top of page

Search Results

27 items found for ""


    Jamie Treacy at Gearbox Gallery April - May 2024 Gearbox Gallery stands street level in a West Oakland building two stories tall. It has enough space to accommodate the group of artists who form and run it, such that all artists have always at least one work on display. In this scheme, it makes a one-person show on the lower floor as special to the members as it may be to us. The current featured work is testimony to how the gallery, as an organization, highly motivates individual members to freely pour energy into a lot of work. Currently, at this location, gallery member and lifelong swimmer Jamie Treacy has his first solo show, Creatures of Duality, running through April 30th. The first impression that the collection of paintings gives is not of creatures. When you enter the gallery and (almost instantly) stand in the center of the square exhibition space, you are immediately surrounded by beautiful intricate surfaces. It makes you wonder where to start but also says that you can start anywhere. Committing to it, I started with noticing that the many hues of green were not like the water of blue vacations but the real water of oceans and ponds. Places where if you leave something alone long enough, something else will grow on it. Some of Treacy’s works make this into outtakes from languid movies, shot perhaps on other discovered planets. But instead, they are from the inner spaces of where we are – waters where Treacy dives, and the imagination. While not arranged in order this way, the set of paintings offer a progression that sets artificial structures or manufactured forms against organic, natural ones – but ultimately subordinates their difference into flattened composed motifs.  There’s an implication that Treacy shows us “found” artificial items and “invented” natural one, but his use of all-over color and placement of things evaporates that implication as it emphasizes his decisions about what to show. Another key element in many pictures is the vantage point that he offers. Across the collection, we are sometimes high up looking down, or pointed towards a horizon, or fully immersed in the thick of organisms or being underwater. The points of view inject a narrative dimension by “placing” us in the sensory field of the picture, as if we were Treacy seeing what is shown. It makes us imagine, or ask, what he was doing there. In his statement, the artist speaks of being a “new diver”, struck by the co-presence of opulence and desiccation, and as a queer artist, given to making spaces that can hold contrasting experiences. Treacy’s painting requires a lot of drawing, and while his color work is the pronounced emotional driver, his line work provides most of the “text”. We see not only de facto shapes of things that seem familiar but verge sometimes on science fiction; and we also see “cutaway” views of the usually hidden internals of those things – their fibrous chambers or framework. Then, for example, while these innards usually are revealed to us when plants meet death or violence, Treacy mainly makes them part of the intricate surface patterning of his canvas. It moves us away from piers and sunken boat hulls, on to a type of imagery that becomes more an abstract fabrication of his visual vocabulary – perhaps more about personal symbology than shared sensation. This description should not be taken as stating Treacy’s actual intentions or any evolution. All of the works were made during 2022 through 2024 and have the artist’s own evocative titles. But as audiences, we bring a great mix of aesthetic backgrounds, and we look at things both to find out what we have in common with the reality of the work and, separately, with the imagination of the artist. Together they create the dialogue in our own sense of the work. All excerpts of paintings provided above are from works © Jamie Treacy.

  • Art of the African Diaspora: 2024

    Gray Loft Gallery, Oakland March - April 2024 In a part of the U.S. where diversity is one of the most prominent social features, the East Bay in California increasingly feels more like the real destination of the Bay Bridge than just one of its two anchors. But historical arrivals of peoples of African descent need not have had any earlier stop in San Francisco before arriving in Oakland or its contiguous neighbors. There are many ways in, and the land mass taken up for habitation is surprisingly large to survey. Scholars of migration note that multiple communities form at the resting points of a diaspora (dispersion), and we naturally wonder what cultural features survive the trips and still represent the origin throughout the various new grounds. Do we see it in art? Well, the nature of art means that knowledge of both the old and the new of people’s experiences will get representation that is meant to communicate. So when we go visit any art gallery participating in the Richmond Art Center’s annual Art of the African Diaspora event, we are likely to encounter a range of experiences both historical and current. Those experiences also vary across one’s attention to memory, identity, desire, and discovery. It is tempting to see that “attention” as a  four-part storyline about diaspora, one that is a recurring theme spawning endless variations. And the story can be one individual’s story or a story of a whole community. Importantly, as one of the annual event’s several satellite galleries, founder Jan Watten’s Gray Loft Gallery in Oakland’s “Jingletown” district (  is virtually one of the communities that are formed of African American artists who have arrived in the East Bay.  Eleven of these artists went on view together there in early March, for a stay deep into April. Gray Loft shows continually distinguish themselves by the way the works are positioned to resonate or even reveal each other’s inner workings. Watten, who curated this event, is masterful with arrangements that illuminate connections and themes. And an additional dimension this time is the reappearance of several artists who exhibited different work at this same event one year ago. At the opening, that allowed the show to also host conversations between artists and visitors about how the artists’ recent experiences, both in and outside of art, became new works that turned corners, or dove deeply, from their previous ones. More than any particular pieces, those inner workings are the star and subject of the show. Artists of course are always their own first audience and are deeply responsive to the work they have made real. As their next audience, we viewers have first impressions that are not necessarily the same as those reached by the artist; but all of the artists here made the work of finding expression a work-in-progress that we could join now. So, what does that mean, work in progress? Several of the artists spoke about how their work allows for open-ended meanings. We are intended to not just receive a meaning but to help decide it. In some work (Cynthia Brannvall), vintage materials become both social critique and anthropology, neither excusing the other, while pulling us into an active conversation. And in one prominent other piece (Malik Seneferu), ritualistic craftwork assembles found objects into a form that oscillates between being an object exposed to us and a persona felt by us. Branvall: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Another artist (Arthur Norcome), compared to a year ago, found a deceptive fusion of assertive flat design and understated expressionist color space that now projects room-like emotional chambers. A not-so-obvious correspondence here is between those works and some large abstract expressionist works done by an artist (Anna W. Edwards) who came from a long journey in external urban landscape to her current concentration on her internal spiritual landscape, which she offers to us as a place for ourselves. Three more groupings (Ray L Haywood, Jimi Evins, and Dawn Rudd) show their artists’ decision to take elements from within earlier more complex paintings and grant those elements the freedom of being soloists apart from their previous roles in group performance – a simplification that triggers intensity through our intimacy with the gestures, while we also imagine making those gestures ourselves. Some works that are more like drawing (Kelvin Curry, Dulama LeGrande) initially seem highly contradictory of each other, one with a quiet orderliness and the other an energetic rawness. But they both have refined their way to personal and somewhat glyphic iconographs that are holding a story in place rather than organizing space. We “read” these as much as see them. LeGrande: Self Portrait as a Temple Storytelling, meanwhile, has more overt display (Chuck Harlans, Tomye Neal Madison) in works that, unlike most of the others in the show, are specifically illustrating people. We can feel their commonalities, and our connection – or perhaps biographically, measure our current distance and differences. Harlans: Ghana – The Jamestown Girls Considering the sweep of subjects and expressive strategies, the show’s major statement is that the diaspora naturally expands migration into exploration and exploration into diverse values. But in turn, this says that the human spirit on the journey of the diaspora is a rich spirit. All the more notable that at the opening of the show, numerous artists spoke of the most recent few years as a time in which something that gained especially high priority in their endeavor was finding Joy. The Art of the African Diaspora exhibit at Gray Loft Gallery opened March 9th and closes April 27th, 2024 at 7pm. See more of the works online at during this time. Malcolm Ryder, an Oakland-based Black photographer and critic, writes about art at and particularly about East Bay art at Oakland Art Murmur’s Art About Town,

  • Think Pink: Pretty in Pink at Gray Loft Gallery

    Scientists are fond of surprising children with the news that nothing in reality is colored, but instead has color when excited by light. This makes every crayon a small magic wand, applying a liquid prism on whatever they touch. Three Lost Years photo by YelenaZhavoronkova But perhaps our first experience of pink comes from something we can’t reach – the sky. One of the signature images in Pretty in Pink at the Gray Loft Gallery reminds us that the sky is where we learn pink is almost pure, ephemeral energy. It doesn’t have nature’s constancy of a field of green or the planet’s umbrella of blue, with one dramatic recurring exception: flowers. In their dazzling variety, flowers have an infinite capacity to capture and shape pink, where we can touch it. Yet they conform to an ebb and flow, a seasonal disappearance, that echoes what we already knew of impermanence in the sky. Perhaps that is why when we grab pink and fix it in place, it grabs us back. Pretty In Pink’s curating jurors Ann Jastrab, Executive Director of the Center for Photographic Art, and Gray Loft Gallery founder Jan Watten, have taken note of how graphically photographers have either portrayed pink’s capture, or have done it themselves. And the show’s numerous display walls give us a variety of groupings that highlight their differing approaches. One grouping is mainly about pink’s appearance as contrast: its brightness far greater than the space it occupies, and making that space feel more lit than it is. Another group presents pink in open environments where, used by some anonymous party, it is poised exactly between being arbitrary or aggressive. But a third group is hosting pink as an emotion in imaginary or psychological theaters, while a fourth set is a primer on how femininity traditionally both owns and is owned by pink. All of those scenes push the impact of deliberately applying pink when some other color would have served a practical purpose – but using something else would have missed the point of having pink’s energy. One of the most initially eclectic groupings similarly shows pink injecting life into, this time, what might otherwise have felt ordinary or indifferent. We get a clue about the way these pictures work from the electric effect of the wall they are hanging on, painted an intense hue of pink – magenta – the only wall like it in the gallery. Then on cue, a different wall in the show emphasizes pink occurring elegantly through the hand of nature; botany is the decision maker, yet it is as if pink just decided on its own to show up, instantly adding spice. Finally, some photographers have pictures that are most strongly about the pictures themselves being objects made with pink. In these items, the artists’ edge-to-edge exploration of form and surface texture relies on pink not so much as a subject but as a key element in their graphic design. There is a great comparison, made by being shown next to each other, of how the formal attention can equally hold a garish festivity or a meditative nuance. And of course, it tells us to pay attention to how design works in all of the other pictures in the show as well. (c) Edie Hoffman To be clear: none of the many effects above are in any case describing only one way to engage the world of the related image, and the show walls are not rigid about holding one group or another. In fact, as we look at any given picture among the others, and then look at it a second or third time, we start appreciating how multiple motives coexist in the artist’s creative process for the image, and have reached a point of being balanced, where the photographer is willing to say they’re done. Show runs Saturday, January 20 – Saturday, February 24, 2024.

  • Physical Abstraction - at Gray Loft Gallery

    TRACING PASSAGES Until November 11th, Oakland’s Gray Loft Gallery boasts a genre-bending trio of artists whose works erase the presumed difference between the abstract and the concrete. In very differing ways, Ruth Boerefyn, Tom White, and Cuong Ta take strongly visceral materials and work them into forms of imagery that also readily float back and forth from echoing nature to insisting on the artifice of their own invention. One of the hallmarks of shows at Gray Loft is the studied relationships that different works can have with each other, displayed in a way that makes this difficult curatorial insightfulness all seem like that was easy to do. But the effect is that individual pieces wind up being more distinctive, as the show guides us to heightened levels of attention. In this show, that nuanced touch is nearly suspended, and quite dramatically so, by the first piece we reach at the doorway, a room-sized Boerefyn installation that dazzles as a sculpture, a living drawing, and an environment all rolled into one. Photo: Malcolm Ryder | Ryder Foto Video: Opposite that installation, things settle in per Gray Loft's usual. Tom White’s pieces continually vibrate between feeling 2D and 3D. Meanwhile, meditating on the work allows it to increasingly seem like an organic evolution of its parts into a whole. It is cultivated, and while its final coherence need not refer to anything more than that it found its “rest” state, it is still highly evocative of things other than itself. Both White and Boerefyn also have more than one kind of work on display, and in the gallery space it is irresistible to consider how their respective differing works inform each other within the show. As if to make that very thing a point, the design of the exhibit allows the placement of ceramic works by the third artist, Cuong Ta, to both share the space with other works of Boerefyn and White, and to visually comment on them in sympathetic character. But on their own, Cuong Ta’s pieces survey ways that artists intervene in natural forms. Artists often elevate Nature’s abstract qualities to make its presence even more pronounced. Here, the pieces are vessels but also highly graphical. The artist finds various ways to sharply highlight forms that already had natural meaning of their own but now also carry the imprint of our human hand. Additional introduction to the unifying currents of this exhibit and its immersive experience is found presently at through November 11th while the show remains on view. All pictures courtesy of Gray Loft Gallery, except where noted otherwise. Gray Loft Gallery is located at 2889 Ford Street #32 in Oakland.

  • Speaking of Creativity

    The demand for creativity as a staple of business operations has never been more broadly intense. So we assume that it is somehow in supply and in practice more than ever as well. Yet when we survey (e.g. as on LinkedIn) the ability to describe what it is, and therefore to know how to make it happen or find it, the common definition is as stubbornly elusive as the demand for it is intense. The unresolved debate of "creativity" as a "problem" to solve is a performative ambiguity, more interested in philosophizing than in resolving. Both the ambiguity and the debate reveal a lack of clarity about what is present with creativity and what is absent without it, and finally what is still absent when it is present. But clarity begins with ending the fuzzy language used to describe what it is and what it is like. From there fuzzy thinking can also be ended. The simplest way to distinguish creativity is to recognize what is missing when it is NOT there. In a given situation, the evident INAbility to generate something new from what is there is precisely the lack of creativity. Creativity is the converse: the demonstrated CAPAbility to generate, in a given situation, something new from what is there. A possibility of opportunity. Creativity is not supernatural and it isn't even ambiguous. It does not have to produce something that is absolutely unprecedented beyond all contexts. And it is just as possible from a sole independent Agent as it is from a co-operating group acting as an agent. There are many things that may account for this capability being absent, including confusion, fear, ignorance, and bias. Whereas the fundamentals of its presence are pretty consistent: freedom, experimentation, curiosity, open mindedness, and enough knowledge to recognize significance independent of an agenda. Creativity assumes a hospitable environment. We can say that a culture is fertile when it offers an ecology supportive of those fundamentals. But that is not the same as creativity being present. In creativity, there is always an agent, not just an environment. Possibility is a neutral binary. Potential is affirmative, because there is an agent. We can say, further, that an agent is original when it is the recognized source of whatever exercised capability has generated what is new. Within the scope of that exercised capability is both the formulation of ideas and the formulation of method, but in a given situation, either one of those, or both together, count as originality. Originality does not exist outside of the ecology and context of the capability. Let's be clear. Capability is a potential. Ability is an actual. Capability can be cultivated, taught, and recruited. So can creativity. And Creativity, like capability, is not a measured production output. Creations are measurable production outputs. Like capability, Creativity is not synonymous with any imposed degree of product value. Creativity is a prior condition of a way to pursue end value. There is no fundamental correlation between the level of creativity and the level of production value. Yet creativity, because it is an obtainable option, has independently intrinsic value. Production output has no value without an identified context establishing relevance. Now, we drop the debates, because using what is clear is more interesting.


    Why does someone make art, and why do they make it the way they do? Even though we want the answers, that question is too big and abstract, so we rephrase it as a matter of experience: why did this person make this art, and why did they make it like this? I. I'm letting that question float in the background as a steady position while I look for my overlapping thoughts about the Self-taught, the Unfamiliar, and now the Artificial -- together a steadily increasing proportion of my daily visual intake. Recently I've seen more and more frequently that "Outsider" is becoming the primary point of reference for inclusivity and equity in the so-called "art world" of visual art, and here is my main new thought: it's probably time to stop saying "outsider". Here's the issue... Diversity -- a standard dimension of today's societal DEI evolution, is not a basic problem in the world of people who make art. And once we decide that we prefer attending to diversity in art-making, there is no real difficulty in the volume of supply; the matter is instead about satisfying the search. But exploration does not always culminate in selecting what is found. There's no getting around the fact that while selection means approval or elevation, it also means exclusion of other things at that time and in the selector's context. Too much of the time, blinders and biases willfully ignore much of what is there in favor of serving a system of exclusivity that we more clearly see now as being institutionalized. And making the excluded "chic" is not a solution when the excluders are still the ones doing the deciding. There is the "Insider" art world, in which Cultural, Market, and Personal influences come to dominate both expectations and terms of evaluating art. Any critic, collector or exhibitor may be in business to pursue some difference that passes some fairly specific Who Cares Test, subject to myopia, rewards, and privilege. The same is true, of course, for non-professionals and general art lovers or appreciators, factoring in where and how they were raised, and likewise educated. But selection criteria can readily become a vocabulary of value - signals sent, grown and shared for groups of common interest, more or less like currency. If you take the wrong currency to where you're going, your money's no good there. How do we retire the predisposition of the perspective that frames "outsiders"?How can these selection criteria either cross-pollinate or evolve among differing selectors, eroding or re-evaluating exclusion and instead exposing the true world of art as created by the makers? II. My approach to an answer points at the prominent (and I think permanent) changes in three dimensions of how the art maker's are dealt with in the art world. First, the Media vs. the Market: borrowing a description from Raw Vision Magazine, there is a population of art makers who are "untrained, unschooled, and uninfluenced by the art world." What would be stunning, except that we are already so accustomed to it, is the default presumptuousness of what the so-called "art world" comprises: institutionalized arbitration of quality and value, servicing a cultivated audience, for financial consideration. The presumption is on a par with some sports league in the USA automatically declaring its best team "world champs". Regardless, given television plus social media, there now exists another organized world of selection and arbitration with a massive distribution and exposure platform that can lay claim to being self-validating, unconcerned with other institutional precursors. For an artist , being discovered and shared in streaming or online not only circumvents the conventional gauntlet of juries, agents, galleries, and auctions but pressures those conventional agents to take a look at what gets traction online and why. Conventional markets do not determine the importance of Art. They determine the importance of an asset in a sales category. Artists meanwhile must themselves determine how to make being online meaningful. But the point is that they are not trying to get into the art world; when they show up, they are in the art world. Second, the Milieu vs. the Meaning: We are used to evaluating artists based on "mastery". But for artists who are inventors, the degree of development achieved in their work is about what they learned by doing, which may be something few others at first know. Here, the force of personality over time blends a talent and an idea into a new expression. If given enough production support, the effort might succeed at having an impact with recognized high value -- especially within the environment of its own origin. Also, that value might be due to innovation, and it is perfectly normal for high-value innovations to at first be primitive, not masterful. It's especially important that this artist-driven value can readily persist in a community unconcerned with any milieu other than where the work came from. Whether we have called its milieu tribal, religious, indigenous, outlaw, or some other classifying label, work that carries persistent meanings can sharply contrast with what people from elsewhere are familiar with. It can change their frame of reference, and can flip the script on who is deemed an insider or an outsider. In fashion, music, and street art, for example, we know this happens all the time. Third, the Methods vs. the Means: Over the span of formalized art history and criticism, there is the aggressive attachment of differing perceived value to different mediums. And in association with a medium, materials themselves have become signals of hierarchical importance and value. But originating with makers, new preferences regarding how structured materials associate with meaning can manifest as forms, language, or style. It is also common that forms, languages and styles get appropriated by the art makers -- purposed and repurposed -- for experimentation, entertainment, or design of expression. We know of course that this has been acknowledged in "mixed media" and "conceptual art" being given passports into the institutionally elite -- not to mention photography's epic battle for recognition. Now, digital automation of production democratizes the means of making things as well as of publishing (distributing) them. Commodity supercomputing is a reality now in the form of consumer A.I. tools for creation and production, and the explosion of trial-and-error experimentation in composition and content constitutes massively parallel aesthetic researches worldwide. Meanwhile, studios may be the size of a laptop, operating with anyone, anytime, anywhere. III. Summarized almost too simply, the above sees that the conventional artworld institutions cannot control today's forces of visibility, multiculturalism and technology enough to sustain the illusion of being the authority on value in art. Today, an artist cultivates, at will, both concepts and materials from a dramatically expanding world of resources. And, as many artists today are people whose work would not have been deemed "art" 120 years ago, the next normal in the world of art occurs not because of the past but despite it. I see two things in particular that dominate as influencers of upcoming change. One: value in the self-conscious "fine art" world has long been married to the idea that important art is unique. But now, compared to the earlier moments of say Duchamp and Warhol, the notion of uniqueness as a major default criterion of value in artistic production is under unprecedented pressure to justify itself. If the meaning of the work is not pretty exclusively an effect of uniqueness, then uniqueness loses relevance and can be simulated only by scarcity. The most profound influence to date of A.I. (artificial intelligence) in art is that it so easily eliminates both uniqueness and scarcity as default values unless those are specific chosen strategies for expressing a certain meaning. And as happened with movable type and then with the photographic camera, culture's boundaries are suddenly thinned by an order of magnitude in permeability. And two: artists themselves increasingly and inventively borrow expressive forms from each other across the boundaries of their differing milieu. And in that, the artificial constraints of genre and medium are still very useful as an option to art-makers,; but as a default criterion of value, they are increasingly challenged by the expansion of the artists' own recognition of the real creative world. Much more as in music, "fusion images" are an outcome -- the improvisational composition of diverse multiple expressions in a work, whether some conventional genre or medium can logically contain it or not. IV. All together, I take those things as arguments that emerging artists are not how we find emerging art. Rather, emerging art is how we find emerging artists. Supporting art-making obviously is what supports most artists. The art world going forward is not about the market's colonization and farming of so-called emerging artists. What those observations also tell me is that the "art world" is shifting from being proprietary to being open source, even as the art "market" spawns new discrete channels with their own particular barriers to entry and elevation. The real significance of this is in the mythbusting impact on the primacy of the proprietary art world's notion of Refinement as artistic maturity and quality. This proprietary world is built for artists "emerging" into attention in a graduated process, then pulling more of their artworks into the market. What is replacing that legacy is mostly an emphasis on Idiosyncrasy as artistic authenticity and importance. This open world is built for personal artwork to emerge in communities, then to have the originating artist recognized in the community as someone exemplary of its interests. Now, conventional art institutions have neither the first nor only say in defining the "communities" of art. That combination of the art world restructuring and the shift of emphasis is what re-defines the "outsider" presence in art as mainstream, and why we need to educate each other away from the perspective that defines "Outsiders"...

  • Art and the Stream of Consciousness

    Nine Notes on how Kehinde Wiley makes Black Lives Matter 1. More is More August, 2023 – As of this writing, there is plenty of time left for the de Young Museum’s general audience to make it to the Kehinde Wiley show, An Archaeology of Silence. Much of that audience will be attracted to the show by the celebrity Wiley earned through being the selected artist for the official Presidential portrait of megastar Barack Obama. But that very large painting, with its curious leafy background, and the near-laconic expression of a specific real person, famously adored (or hated), gives no real clue to how this extensive new installation, of many pieces about anonymous persons, works. There is, however, one obvious similarity: like that Presidential painting, almost everything about Wiley’s show at the de Young Museum is big. The place itself, the artist’s talent, the works themselves, and the mission of the work. First: there is the assertively theatrical de Young exhibit space created for the show. And in that space, we find right away that Wiley’s sheer productivity is gargantuan and fills it up, making it seem even bigger, in our eyes. Next: there’s his huge skill. How long does it take to achieve this level, anyway? In this show, Wiley reaches back centuries and dares us to compare his work with that of Old Masters, many of whom had a life expectancy only in the forties. Today, in his forties, Wiley’s skill portends much more. And winning the dare, the dramatic impact of his own craft does not wear off at any point during the long trek from the exhibit’s beginning to its end. And finally: there’s the main issue; what that skill addresses. The show is very specifically positioned as a “message” show; systemic, global violence against Black people cannot be allowed to go unnoticed and uncorrected. No small thing. The sizing of the show is grandly impressive. But in the end, the show’s real importance, its value, rests in whether the message gets received by audiences. Each of the following notes looks into a way that this value emerges. 2. Getting the story On arriving at the exhibit’s theater-space, we experience the works, appropriately, in two ways: influenced on the one hand by our attention to “the plot” and on the other, by the “stagecraft” both around and within the pieces. Naturally the show intends the two things to be complementary. The stagecraft must make the story accessible, not compete with it. But in this show, there is a significant amount of competition anyway – between what the presentation offers, and what mindset an audience may bring to the show. In a classic tenet of theater, theatrical “reality” is an artifice, composed entirely of what makes sense to the play’s characters, regardless of the audience. A “suspension of disbelief” allows the artists to present the audience with something that feels plausible without the burden of being feasible. At this show, Wiley appropriates centuries-old art conventions as stagings for the persons seen in his sculptures and paintings, their modern actors. That means the audience will be trying to grasp a current message through that use of the past. But that’s not the only gap that the audience’s interpretation must deal with. As an audience, we arrive already having our own reservoir of visual knowledge. That knowledge, in effect, makes up the belief we have in our own familiar sense of reality. Of course, not all audiences are alike, but there is clearly an enormous potential audience – a modern audience – whose familiarity is predominantly with a pervasive media-driven culture that doesn’t easily acquiesce to being subordinated. Now, a museum, just like a church or a school – or a theater – exists specifically to signal a particular shift in the mentality expected as one walks through the front doors. The de Young asks us to be willing to suspend the familiar, media-driven reality in favor of the invented realism of Wiley’s scenes. But what makes that happen? How does the intended interpretation of the show work? Here is the objective, surface description: Along with the de Young’s curators and programmers, Wiley himself prefaces our direct experience of the works by defining them as a historic excavation of overlooked global violence against the Black race. To show that, the exhibit consists of works using imagery drawn from art history, featuring highly iconic figures now renovated in a modern style. The technique of repurposing old forms for new effect relies on how our visual experiences have created our sense of knowing something. Through that overall three-part configuration, Wiley’s works intend to communicate. In process, each of the artworks does most of its work through portraying body language. Collectively, the statements made in that language intend to substantiate the message of the show. In effect, those statements made in body language are Wiley’s lexicon. One of the definitions of “lexicon” easily found on the web is this one: “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge.” In that description, the key part I am calling out is “a branch of knowledge.” That, and the space between Wiley’s knowledge and our own. As an audience, what do we already know that we bring with us to his show? In communicating with this show about a matter of current urgency, our vocabulary starts out as the lexicon of what is “modern”. 3. Seeing is Believing? Wiley places a stereotyped version of contemporary black men and women into staged scenarios. The scenarios each imply a narrative – a potentially violent one – that would have led to the final or climactic moment apparent in each particular artwork. But despite how we are coached by the artist and curators to see the works, these narratives are not assuredly certain in the viewing. There are issues. One issue is that the figures shown in the work are generally decked out in high profile name brand clothing. We understand that corporate brands represent the largess of commercial capitalism, but this show’s argument highlights that its pervasiveness has failed to be protective. That observation could further dramatize the violence we’re told to notice (“wow, even cool people aren’t safe!”) But there are two flavors of tragedy here, each about the ignorance of innocence. In both, the artworks suggest that the portrayed persons, embracing the brands, may have unwittingly nurtured their antagonists and their own demise. First, the subjects’ brand adoption may have attracted violence to them, just as does wearing the wrong gang colors. And second, perhaps the brands are the bad guys. Brand power, which the subjects intended to use to enhance themselves, appears to have been quite indifferently hostile to their aspirations of it, actually making them its victims as if by unexpected overdose of some favored drug. Another issue: we, the audience also know that these brands are expensive. In these paintings and sculptures, does the subjects’ preoccupation with pricey style devalue their status as victims, in our eyes? Feeling sorry for privileged people is probably not a natural instinct for a viewer who is not privileged. (there’s no headcount here, but in a general audience some people are going to have a lot less wealth than others.) And since, as well, the stereotype of Black victims is historically so strongly associated with their being poor, this consumerism introduces more dissonance into our experience of the images. Furthermore, today many people already take it for granted, in a way that undermines the proposed message, that the subjects’ preoccupation with this style comes along with being urban and Black. Thats includes the notion that Blacks use style very assertively to project among themselves “the right way” to be black, a standard of being black enough. Between the bling and the hint of internecine racism, Wiley’s stereotyping of his high-styled figures raise a question of what priorities Blacks have even while being under both economic and cultural siege. And a third issue: in the year 2023, it is probable that we viewers have long ago digested the body language iconography of Hollywood Westerns, war movies, horror films, newscasts, crime dramas and fashion advertising. Here, let’s also recognize that “TV shows” actually contain all of those other forms, distributing their content farther and faster than any of them otherwise can separately. And the internet has merely amplified the earlier established hegemony of radio-wave broadcasting. In short, we have a common visual language learned from, and now driven by, always-on media, a literal stream of consciousness. With all that in place, then there is what we see in Wiley’s works, unless persuaded otherwise… What is displayed in many of the works is contorted bodies, creepy things that wrap around you, and inscrutable eyes featured as if they are the leftovers of dangerous encounters with snipers, monsters, and drugs. And, there are as many other works that show what appears to be far less tense -- the figure taking a nap; daydreaming; maybe just dropped to the ground somewhere kind of random, now tired after chasing or being chased; or, merely being caught up in a psychic selfie. These are the ordinary reality, the default references (narratives), of a modern general audience’s grasp of imagery, in particular an iconography of body language. (In the remainder of this writing, I will caption illustrations to point out differences such as the above.) For modern audiences, coming to a museum of arts, how much energy does it take to not see Wiley’s images in terms of the icons of other media – to suspend our “belief” in our familiarity, and instead attribute Wiley’s displayed body language to something else the artist and curator claim is real? Yes of course, many of us also have substantial familiarity with imagery in the fine arts both historical and contemporary. But for general audiences, the viral propagation of icons and memes in media and social networking predisposes what the figures in Wiley’s work “intrinsically” convey. This means that without the show’s perspective-setting wall texts and other directions, something qualitative about the art works must enable them to express the advertised ambition of the work, to encourage as necessary the suspension of disbelief. To get us to suspend our attention to our already familiar references, to that composite lexicon from media and social culture. And instead to allow Wiley’s paintings and sculptures to mean what they intend, as art. 4. Subject Matters “Black lives matter” is both the super-theme and the subtext of the show. The very large number and scale of works in the show is an appropriately proportional response to the global ubiquity of anti-Black abuse that is the exhibit’s subject. But it’s a challenge. The introductory “narrative” (rationale) for the show tells us to presume that all of the various works, with their shared iconography, refer to the same insidious phenomenon – chronic violence. Armed with that, we walk through the show, “testing” each piece as some expression of that presumption. The show’s curator tells us that we’ll be doing that with a special point of view -- a privileged one, up close. The curator’s text continues, coupling precariousness … … and elegy. Oxford Languages describes precarious as: “not securely held or in position; dangerously likely to fall or collapse. dependent on chance; uncertain.” Wikipedia tells us this about elegy: “An elegy is … usually a lament for the dead. However, [it] remains remarkably ill defined: sometimes used as a catch-all to denominate texts of a somber or pessimistic tone, sometimes as a marker for textual monumentalizing, and sometimes strictly as a sign of a lament for the dead… for a departed beloved or tragic event.” So it turns out that “elegy” is a pretty good name for the variety of emphasis that the works apply to their shared theme. And by setting the overall context of the works as a somber meditation on the riskiness of being Black, the show’s curatorial notes set the goal of the exhibition very clearly as Gained Awareness.+ But this privileged view heads towards another goal as well. Objectively, it will also be a questionable voyeurism, one that asks why these subjects are allowed to be harmed, or that scolds the viewer for not having paid sufficiently close attention before. From that angle, the value of the show is ultimately in what people do about the awareness; it aims for Activism. The explicit curation of the show ambitiously tells us what to expect. But Awareness raises the question of who the audience is that materializes for this show. And Activism, in turn, requires the works to influence that audience – whether by shame, support, or inspiration – to do something about the awareness that it would gain or have. 5. That Body Language The generous number of paintings and sculptures in the show emphasizes that awareness is a goal. And the artist’s statement suggests that we will recognize in every piece some flavor of undeserved vulnerability of the figure portrayed. Their highly repetitive uniformity of style combines with the wide variety of their scenes to establish the show’s theme about Blacks suffering a certain kind of treatment everywhere they are. So overall, the show comprises a body of evidence. Wiley makes the primary objective of each work to present a body as evidence of the artist’s theme. In each case, then, we as viewers can ask about the person shown in a work, “how did they get this way?” The “answer” is a narrative that we ourselves imagine, informed whether subtly or overtly by the details in the piece. This is all about what the works tell us themselves, rather than what we are told to look for. Each artwork that we are viewing needs to drive the imagination– to provide the details that will take us from our conventional wisdom, our habits of seeing, to the way that the piece wants to be seen – that is, to Wiley’s wisdom. What we mostly see in the show is the postures of the bodies. But, even in the compelling 3-dimensionality of the sculptures, there is not always a convincing case made for the proposed theme. For example, some works appear to be showing people not wounded or injured but sleeping. We already know what sleeping looks like. The artwork needs to get through that. [Seen: uncomfortable, perhaps, but tired enough to sleep anyway.] In others, the initial appearance is that something abnormal is attacking the person, or already has. But the piece triggers our visual memory of silent creepy monsters in the movies or tv dramas. [Seen: caught, and soon dragged under, or starved…] Finally, in yet others, we see aftermaths – lost causes. But we first work from our memory of crime scenes… [Seen: found after the ransom was already paid…] …or of gladiators, cowboys, or generals killed by enemies on the trails or fields around the far bend. [Seen: fallen heroes brought back home by their horse.…] In another case, an entombed figure looks like he may be there only temporarily, his head turned in a way telling us that fairly soon rising among the walking “undead” is definitely in the cards – joining other zombies awaiting. Having arrived at the show with a wide range of pre-established associations in mind, we are asked by the artist and the curators to see these pieces differently, and to see their different meanings as all stemming from the same common cause. But along with how easily the displayed postures associate to other ideas, the monochrome surfaces of the sculptures makes their figures’ presumed misfortune initially easy to “read” as not being about a specific race. That challenge is at the heart of the artist’s pronounced need for the show. “Excavating” the truth that is the show’s message would not be necessary if the world at large was not so insensitive to it or misdirected from it. When we see the works as the show intends them to be seen, we do that despite our real life’s ordinary reinforcement of other imagery and memes – a different and literally endless repetitive presentation by TV’s dominant broadcasting, and now from the internet’s maturity into a social and commercial always on medium as well. That accumulated visual language, that stream of consciousness that we bring with us to the show, is easily activated by these art works. Because of that, the pieces then need their own strategies and differentiating qualities that ensure they can establish themselves, and communicate to us, on their own terms instead. For example (as seen above): in sculptures of apparent sleepers, we first work from our own memory of the places where, by choice or even involuntarily, one sleeps. But in those pieces, there may be a visible disjunction of the body and the place, such as the stoniness or sliminess of the ground underneath the Sleeper – a clue that something is not right. That disjunction is a key device of Wiley’s method to break through our familiarity and get his point across. 6. Intending Art We see disjunction in the paintings as well. Wiley is especially well-known for his unusual juxtapositions of subject (person) and setting (field or ground). And in the painted illusions, his talent offers him the freedom to precisely render Black persons as subjects in a hi-fidelity facsimile of important legacy art conventions historically devoid of Blacks. They dazzle with color along with surface detail, giving them a three-dimensionality that is illusory but equally strong as the sculptures. With the sculptures, we do not get those color qualities brightly projected as backgrounds or surfaces. But the sculptures serve to intensify our recognition of the signal bodily gestures and shapes that we find in the paintings. And this again means that the works get tested against what the audience brings. Case in point: outside of the fine art context, nothing makes more continual use of iconic body language, at all size scales from pages to billboards, than does commercial fashion advertising (see Part VII). It is just not difficult to find displays of subject matter and attitude in advertising that correspond to many of Wiley’s images. © doodko | Credit: Depositphotos Given the combination of television, cinema and social media, there is rarely a case where body images such as those in this show have not already been fully exploited in the acculturating narratives of style and fiction. As a result, Wiley needs for us to look for how their use in art makes them affect us differently, enough so to make them central to our ongoing attention. Seen that way, Wiley’s work could be “read” as a systematic effort to reclaim those body images a repurpose them for a specific kind of consideration more serious than style or fiction. But it doesn’t make sense to assume that style and fiction haven’t already thought about the same issues that Wiley’s work takes as motivation, and that they are not serious when they intend to be. What works harder than fashion, after all, to advocate the freedom of expressing multiple cultures and their right to exist? That is, there is no strong case that art makes these kinds of images more important than they already are elsewhere. Instead, what is important now about their appearance in art channels is that we count on art to meaningfully alter perception. Something that, for example, Warhol’s work did. Or Dali, or Duchamp, or Munch, or Bacon, or… 7. How does the art work? As a Black audience member, I did not attend the show to be enlightened about something I already knew. But as an artist, I came to see how the work functioned, how it gets its job done. Addressing our perception, Wiley is notable among a contemporary world of brilliant image-makers. By setting his own skill to the task of producing portrayals of Blacks in historically classic forms, he performs an act that dignifies his subjects – an act that was beforehand withheld from them by predominant northern and western cultures and is still today uncommon as history. His effort directly targets the problem that history is “written by the winners” and by being normalized that way becomes not just obscuring but oppressive. The punchline here is that Wiley’s art is, as much as anything, about how art itself has been at least complicit, if not intentional, in the systemic violence against blacks. But again, it also means that the work’s strategy is essentially theatrical. Meanwhile, the most obvious source of fresh impact that comes from the works in the show is Wiley’s enormous technical virtuosity in creating material effects. Whether it be through skin made of bronze, or shoelaces made of oil, the images simply have a visceral influence that makes (or at least helps) one’s mind work differently for a while. To emphasize that point, we can compare Wiley’s work to that of artist Arinze Stanley, a virtuoso draftsman whose focus on Black subjects was described this way with clear relevance to the Wiley show’s ambition: “The striking series of thought-provoking images guide the viewers ‘into what is almost a psychedelic and uncertain experience of being Black in the 21st century.’ ” (Sara Barnes, December 13, 2020, Hyperrealistic Pencil Portraits Offer a Surreal Look Into Being Black in Today’s World, [images: ] Wiley’s pieces have a similar hyperrealism, one that makes us feel like we are there with the figure being portrayed. This is what bridges the gap between what is real to us and what the artist fabricates– between what we already knew and what Wiley asks us to see. Readily situated in an artistic current that stretches back to the 1970s, Wiley’s hyperrealism is familiar to many regular art-viewers. Yet at the same time, it is not dogmatic about the style. Instead, it baits us in that mode and then pulls off a switch. Physically, neither the sculptures nor the paintings are comprehensively high-fidelity to both the textures and touch of what they show. Case in point: the reality of skin is that it is not hard or cold as with the sculptures, and it has color variation and pores far more than is seen in the paintings. But far from being a drawback, the glossy stylizations done by Wiley in metal and in paint abstract the figures, like mass-produced dolls, into an iconic use as tokens. The effect of the visual reductions is to make the figure typical, in a way that Wiley defines Blackness for recognition – representing all Blacks present among us. With the sculptures, especially where the works are smaller than us, spotlighting isolates the figure from its surroundings, and those surroundings are psychologically replaced with what you are sensing in your mind. The staging makes us focus, and in that concentration, we spot the abundant, fluent, detailing of human shape – something we immediately identify with. We don’t feel that other information is missing. The paintings are all larger – several of them dwarfing us as we approach. In a different way, this size has us “zooming in” on the subject at a detail level, made even more apparent by the very bright lights on the paintings. But again, what’s being pursued is a degree of identification that dispels a need for more than what is there. The iconographic effect resolves the tension between the body language as offered by Wiley versus what an audience might bring. Although somewhat subliminal, it makes Wiley’s intention clearer. But this still doesn’t mean that the paintings will communicate correctly against audience predispositions. [Industrial gloss connotes both commodity-grade value and idealization…] [Crime scene, or accident?] So how do the paintings successfully communicate when they do? Let’s go back to being big. The first thing that happens with figures at a scale larger than our own is that they feel as if they are occupying our own physical space. This starts fusing our thoughts and feelings into one impactful experience, somewhere on a spectrum between intimacy and imposition. It’s essentially what people are talking about when they say that they find something to be “captivating”. And more emphatically, hyperrealism pulls you into its space. You consider what is happening to the subject portrayed, but you do it with a big dose of imagining that it was happening to you. Put simply, while the collection of works is theatrical and visceral, the most important effect is that it is sympathetic. As described by the Meriam Webster dictionary: “In general, sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.” In this description, “share” – meaning “also have” – pertains to what we think we know about the feelings of the subjects. But that is mostly what we ourselves attribute to the poses they have in the setting Wiley has given them. We can make our own attribution in a couple of different ways. One is by relying on a conventional meaning that we have already learned to associate with the poses. Another, by relying on our intuition of what we would feel like in those same poses. Wiley’s work attempts to give us a third way: by newly adopting what is claimed by someone else, namely, the artist – and trying it on for size. 8. Conventional Wisdom, Popular Belief Psychologically, say communications experts, getting a message through might rely on sheer repetition as much as on anything else. But in art, as in media, that is highly familiar as the practice of variations on a theme. A major feature of the Wiley artworks is the “sameness” of the figures from one picture to another, It is intentional; it establishes that there are not especially personal dramas being portrayed to make a point. Rather, the point is that the vulnerability or precariousness being shown applies indiscriminately to “any Black, anywhere.” But the works also run through a wide variety of postures. The postures communicate something that the viewer thinks they already understand. The question is, does that understanding correspond with what Wiley intends to signal? [Death, or euphoria?] These days, the strategy of providing scenarios that viewers already understand usually plays out somewhere already culturally ubiquitous: and it’s not in religion; it’s in fashion advertising. [Leisure, longing, or simply demure beauty?] In this type of advertising, the fashion artist’s device is to provide context which makes the figure’s condition meaningful. But what is the meaning? In the abstract, fashion might be pursuing surprise by generating a new understanding, an expansion of recognition; an awareness. Or it might be pursuing inspiration by generating sympathetic sharing, a reinforcement of aspiration or identity; a motive to act. More concretely, fashion’s scenarios span from fantasies on the one hand to contradictions on the other, with exemplary propriety parked in the middle of the range. That is, fashion imagists routinely rely on being able to engage the viewer through daring, through affirmation, or through shock. Regardless of which way is chosen, what usually makes those images gripping is the sense that the artist’s imagination on display is really about the viewer’s imagination (a sympathetic engagement). It matters hugely that these Wiley works can have the meaning that the artist intends. But it matters even more that the works must entice the viewer to allow the artist’s meaning to emerge in competition with what the viewer already knows – and then be embraced. Either the audience wants to help do that, or it finds that it happens involuntarily. For the former, the works recruit us. For the latter, they both compare and reflect us. The latter is a way to raise awareness; the former, a way to call for action. 9. The Secret of Success Some people who come to see the show might bring the special visual learnings of historically advocated formal art. With that point of view, sensitivity to art conventions sets the expectations about what the artist used to make decisions and communicate as well as the sensitivities to it. That viewer perceives the work as being personally offered to achieve personal relevance to that viewer. But everyone else who comes to see the show might bring mainly the general visual learnings of mass media with them. With that point of view, art’s ability to challenge conventions is its most interesting aspect. The broad scope of mass media is impersonally offered, yet hoped to become personally relevant. For the show to really be impactful per its message, the challenge is to create an experience that, whether originated personally or impersonally, is shareable either way and is shared in both ways for the same reason. What is the most probable shared experience across the de Young’s differing audiences? The curators explicitly recognized that for many Blacks, the show’s message is not one that they needed a show to convey. And aiming for art history connoisseurs does not on the surface seem to serve the mission of the work even though it likely would be beneficial to Wiley’s career. Above and beyond all ambiguity, the main sharable ingredient in Wiley’s work is the passion of his artistic effort. We know passion as a devoted intensity and emotion, and we know emotional intensity as being dramatic. This drama communicates how much he cares about what he says. The goal is that it will be something that motivates awareness into becoming activism. Wiley is undeniably performing a kind of activism by rescuing and completing these works from a project he had years earlier abandoned, and by doing it passionately. His effort metaphorically asks us to leave behind, now, those things that have been keeping us from paying attention before, including the way we have gotten used to seeing things. The show’s true ambition is to establish that our comfort zones are actually the fictions. The real world is the one the show intends to bring forth. What we come away with from the Wiley show is the aesthetic excitement of the effort he invested in the message. Its intensity asks us to permanently leave behind any lingering indifference or inattention that we may have had to the issue addressed by the show. It wants us to instead take it upon ourselves to not only notice the problem but to look for it. To respond to its theatricality, is viscerality, its sympathy. The goal of this intensity is to make that awareness unforgettable. It asks us to question our comfort zones, whether they be historical, artistic, in pop culture, or any combination thereof, and not allow them to obscure present realities. We learn from the curators that this show came about when Wiley decided to revive an earlier abandoned effort and make it effective for now. The parallel of that with what the show asks of us is both close and poignant. The show overall, in its exceptional artistry, is essentially an activist’s effort, deliberately using the past to influence the future, and recruiting us into its advocacy. The challenge of transcending the audience’s various differences is met with this: through the sheer force of his works’ aesthetics, the works can heighten viewers’ awareness to an unforgettable level – one that will mean the audience will leave the show not just noticing things they should have noticed before, but now actively looking for them. (c) 2023 Malcolm Ryder

  • The Machine of a New Soul

    Today, many people all over the world practice the ancient Japanese art of suiseki. This involves appreciating the natural shape of a rock or stone. Practitioners search for, collect, and present stones that evoke other natural forms. -- Ingenuity means the quality of being clever, original, and inventive. -- Encyclopedia Britannica, Soul: emotional or intellectual energy or intensity, especially as revealed in a work of art or an artistic performance. -- Oxford Languages, CONTENTS: INTRODUCTION PART ONE: FINDING ART 1. ART AND ARTIFICE 2. A SYNOPSIS: ART AND AI PART TWO: MAKING ART 1. ORIGINALITY 2. UNIQUENESS 3. ARTISTIC 4. INTENT 5. THE HUMAN CENTER PART THREE: MADE ART 1. THE PRODUCTION 2. THE FINISHED PRODUCT RECAP ***************** INTRODUCTION Human consciousness is the predominant determinant of "art" as an experience... But is human involvement necessary by definition in creating art? We place more demands on the definition of "artist" than we do on the definition of "art". Part of the Artist's "intelligence" is making that consciousness instrumental by anticipating it and targeting it with expressions. That pressure now shows up in the debate over whether Artificial Intelligence can be not just a tool but an artist. Does it have an autonomous creative consciousness, and does that even matter? ***************** PART ONE: FINDING ART 1. ART AND ARTIFICE Artificial Intelligence, or "AI" labels a wide range of computing capabilities. Of course, calculating at jaw-dropping speed is a keystone of appreciating it. But otherwise, the most well known capabilities, the most popular, are currently revolutionizing most efforts to arrange and present information whether as text or as images. Its speed and strength in doing so merits thinking of it simply as an automated composing machine. Furthermore, that AI implementation can routinely render images and texts that as far as we know have no prior exact match. Strictly speaking, it has unlimited potential to create unique artifacts. Granted, to most of us many of those "unique" products may have no unusual meaning. But for any given audience member, it is also always possible that AI will produce something that has a meaning not felt or imagined before. Despite those two facts, a debate erupts over whether AI has "creativity". What's actually going on there is that "creativity" is being said as a synonym for something much more ambitious: artistry. In this debate, the argument over artistry is about whether AI's productivity can generate a product that qualifies in three ways: creative, original, and unique. The Artist Formerly Known As On the "nay" side of the debate, what matters most is its assertion that AI, as a singular active agent, is non-human. That is, its productive functionality -- its capability-- is not based on human physiology and psychology (body and mind), but on some other internal system. That non-human aspect emotionally charges the debate pretty highly. But in comparison, there is already another non-human system - Nature - that suffers relatively little outright rejection from anyone devoted to aesthetics in life. Nature, no less so than a machine, has generative functions and behaviors independent of both of the above two defining human factors (body and mind), and it has its own substantial ability to also nurture or destroy. In speaking of Nature, "creating" is simply thought of as instigating growth or evolution. As for its originality, we have both the presupposition and the examined belief that all new natural things derive from other pre-existing natural things, many of which we know about. But when we have a sudden awareness of something we did not already know about, we usually react to it -- appreciate and value it -- exactly as if it is singularly unique, not knowing at first if it is an exception or just a newly discovered normality. We also know that Nature's originality is systemic. And by analogy, where the universe of natural things originates in the systemics of Nature, there is a presumption that the universe of artistic things is generated from something systemic as well. In the debate regarding AI's capability, the "Naysayers" argue that the systemics that originate what we call Art are human factors. It isn't so much something that can be proved -- rather, it is simply part of their definition of art. But the "Yaysayers" do not accept that definition. Rejecting the requirement that the originator of "art" is necessarily a person, they rely instead on what else sufficiently makes an experience of something cause us to call it "art"... So, the debate again: does AI have the capability to produce creative original unique art? We can see that the debate exists not due to conflicting facts. Instead, it is due mainly to how people define things. That includes not just the term "art" itself, but significantly ambiguous other terms in regular use as definitive requirements. Original, creative, unique, and innovative are words that often appear in the idea of art or artistic. But too often they are mashed together into a conceptual paste not often analyzed during communication. AI generates things in a way that puts all of those terms under a scrutiny that illuminates the difference between what they really mean and why we use them to mean something else. 2. A SYNOPSIS: ART AND AI Fact: today, it's pretty much child's play for an AI session to be the only source of a unique, unpredicted output. There is no expectation of spontaneous new things in Nature aside from what derives from existing natural phenomena. The most obvious analog for AI's power to generate variants from precedents is Nature. Even the most famous artists are known to adhere to the maxim, "good artists borrow; great artists steal." We are generally unable to distinguish AI's capability from "originality". Fact: today, AI's systemics need have no dependency on human presence or intervention to continually generate "novel" things. Additionally, the "laws" of nature, which can operate entirely without the existence of humans, are fully accepted as its systemics. The aesthetics of Nature are not downplayed at all by their non-human origins. We are generally unable to distinguish AI's generative capability from "creativity". Fact: today, "art" is a kind of experience more than it is a kind of thing. Essentially, it is a subjective perception of something. Most people, most of the time, encounter new "works of art" without knowing or proving where it came from, whether there is something else virtually the same somewhere else, or why people very dissimilar to themselves would also attribute the same kind of value to the experience it caused them. Art works do not define for us what art is; we define what we want to appreciate artistically, by imposing criteria on it that test how its qualities make the experience useful, different, and desirable in certain ways. "Subjective" means that we evaluate something in deciding whether we will treat it as "art". We grant it a status and role. We are continually finding new things that we decide will serve a purpose we call "art". But the experience that we will refer to as "art" does have a characteristic underlying dynamic. I For many people, such as those on the Naysayer side of the debate, its main feature is that we find ourselves being engaged as humans by a human. In the dynamic, we expect that a producer will intentionally attempt to influence us in a certain way. If we are among those people, when we feel engaged: the most consistent aspect is that the influencer is deliberately influencing. And the next most consistent aspect is that because of the way that the effort is revealed to us, we discover that we are being influenced. What then usually matters is how we think the influence is useful to us. In this last aspect of the engagement dynamic, the experience is something in which we evaluate the influence for its relevance. For many people, the relevance that they desire in the experience is mainly in how the influence is (a.) about our humanity, and (b.) for our own good. Yet most popular arguments against AI's "artistic" capability fail when tested against our increasingly routine encounters with AI-generated outputs. Those outputs refuse to be suppressed by emotional language about originality and creativity. Regardless, a preference for works made without AI (i.e., "by humans") is tightly associated with whether a work is deemed relevant, and thereby valuable, by the observer. Aside from preference, there is also increasingly negligible perceivable difference between the tacit complexity of how AI decided to express something and that of a human artist's decision-making; human decisioning is not necessarily visible or understandable to an observer. Consequently, in debate, notions of intention, imagination, and innovation all objectively shift more towards how AI behaviors in effect provide the same kind of influences on eventual experiences regardless of human involvement. ***************** PART TWO: MAKING ART 1. ORIGINALITY Originality almost always jumps to the front of the line of thinking about art, so let's start there, which means looking into what "source" originates work. But while a source is clearly an origin, "originality" questions the extent to which something can be a source. The problem in the debate, however, is that originality is more concerned about uniqueness than it is about sourcing of production. This is what takes us to focus on the importance of a "self" as the source. When that source is a person it is easy to think in terms of "someone" - either one's own self, or someone else's. Being non-human, and not "natural", AI is basically a kind of machine. For "Yaysayers" in the debate, the argument that artificial intelligence can make "original" work holds up well in a comparison between attributes of the machine's effort and those of a human's. Human attributes of special note include being personal, subjective, and judgmental. Personal is an idea that refers to a particular instance of an individual.The idea is all about the notion of one's "own", which means "possessed by" or "characteristic of" the self. This strongly pertains to being "autonomous". Subjective refers to something either expressive of or from within the given autonomous individual. Here we're looking at something akin to "perspective". Judgmental refers to decisions being made that discriminate between options. The simplest related idea is "preference". Note how each of those ideas corresponds in AI: If a functional (behaving) system is a distinct entity, and is serving us as a proxy for a person, then what we see within that entity as being systemic is analogous, even equivalent, to being "personal" to the system. If that entity responds systemically to stimuli, independently emphasizing choices with consistency such as accepting and rejecting, then its behavior is as if it is "aware of itself" and, in processing, it corresponds to a person being "subjective". If the entity also evidently evaluates what it recognizes, then its virtual subjectivity also meets our criteria for being "judgmental". And considering those ideas -- autonomy, perspective and preference -- we can imagine this: an auto-motivated entity, whose activity we are not controlling, that has its own way of recognizing things, and that makes real time decisions without our intervention. That is not unfamiliar or unusual behavior. Our awareness of it is generally a matter of what we want to pay tatention to. Imagine dropping a small motorboat into the sea, with its motor already running. This unmanned boat is going to try to keep moving. But as it reacts to the environmental forces on it, it is going to do things without our immediate control, and even if we understand the forces, we may not find the boat's direction and states at any moment, whether immediate or future, to be reliably predictable or desirable. Its reactions are like decisions, and while any one of them might be theoretically predictable with enough knowledge of the exact circumstances, the accumulation of them over time still may not be something we can foresee as its behavior, path, or longevity in the water. To make it more predictable to us, we have to either exert more control over it, or give it more built-in control of a type that we understand. Imagine further: if the entity also recognizes the consequences of its decisions, and then makes its own predictions and further choices based on those consequences, then there is a continuous feedback loop between action and reaction that is separate from direction attempted by other autonomous entities. In effect, this is what we mean by comparing the behavior to being a "self". More importantly, when it comes to identifying a given source's activity, the more unpredictable things are, the more "original" we say they appear to be. Behavior automation isn't news. And it's no coincidence that most popular representations of encounters with AI, especially the scary ones, have featured highly anthropomorphized robots. Here is where our language suspiciously comes into play. The big question here is, if the entity can effectively make real-time decisions without us, then how do we know where to draw the line between iits unpredictability and its so-called "originality"? Looks Like A Duck, Walks Like A Duck... Despite all that, the "Naysayers" in the debate might still insist that this description of behavioral independence does not really portray capability for artistic "originality" and, rather, at best shows only mimicry. The counter to that objection is that expert mimicry is very hard - sometimes even impossible - to distinguish from the real thing. That mimicry includes personality, subjectivity, and judgment. When it comes to impersonation, we're already quite familiar with two pretty big things: acting, and computer animation. In both cases, we are not preoccupied with how the character was generated; we are preoccupied with, and care about, the character. So, with the projection of a "self" not being necessarily authentically human nor exclusively behavior by humans, the Nay-sayer's need some other proof against AI being capable of originality. One move here is to just demote originality's importance as a human-centric defining characteristic of what we decide to call "artistic" or "art". For Naysayers, it would mean looking at some other qualifying conditions instead that could be fundamentally "human". Next, then: what about uniqueness? 2. UNIQUENESS Creativity is simply the ability of work to produce things in a new or unscripted way from what is at hand. Most often we decide to say "creative" when we specifically intend to refer to something new that is both different from the norm and is desireable - two ways that we see it as being valuable. But in that reference the key word "new" seems only to be about what is made. This can obscure the more important aspect of creating, which is about the way of making. On the production side, the usual implication of calling activity "creative" is that it is "imaginative". But how do we define "imagination"? The easy way to do that is as "a capability to describe something distinctive that doesn't yet exist" in the present time and place. The key points in the above notes are existing and normal. Against those two conditions, "creativity" is expected to produce something new having value. But both of those terms have limitations often completely taken for granted. "Norm" doesn't exist outside of designating some given set of circumstances. What is normal in one place is not normal in some other. "New" has the same limitation: it is context-specific. The only way out of this contextual boundary is for something to be unique -- thereby new and different in all contexts. That's great if uniqueness can be proved; but by who? This has a tricky solution. The charm of uniqueness inspires the desire to attribute originality to a specific party. We take an outcome, and trace it back through some process of development that begins with a single (unique) known party, the "originating cause" of the thing's existence. The debate's Naysayers are comfortable that one particular party can cause many different outcomes, but when it comes to being "creative" they are not comfortable with the idea that one specific outcome can be originally caused by many different parties. Preferring humans as the originators is at least convenient in this regard, because after all, "no two people are alike". Every human "self" is a unique self, so tracing something back to any single person seems to kick off the notion of originality quite well, which implies the newness and difference that "creativity" refers to as something worth caring about. But how does that hold up vis-a-vis AI? If you are in the Naysayer's camp, you begin with this: no machine knows how to start itself the first time without a human making it happen, so we thereafter attribute whatever the machine does to an intent of a human. In that way the human, not the machine, "retains" the exclusive status of being the "originator" and the "self" that matters. Thus, in production, the machine is not deemed to be expressing its own self; rather, it is seen as expressing the human's self -- regardless of the outcome. (This corresponds to everyone's normal sense of what a tool or an instrument is, even including awareness that an active tool or instrument can possibly have effects not expected, not intended, or not desired.) Yet, at the end: seeing the product of effort as an expression of some "self" is highly subjective. We either are told to believe it and agree to, or we impose it ourselves as a hypothesis that is assumed to be true unless disproved. The reality check: different cultures recognize different things as art; fakes are routinely mistaken for real; and reproduced artifacts of unknown authorship or sources are definitely capable of very high aesthetic impact, at minimum through style. Most persons, most of the time, encounter most new art without knowing who made it, how it was made, or what else is out there that is virtually the same. That doesn't make them deny that the works are art. That is, little about the work product encountered is necessarily going to refer to any particular human "self" other than to one who claims to be it. For most persons, most of the time, the relationship of a particular human maker to art is attributed, not proven; and, the attribution may not even be correct, yet still not diminish the perception of the work as being "art". In debate, this logically removes the necessity of identifying a specific person to show that something is artistic or indeed art. But when we talk about art, we are still definitely interested in how it was generated. Sharing Is Caring So what about A.I.? AI is generative. Once it starts working on something, it has the capability to find, relate, reformulate, and express any number of things that have not before been anticipated, precisely predefined, or even recognized by the observer. Encounters with those outputs of AI do not exclude experiences that people commonly relate to as art. But on the Nay side of the debate, "creativity" is appreciated more when it is perceived to be something that a person is demonstrating. In attributing artistic value, people who say that AI (a machine) is not creative are usually very specifically protective of humans having a special status in the act of creation. They might go so far as to say that the value of "artistic" creativity is in its being an expression of the "self". For those on this side, it just makes us feel good, or more understanding, about the fact that we too are human. Creativity by people is an observable bulwark against our shared existential limitations of being human. Yet giving creativity greater value in that particular way does not restrict actual creativity's definition, nor essence, to human production. 3. ARTISTIC In both thought and speech, we call something "Art" because we find that something exerts a significant influence on us when we interpret it from our perspective comprising our "artistic" criteria. The question remains, what are those criteria? We saw above that two conventional criteria used for evaluating production as "Artistic" -- originality and uniqueness -- need not be human-centric. We also saw in the "reality check" above that in fact "art" is a kind of experience more than it is a kind of thing. Essentially, it is a subjective perception of something. On the human-centric side of things, one could specifically assert that all art is actually a certain type or mode of human interpretation of an encounter with something. For example, we already have meaningful phrases like "the Art of cooking", "the Art of motorcycle maintenance", "the Art of public speaking", and many others in our common parlance. These refer to a particular way of doing things. No less, they refer to a way of seeing things that, as we know, are also seen from other points of view. We choose to see things a certain way, and it changes our experience of them. This means that in order to see if something is art, our terms of interpretation will also direct what we look for. 4. INTENT But doesn't the production of "art work" -- the work of art -- by definition also intend for its product to be interpeted in a certain mode? Answering this question requires us to know how to recognize intention whenever it is there. What are the recognizable ingredients of intention that we call "artistic"? For many people, the top candidate is that we find ourselves being engaged as humans by a human. When we feel engaged: For most of us, the most consistent aspect is that the influencer is deliberately influencing. And the next most consistent aspect is that because of the way that the effort is revealed to us, we discover that we are being influenced. What then usually matters is how we think the influence is useful to us. In this last aspect of the engagement dynamic, the experience is something in which we evaluate the influence for its relevance. For many people, the relevance that they experience is mainly in how the influence is (a.) about our humanity, and (b.) for our own good. Now, what about A.I.? What we already saw is this: Nothing about non-human "AI" disqualifies it from being the source (the originating "self") of that ultimate experience, other than our individual reluctance to acknowledge it in that role. Yes, for all of us there can be significant uncertainty about whether its influence is intentional. Because of that, it may or may not be important to rate its "originality". For example, if we are delighted, then do we care? But if we feel manipulated, then is it okay? And yes, there is frequently significant opacity to how it is doing it (functionally, technically, practically). Because of that, it may or may not be important to rate its "creativity". For example, is it following rules? Is it truthful? Who cares? But neither of those facts means that AI cannot generate the experience we call art. Rather, the more an instance of AI-generated experience is perceived to be pursuing this human engagement, the more we are willing to evaluate both what AI is doing and what it produces as being "art"... 5. THE HUMAN CENTER Many people just want the "human system" of creativity to have a different status from the systemics of both Nature (ecology) and Mechanics (automation). For those people: there is an enormous amount of tribal language in use to account for humans as the exclusive originators of behaviors, products, and affects that we will then call "artistic". They want those behaviors, products, and affects to be about us. They want "human nature" - not anything else - to be the instrument of creativity that ultimately produces the experience we want to call "art". But there can be no experience without ideas and feelings. Despite the sense of "natural instinct" being a force that exists outside of thinking, we know that the animal world is well populated with creatures that have both ideas and feelings. But in exploring this generative system called human nature, what definitions of "idea" or "feeling" would show them as being distinctively human properties not found in nature or mechanics?? The Human Criteria One way to tackle defining the usage of terms is to trace and clarify connections within our conventional vocabulary. With "experience", this is a cloud of associated words that includes: feelings, emotion, subjectivity sensation, sentience, consciousness, recognition and, aesthetics In writing this article, a great convenience was to use the curated, crowd-sourced information in Wikipedia. After comparing definitions of these words and eliminating redundancies and tautologies, the main discovery that surfaced is that the meaning of experience has an emphasis on: having "self-awareness" the non-existence of emotions without cognition and, the role of perspective on preference Those three matters emerged as if they are the three "dimensions" of experience. As criteria of having an experience, they translate ideas and feelings into: knowing that one's self exists knowingly having responses to stimuli distinguishing stimulus+response conditions by type and importance Those are also basic to being able to intend and to influence, the key parts of deliberately producing engagement. We recognize them as part of exercizing our human nature. What is it about AI that corresponds to those conditions? Is any correspondence close enough to mean in effect that human-centricity in artistic production is not a requirement but instead an option? ***************** PART THREE: MADE ART 1. THE PRODUCTION Can we accept A.I. being an equivalent, or at least a proxy, for the human in production? There is a presumption of something systemic about how humans generate and produce new instances of things, too, with some of those being unprecedented new things. We accept (even if only tacitly) that there are laws of human creativity too, even if we don't know as much about them as we do about the laws of nature. We don't assume that they are the same laws, but they no less rule the potentials of our production. In the human "system", the feedback loop (consciousness) is believed to have already been (biologically) "designed-in" at birth, waiting for any inhibitor to be removed so that it can be started. And once it has started, we refer to it as "a mind of its own"... We know that we can influence it, but we don't necessarily control the diversity of its potential as a producer. Automation can create machine behaviors that mimic people producing things. The stronger the mimicry, the harder it is to tell the difference. AI behaves as if it has internal rules that it always enforces; it makes decisions; it prioritizes what it will do about consequences; and it subjects those follow-up acts to its own rules. It is capable of producing in ways that are so complex that the outcomes are not readily navigated back to their origins except by the system itself. It is effectively autonomous, and the mysteriousness of its full capability is indistinguishable from the mystery of a human's "genius". Likewise, its outputs can evolve, as in nature, from the feedback loop of weighing consequences and making (possibly unprecedented) adjustments. An automated entity can "act like it knows what experiences are"... That is, it can operate in a way that deliberately fosters and accomodates conditions and events that make up certain human experiences. Those operations manifest as expressions that have influence, and the influence gets interpreted and evaluated by an observing (encountering) person. At that point, the "experience of" art is more dependent on the observer than on the producer. Perfect Is The Enemy Of Good Enough But one clear-cut difference presumed between any machine and a human is that a machine does not care why it is doing anything. Even if the machine is behaving as if it has experiences, it really only has states (conditions). The counterpoint to this is that automation is normally created with built in enforcement of what NOT to do, in the interest of people's preferences and safety. The scope of these limitations is part of designing the system, just as maturity and culture is instilled in children and adults. There is no barrier to designing AI carefully. There are also two other things that probably initially separate AI from being deemed an artistic creator of things. One is spontaneous imagination. Again this refers to "a capability to describe something distinctive that doesn't yet exist" in the present time and place. Most people assume that automation operates only within the bounds of what it's creator already knew. But they discount that apparent randomness is also something we know how to intentionally generate in an automated system. The other is a unique intrinsic logic or sensitivity in its operational behavior and decisions. Machines are commonly believed to be preconfigured, so while a machine may be idiosyncratic that is not seen as something it can willfully use or avoid independent of its "programming", to uniquely distinguish itself. It doesn't have "free will". What makes this problematic is that the uniqueness of AI logic may exist only at a level of complexity that most people will not be able to navigate and account for it. What makes that limitation relevant here is that a human artist's production of work can also easily have a degree of complexity exceeding accountability by other people. At a certain point, when encountering finished work, any observable difference between A.I. and the human worker might in effect be neglible - not really a useful discriminating factor when it comes to experiencing the product as art or not. These notes really boil down to one thing: whether AI can or cannot be an artistic original creator is one matter; but it is not the same matter as whether AI can or cannot be an originating creator of artistic things. 2. THE FINISHED PRODUCT We put a lot of pressure on whether we will or will not accept the products of activity as being Art instead of Not Art... What are we basing that decision on? The most important observation is that what we call art, however it is produced, causes us to have certain experiences. And the more intensively we are affected, the more "powerful" we say that the work of art is. When it comes to experiencing the product, the final reality is that categorizing the experience as being artistic or not is our way of evaluating things. Bluntly put, the arguing about the artistic status of whatever is produced is all about why we care. THE RECAP Art is a type of experience caused by a type of influence. We don't define art as being "whatever an artist makes". In every case, the "artist" is simply the producer of the thing that causes the experience we have and call "art". The criteria that we have in an "artistic" evaluation center on why we care. We want artists to be people who have certain characteristics; but our notions of what makes an artist's work valuable - our subjective qualifying preferences - too often overstate what we actually know. The experience doesn't need to be creative, original, unique or new. All of those attributes have a place in one value system or another, and we can impose any of them on why we want the experience - but we already know that two different people can encounter the same circumstances and exercise very different interpretations because they brought different values to the encounter. The influencer originates the experience. Influence on people succeeds because it stimulates and relates to people according to the reasons why people feel and think the way people do. And we commonly note the experience as "being affected by". While we deeply appreciate how human nature promotes production of artistic experiences, we don't reject the meaningful life experiences of what non-human systems produce, nor do we reject those systems for not meeting our ambitious criteria for humans. We don't struggle or debate over whether Nature has "originality" and "creativity", because it seems pointless to stretch beyond the obvious: that nature is vastly, and continuously, generative and productive. The proliferation of weeds from seeds in unmanaged land. The blooming of populations of micro-organisms. The spontaneous emergence of rain showers, or even just clouds, from air masses meeting each other. The formation of mountains. The emergence of new species. We even have a stock label for Nature's systemics: "Laws". The laws of "natural" creativity are, by definition, NOT human: completely absent of humans, nature would just go on independently without us. With AI's productivity, we encounter the activity of a system - a machine - that can generate a very strong influence having value that is not predetermined by our preferences of how it is produced. As argued earlier: The creativity of the system is not defined by our acceptance or resistance to what it produces. Neither does our awareness of what activates the system define it as having originality or not. Forget about uniqueness and innovation; the limits on the scope or acuity of our own awareness might render our perception of both of them fictional illusions. Our suspicion of AI's "motive" is at the core of our resistance to accepting it as an originator of art. Yet in general, we are more cautious about why a person uses a machine than we are about the machine itself. In "matters of the art" we are not predisposed to accept "intelligence" about us as a substitute for empathy or sympathy. But what machines do absolutely IS about people or being human. Machines are designed, specifically to directly address a human goal or objective. Knowing that is what allows us to accept a relationship with machines even when their complexity exceeds our casual ability to understand how they work.

  • Let’s Not Be Stupid About AI and Copyrights

    Because you’re reading this, I’m going to give myself the liberty of presuming that you have seen AND read the Forbes article, “AI-Created Images Aren’t Protected By Copyright Law According To U.S. Copyright Office” and perhaps noticed the following. “But the drawings, which were all created by Midjourney…” “the images in the Work […] are not the product of human authorship” “animals have taken photos…” “A person who provides text prompts to Midjourney does not ‘actually form’ the generated images […] The information in the prompt may ‘influence’ generated image, but prompt text does not dictate a specific result And in a much more extensive quote, which by the way appears in the copyrighted Forbes article verbatim, “there are going to be a lot of lawsuits in the coming months and years as creators figure out who owns the intellectual property created by a machine. As far as the U.S. Copyright Office is considered, no one does.” [Image generated by Malcolm Ryder with Dall-E] Let’s sprint through this quickly. I. A “machine”, being by definition non-human, might just as well be an “animal” despite any mechanism by which they can generate something. The trendy new label “Creators” always refers to people, not to non-human “generators” of anything. Ownership is not granted to non-humans. The #1 issue here is “ownership” NOT authorship. “Rights” in copyright are about ownership, not about copy. And ownership is a nonsense term without the concept of “Property”. So it is ultra-clear that copyright is about property rights. It isn’t about creation, nor even about originality. It is about the only force in the universe that cares about property: people. II. Now, regardless of legal ideas, I have written all of the above using things that were formed by someone else before me — alphabets, words, and grammar. I have used those things to compose “expressions that I did not borrow or copy from someone else. It is extremely possible, regardless of probability, that many of the composed expressions above could be generated by some other OPERATOR than myself. Grammar is the principle “programming” of the generator that I operate for expressing my compositions. The fact that I use programming to generate my expressions is irrelevant to the significance of them. And the possibility that my text has been renovated by a spell-checker or grammar-checker, or a human Editor, does not at all disqualify me as the originating producer and communicator. Meanwhile, if my expressions are understood, no one cares how I materially generated them. They instead might care about the ideas I had that directed my decisions. At this point, only by arguing against my assertion that I have composed something can you not agree with the following: Composition is the single most discriminating fact of the generative exercize, that separates the “original” expression from any re-iteration of it. Composition is, literally, structure. An unprecedented structure is an “original” structure. The designer of any unpredecented specific structure is the “author”. Design is a function and practice that, within its scope, generates structural definition both Prescriptively and Restrictively. By deciding what is to be included, excluded, associated, related, and HOW for all of that, design FORMS the generation regardless of the means that are utilized. To push this further, most movies today could not be copyrighted if the requirement was that every frame in the movie must be successfully copyrighted. An A.I. generated image in a film is there only because someone decided to make it (by either putting it there or leaving it there) a part of the design. If someone else then copies that image and uses it in a different design, the argument about who “owns” the image is absurd artistically, while it is not absurd in the context of asset management. III. So, let’s not be stupid about A.I. and copyright. Owners get rewarded by markets. Authors get rewarded by recognition. A.I. is NOT about “creativity”. And copyright is NOT about “authenticity”. If your goal is to directly reward authorship, that is NOT necessarily the same as rewarding ownership. And ownership does not necessarily coincide with authorship. Finally, it is necessary to avoid being delusional about how images have valuable meaning. Value is contextual. And meaning occurs across the entire spectrum of cognitive capability from the most elemental and literal to the most complex and abstract. Images do not have to cross some imaginary threshhold along that spectrum to suddenly qualify enough to be especially appreciated for authorship, nor for ownership. Humans are not the exclusive source of meaningful value in imaging. Context is by far the decisive factor. This doesn’t diminish the thrill of witnessing exceptional human capability. It simply acknowledges that there are many ways to attribute value to original expressions that are generated though images.

  • COPYING RIGHTS: Warhol v. Goldsmith

    "When you come to a fork in the road, take it. -- Yogi Berra May 18 - Reading through today's news about the Supreme Court ruling on Andy Warhol v. Lynn Goldsmith is both dramatic (as in theatrically) and a big old dose of Wait... What? News readings will generally not suffice to explain what happened, because the accounts mostly mirror the confusion of the high court's effect. The effect: the Supreme Court may have made the right decision for the wrong reasons; but it may have not made the right decision, either. Truth & consequences To be more clear than what has been published so far, slow your role as a reader, and note this: the 7-2 vote in favor of Goldsmith's claim of copyright infringement reveals that Vanity Fair did not appropriately compensate Goldsmith for using Warhol's imagery based on Goldsmith's work, in a purpose apparently indistinguishable from what Goldsmith's own purpose would have been in using Goldsmith's imagery based on Goldsmith's work. Right away we have to ask, why didn't Vanity Fair compensate Goldsmith appropriately? The first of three "correct" answers is that the Warhol Foundation provided the Warhol work to Vanity Fair without a licensing agreement that would have included Goldsmith as a beneficiary. On the surface, this might seem like either an oversight or a theft, but both of those ideas miss the real point. The real point is that if the work provided by the Warhol Foundation did not get used by the recipient (Vanity Fair) to make money, then the copyright infringement case likely would never have occurred. It's important to say this out loud, because it is the closest thing to a rational underpinning of the Court's decision to take its majority stand based on "purpose". The purpose in question was to make money commercially. And while that particular purpose was not disputing that the Warhol work was objectively derivative of Goldsmith's, it stood on pretty firm ground that there was a commercial right abused. The right was to have the first chance to offer a solicited property for gain. In the case at hand, the presumption of this right is unambiguously granted to Goldsmith unless there are criteria that qualified the property in demand as not being Goldsmith's. The Warhol Foundation "copied" (mimicked) Goldsmith's right to make the first offer. The second correct answer, then, is that Vanity Fair was not legally compelled to compensate Goldsmith. This is because Goldsmith was not the provider, and because Vanity Fair's qualifications for its own purpose were not met by Goldsmith's product. Vanity Fair specifically wanted a product that had the "character" found in the Warhol work -- elements that artistically commented through a "flat, impersonal, disembodied, mask-like" portrayal of the subject, on iconic mythology, and on the culture's appetite for it. And the third correct answer is that at the very least, any party using Warhol's work commercially has always known that it is a calculated legal risk. Both the Warhol Foundation and Vanity Fair knew it and had already factored that into their respective business models. So, whether right or wrong, that is in fact why they didn't compensate Goldsmith in the transaction: they didn't need to, even if they should have. They decided to take the risk. Understanding the above means that we can focus on the events more clearly. The Supreme Court ruled on the basis of business ethics, not on the basis of artistic authorship. It did not need to base its decision on whether the Warhol work was sufficiently transformative of the Goldsmith work to qualify as having "a new meaning". Meaning what? The test here -- the Supreme Court's own test -- says that to be transformative the work must "add something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning or message.” Yet at the very same time, Justice Sotomayor exclaimed that "such perceptions are inherently subjective". Let's take a beat here to realize that if this is the case, it does not mean that party X's subjectivity overrules party Y's subjectivity. That is, the Court itself (party X) was not in a position to decide whether the Warhol work was transformative any moreso than was the "client" of the transaction, Vanity Fair. That spectacular self-contradiction is our cue that the 7-2 decision is probably not a landmark decision nor one that is a tectonic shift. The Court did not rule on whether Warhol's work was "transformative". It actually ruled only on the business ethics of a given circumstance, and on the implications of allowing that to be a tolerated precedent in the market. It only thought that it based its ruling on transformation criteria. Well, what do they call these high court rulings? Opinions. Appearance versus Reality But is Warhol's work transformative or not? Subjectivity notwithstanding, we might argue that there are certainly large populations that are insensitive, and therefore indifferent, to the alterations that Warhol performed on the Goldsmith-created image. As a philosophical reflection, we won't get confused by saying that if a measurable difference of characteristics has no impact of significance experiencing the one work versus the other, then who cares? Transformed is not an applicable term for something that has no effective difference from its predecessor. But yes, we still want to understand when it does apply, and there are only two ways to get there. One is by market research. The other is to switch to the producer side of the matter and compare the intention of the makers when it comes to meanings. It is pretty safe to say, in pseudo-legalese, that Lynn Goldsmith's intention that formed the Goldsmith photograph used by Warhol was not the intention Warhol had that formed the artwork made by Warhol using Goldsmith's photograph. In a hypothetical examination looking to verify that, we would naturally separate the protagonists from each other, take direct independent statements from each of them, and compare the statements. This is a completely different perspective than one that is primarily concerned with what the market may or may not decide to use. The market does not define the product; the market defines acceptance. If the key issue is whether the product is a "copy" or not, the test is for a validated difference in meaning that is explicitly attributable to the intentional influence on form exerted by the maker. Normally, this is just the sort of thing that we expect art critics to do for us, whether the artist is agreeable to it or not. But as Adam Liptak reported in the New York Times (May 18, 2023): "The majority does not see it,' Justice Kagan wrote. 'And I mean that literally. There is precious little evidence in today’s opinion that the majority has actually looked at these images, much less that it has engaged with expert views of their aesthetics and meaning.' " The Supreme Court usually has the option to refuse to take a case. In this round, it refused to actually debate the issue of whether Warhol's work was transformative. Had it really debated, there would be evidence in the opinions. What we saw, instead, is that the Court, knowing it did not need to actually settle the transformation issue, let non-critical observers think that it did (one prong of the fork) while actually ruling on the commercial issue (the other prong) as if the transformation issue was not contested. It took the calculated risk and did what it wanted to do.

  • Composition and Decomposition

    Composing spans all media and genres in which a whole is built by arranging selected parts. So, naturally, it can produce things from great simplicity to great complexity. In all cases, the goal is for the arrangement to generate what makes the whole significant; and changing the arrangement means that the meaning of the whole might change too. If we decompose a composition, navigating through what looks like the elements, the choices, and the logic of combining things, one possible discovery is of alternatives that we can imagine, which brings the combinatory decisions into higher relief as purposeful choices. Another discovery might be the similarity of purposes in composing, across different mediums such as writing and photography. The two documents below analytically explore composition and decomposition, one with an emphasis on pointing out various options typical of composing a photograph, and the other how they relate to literary composition.

  • The DEPICTIONS Show: Portraits at the GRAY LOFT GALLERY

    Oakland, CA April 1 through May 6, 2023 The word “portrait” can apply to many different things, such as a place, a time, a culture, or a person; the current show at Gray Loft Gallery is dedicated to people. Portraits always seem like declarative statements. But the portrait always stages a dialogue, featuring the question “What am I like, and what is like me?” Portraiture insists that the viewer considers how he, she, or they compare to the subject. As direct exploration of a “Self”, a portrait distills an identity and projects it into the mind of the viewer or reader. The recipient then experiences an awareness of the self in relation to that self in the image. The image may provoke recognition, aspiration, validation, insult, deference, or otherness... Whether by surprise or as increased certainty, the viewer may know something after the encounter that answers the portrait’s question. For most of us, the natural starting point in viewing a portrait is to seek recognition; the picture is a window on ourselves, and on humanity. At times the offered image appears to intentionally make this challenging, but always with the presumption that there is a worthy payoff. A portrait can have the attitude of re-presenting or of reflecting, and one of the key differences between one viewer’s response and another will be which of those two attitudes is felt as the portrait’s side of the dialogue. At the Gray Loft show, this duality is just one of many that fuels the exploration curator Jan Watten engages in with her selection of artists. What follows are four observations about that, with some images from the show interspersed. [NOTE: The images are not positioned here to be demonstrating their nearest particular adjacent observation; I have sprinkled them throughout, simply to mimic having made my own comparisons as a viewer seeing the show. Browse any picture below at any point along your way; indulge their suggestiveness.] 1. Among the works making up the show, some pictures have the kind of literal visual precision that implies the subject is an actual person highly familiar to the artist. In other cases, the pictures are more abstract, yet strongly gestural, in bringing feelings to the viewer. These are not mutually exclusive appearances, but we see it in the organization of the works on the walls. There is also a mix of another kind among the images. Sometimes the feeling in the picture has been created mainly by the artist’s way of rendering the subject; the portrait itself might be considered an invention of the subject’s apparent identity. Elsewhere an artist has “found” in the subject a feeling that is painstakingly distilled and transmitted from the subject through the artist; something we can consider to be an interpretation expressing a character. Again, there is not a strict separation of the two, rather an evident difference that also allows blends. But either one can be the route to the way we see others or the way we see ourselves. If we “see ourselves in” the subject, that quickly leads to asking what the portrait appears to be saying about us. Is it creating a particular version of us? Is it critiquing us, or at least who we think we are? What do we see in that mirror? But if we see someone else in the picture, what is the message? Is the subject a version of someone who we could be, or shouldn’t be? Or is it the picture’s intent to amplify a characteristic that heightens our awareness of what people, humans, can be like or can feel? 2. In general, the artists use the subject displayed in the picture as a way of conveying a message above or beyond the ordinary reality of the subject’s presence. They achieve this in more than one mode. At Gray Loft, several established conventions of portraiture run strongly through the show’s variety of pictorial styles. Said differently, viewers are invited to dwell on the relationship between a style and the purpose given it by the artist. Interesting tensions can arise from why we ourselves think some combination was used versus why the artist decided to use it, but that’s what makes us look at the works several times instead of making just one pass through them While we readily observe that the range of work spans from the realistic to the abstract, the more important distinction turns out to be between the virtual and the actual – the representation of what appears to be imagined persons or real ones. Among the eleven artists in the show, some use more abstraction in representing either the virtual or actual, while others use more realism. Among those “realists”: we can easily consider that the subject agreed to “sit for” the picture as a willing accomplice. Here the strain of visual “realism” is in the service of transmitting ideas, not just presenting facts “drawn from life”. Sometimes, there is the notion that the subject is a “muse”. But with others, perhaps being mainly a “life model” was the job. In these modes, the subject projects all the details needed by the artist, who captures them for composing the display. A few works offer the more abstract “icon”, having an intentional reference beyond detailed fidelity to any actual person observed, but now moving the notion of an actual person much more towards a symbolic one. The examples here include ones that seem to critique our appetite for celebrities, or even just for what celebrities look like. And, finally, there is the invented character. The invention of characters is clearly significant as a way to answer portraiture’s key questions in the viewer’s mind. A strong characterization is not fundamentally different from fantasizing. And not at all unusual, being the stock in trade of illustrators. 3. Across the spectrum of styles and intents, we as viewers may not actually be certain when the subject was an actual or virtual person. It can make a difference of course, because we think about the artist largely in terms of how the artist treats people, and that forms a key element of what relationship we think we may have with the artist. Are we alike, different, or undecided? And do we care about it? If yes, why? This is exactly what “appreciation” is, and Watten’s attention to mixing things up makes appreciation a stronger takeaway from the show while not diminishing our usual pleasure of finding a few favorites among the works. 4. A final duality on offer comes from a sense of how these visual artists share ways of influencing us that are in common with other kinds of artists. As viewers, we also bring our thoughts and feelings from our broader experience of artwork to our encounter with these pictures. In the case of portraiture, we have a persistent requirement for veracity. But that expectation can offer two paths to satisfaction. One is truthfulness to the identity of the subject. The other is truthfulness to the experience that the subject represents. We could argue that this distinction takes us close to that between non-fiction and fiction. It’s an atypical way of categorizing portraiture, but having said it, I find that the fit is comfortable. Either way, we expect that a portraitist has a deep familiarity with the experiences of being human – of how people appear to us, and when, and why. Exposing the mental image of that psychology through the features of the artwork is the artist’s challenge. Featured Artists in DEPICTIONS: Jayne Biehn, Gene Dominique, Christine Ferrouge, Lin Fischer, Drew Klausner, Sue Matthews, Lynn McGeever, Glenna Mills, Jude Pittman, Bill Prochnow, Ron Moultrie Saunders. - Malcolm Ryder, with Constance Hale April 17, 2023

bottom of page