by means of a verbal prompt.

Our discussion went in many different directions but came together at the end with one clear voice. We decided that we will widen our tent to welcome the first three examples but not the fourth, the difference being that the first three require an artistic vision on the part of the creator before the work even begins, and that the creator will at least be using their hands, albeit employing a mouse, stylus, trackpad, or just their finger. But from the beginning we unanimously rejected the idea of accepting the fourth example, art created by A.I. We believe that verbally describing a scene and letting a computer do the rest of the imagining doesn’t rise to the level of artistry we want to include in our juried shows at this time. Starting in 2024 the prospectus for the juried shows will reflect these decisions. Of course we recognize that there might be some who disagree with the decision to welcome digitally-created art into our shows. I get it. Just as there were strong arguments to be made against Dylan’s electric guitar at a folk festival or robots in the woodshop, there might be compelling reasons why digital art shouldn’t be allowed in our shows. I would ask that you consider the difficult position an art league - or a folk festival - or a woodworking magazine find themselves in when new technology knocks at the door hoping to be let in. On the one hand we don’t want to lose the essence of what makes us us, but on the other we don’t want to turn our backs on what might be a future full of infinite new possibilities of artistic expression. I want to thank everyone on the board and the gallery committee for their careful and sensitive struggle with this difficult question, as well as the WVAL members who by their innovation have pulled us, perhaps at times unwillingly, to grapple with what we consider to be at the essence of Wimberley art.


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