Art Revolution: David Hockney’s “A Bigger Picture”

“Who would have thought that the telephone would bring back drawing?” – David Hockney, via Bloomberg

The art world has been a-flutter over the past several days with a (largely) manufactured battle between two of its stars: David Hockney and Damien Hirst. Hockney mania, the Telegraph reports, has overloaded the Royal Academy website, leaving servers crashing in its wake. Meanwhile, Hirsts “retrospective” of his infamous spot paintings (you know, the ones he didn’t actually paint?) has barely registered, except as something for art critics to mock gleefully.

It could be that gallery goers have finally recognized that Hirst is a bit of a one-trick pony. Admittedly, it was a sort of interesting trick – at the beginning. I must admit to snickering over his “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (you know, the shark preserved in formaldehyde? I laughed even harder when it rotted and the hedge fund manager that bought it had to get Hirst to make him a new one!). The whole episode exuded the sort of impish tomfoolery that allowed the YBAs (Young British Artists) to steal the scene in the 90s. But its gotten a bit old.

On to Hockney then: the popularity of his latest exhibit is refreshing for several reasons. First, it suggests the public can only be entertained for so long by having a middle finger extended in their general direction. Second, it indicates that there is a real and abiding appetite for beautiful, relevant, art.

Hockney’s exhibit, entitled ‘A Bigger Picture’ opens today and will run until April 9th, 2012 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It features a number of new artworks created using Hockney’s iPad and iPhone (follow the link to see more, including a video). As far as I’m aware, Hockney is the best-known  artist to dedicate a significant portion of a new exhibit to works created using the iPad. Of course, artists have been using the iPad and iPhone to create beautiful work since the devices were first released, but the popularity of the Hockney story seems to indicate that there is deeper change afoot.

The bright colours of his new pieces are eye catching and invigorating, and they give the impression that they are somehow backlit. In Hockney’s interview with Bloomberg, he dwells briefly on the fact that the iPad’s lighting has influenced his work, saying “[t]he fact that it’s illuminated makes you choose luminous subjects, or at least I did: the sunrise, for example, and flower vases with water in them that catch reflections.” The article also touches on the fact that the using his phone or tablet has made his work much easier, simply because it is more accessible: “I realized when I was doing the sunrises last year that it was partly because the iPhone was beside my bed when I woke up…if I’d only had a pencil and paper there I probably wouldn’t have chosen to make pictures of the dawn.” Finally, because the iPad records the movements of his finger across the device, viewers can be brought one step closer to the creative process through videos of the works being made.

 Viewers who are able to experience these works in person at the Royal Academy of Arts in London will see them printed on paper. The paper medium still translates the luminous quality of the paintings, but paradoxically, if you only get a chance to see them on your computer, smartphone or tablet, you will have greater proximity to the artist’s process. It’s strangely like being able to hold an original Van Gogh in your hands. This was exploited to great effect when Hockney’s Fresh Flowers exhibit was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum a few months back, where you could sign up to have an “original” piece of artwork he had created on the iPhone emailed to you every few weeks.

There has been a degree of sterility and self-reflexivity about contemporary art that has left the public feeling excluded from artistic discourse. Hockney’s exhibit is an exciting opportunity for people to experience art in a fresh new way that resonates with audiences. And if you’re interested, you can buy the Brushes app Hockney used to create his masterpieces from the App Store for $7.99 (at this juncture, I feel compelled to note that anyone who is convinced that the cost of the app –plus an iPad or iPhone–is too high, has never had to buy art supplies!).

Netflix for Books

I love reading, and I’m a huge consumer of print media - approximately 20 books a month, plus countless articles. I use the library out of necessity. It would cost me around $6,000 a year to buy all the books I read, so the library is my best choice for affordable access to the books I want to read. I love ebooks, which are slightly more affordable and can’t be easily digested by my two toddlers, but once again, I can’t really justify buying 20 or more ebooks a month (after all, how many books can my kids destroy per month?). But I do get tired of lugging all the books back and forth from the library and paying fines when I need to keep them a few extra days. Also, it’s difficult to tough it out for months on end waiting for new books that I am positively dying to read (my husband bought me the new Steve Jobs biography after he heard me mention I was looking at about six months on the waiting list).

All this has got me to thinking – why doesn’t a service like Netflix exist for readers? In my opinion, such a service would need to provide:

  • Simultaneous access to multiple titles (I’d go crazy if I wasn’t able to read at least three books at once – and I know I’m not alone in this)
  • Availability of pretty much any title I could find at my local library
  • Ability to read books on multiple platforms (tablet, smartphone, pc)
  • Affordable pricing (i.e., along the lines of Netflix)

This might sound like a tall order, but Netflix is able to provide these things for movie fans. I do realize that there are probably fewer readers out there demanding a service like this than there are movie and tv fans. recently announced a service along the lines of a ”bonus feature” for Amazon Prime customers. It is pretty much useless, in my opinion. You have access to one book per month (one? Are you kidding me?), have a mere 5,000 titles to choose from, and can only read these books on your kindle. The only good news is that you don’t have to pay extra for this horrible service, which is lumped together with Amazon Prime at a cost of $79 USD per year.

Now, I’m sure that Amazon has been begging publishers to allow them to offer more titles, but I’m sure it’s difficult to get enough publishers on board. And as this article from Wired magazine notes, nobody really knows what a digital book is “worth” to the publishing industry, nor are they used to negotiating with anyone over the aftermarket for their titles.

Although it was comparatively easier for Netflix to discuss these issues

Now, I hate to say it, but I suspect one of the reasons that book publishers haven’t been as willing to acquiesce to the likes of Apple and Amazon is that they have felt less pressure from piracy. The music and film industries are truly suffering from the availability of free content on the web. In contrast, publishers earned 27.9 billion worldwide in 2010, and their revenue appears to be growing, not shrinking.

Adaptation to digital books has started off a bit slow, but it is growing. According to the New York Times (see link above), ebooks represented just 0.6 percent of the the market in 2008. Two years later, they had grown to 6.4 percent. Book publishers might not be feeling the pinch right now, but if this trend continues, they will not be able to ignore the pressure of  the web. I’ve never read a pirated ebook myself, but they do exist, and I’m sure that if they become readily available, they’ll be a much more evident threat to the publishing world.

Hopefully, publishers will not let it get to that point, and will come up with an affordable way for consumers to access books. I realize that not everyone reads as much as I do, but, as my husband pointed out when I discussed this issue with him, they might be willing to pay for a subscription to a book service simply because of the way it makes them feel.

This time of year, I’m always reminded of the job I took at the YMCA after high school. I was amazed that so many people would sign up for memberships in January. I worried that the facility would never hold them all! Not a concern, my boss informed me. Most of them will never show up after the second week of January. “But they’ll just cancel their memberships!” I protested. “No,” she replied. “Just having a membership makes them feel good, even if they never use the gym.”

I think an ebook membership would work much the same way. There are a lot of people out there who would feel great about having unlimited access to books, even if they never actually use the service! What do you think? Does the idea of an “ebook membership” appeal to you? Do you think it makes sense for publishers to offer this option through providers like Apple and Amazon?

There has been a lot of exciting news over the past few months about art on the web. Google recently launched their Art Project, Twitter is teeming with artists, art lovers and art historians, and H Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem just launched the Art History Database, which permits visitors to search some of the best art and history sites on the web for relevant art-related content.

Yesterday, another exciting entrant launched the beta version of their site. aims to connect visitors to new art through their website. Many of you are likely familiar with Pandora – the music service that automatically builds playlists for listeners based on their preferences. aims to offer the ability do something similar, helping visitors discover new artists by using their “magic tour.”

The magic tour works by showing you a set of four paintings, from which you choose your favorite (or you can skip the entire set if you don’t like any of them).  This is done 3-4 times, after which a slide show is created based on your earlier choices.

The site mentions plans to develop applications for mobile and tablet devices, with the goal of sharing profits with the museums, galleries and artists featured on the site. Since there will be no cost to museums and galleries, this could be a really wonderful way for museums to increase revenues – especially when times are tough and arts funding is in so much jeopardy across the globe.

I was a bit disappointed that the website is weighted so heavily in the direction of pre-20th century art, although there are works by early 20th century artists like Matisse. Of course, as anyone who blogs knows all too well, it can be tough to get permission to show modern and contemporary works. This is a shame, but I hope things will change going forward. Obviously, Artfinder doesn’t want to get slapped with a copyright suit their first day in business! Hopefully once artists (or their estates) are aware of the site, they will be willing to consider allowing their images to be displayed.

I really like the concept. The website has begun with 250,000 artworks, and you have the option to share paintings (right now it’s just paintings and sketches, though they have said that they will be adding sculpture in the future) with friends through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

I was a bit disappointed with the magic tour, which is probably largely due to the fact that I am in a bit of a modern/contemporary art mood at the moment, and there is little of that on the website. So, I chose a few 19th century paintings. The results seemed a bit random, but I did find a few artists I was not familiar with. I liked most of what I saw, but I’m not sure if that was because of the accuracy of the “magic tour”, or because I’m not that picky!

Overall, I think it’s a great site and I’m very impressed with what Artfinder is trying to do. It’s still in beta, so there are some wrinkles to be sorted out. However, I would definitely recommend it to readers of this blog, and I am very excited to see that art is alive and thriving in our web 2.0 world.

St. George and the Dragon, 1811 by Franz Pforr, Image courtesy Wikimedia

Kids, Technology and Tablet Computing

The other day I picked up a book at the library called Buy Buy Baby, by Susan Gregory Thomas. As the title would suggest, it was about the way that marketers target children. Some of the topics the author discussed were quite interesting, such as the KGOY, or “Kids Getting Older Younger” phenomenon. But after a few pages, I felt the author’s skepticism about technology and children went a little overboard.

Generally speaking, I’m dubious of the claims made by the makers of “educational” toys. I applaud Ms. Thomas for calling attention to some of the silly tactics used by these toy makers to snag well-meaning parents. I’m especially wary of talking toys that purport to teach the alphabet, numbers, etc. If I can’t decipher what a so-called educational toy is saying, how on earth is my kid supposed to learn from it? We’ve known for some time that children learn best by playing and exploring their environment.

But this is where I part ways with Ms. Thomas. She advocates “doing Nothing”, which, to her mind, means shielding your children from technology and “watching and listening…with no goal in mind”(Thomas 227). She even pooh-poohs the notion of early literacy, scorning board books as “chewables” and suggesting that it’s inappropriate to read to any child who still might be tempted to gnaw on reading material (163-165).

Technology may not make your children smarter, per-se, but I believe that mastering computing skills early in life greatly increases the ease with which children can adapt to new technologies. But technology can oftentimes do something even more miraculous: open new windows on the world for people with disabilities.

I read an incredible article this morning on BlogHer about a young boy with autism for whom the iPad is not just another toy – it’s a tool that has changed his life. His mother calls it a near-miracle: the iPad has given her son a new sense of independence and has allowed him to play and communicate in a whole new way. Now, the author of Buy, Buy, Baby would probably dismiss the entire story as an example of viral marketing. I hope we aren’t that cynical.

Tablet computers like the iPad are particularly accessible to children, and applications that don’t require typing  on the qwerty keyboard are especially easy for them to use. But what if older kids and adults could write on the iPad touch keyboard without really knowing how to type? My husband introduced me to Swype the other day, and I’m in love. The technology is still in its infancy, and right now I believe it’s only available for Google’s Android phones, but if things go well, I’m sure it will be coming to other touch devices soon. Swype allows users to “type” or “swipe” 50 words per minute on touch-screen phones (without developing carpal tunnel!). Pretty neat!

Art and the iPad

Apple’s iPad will be coming to Canada on May 28, and it is already making waves in the United States. Touted by Apple as “the best way to experience the web,” the iPad is everything we’ve come to expect from Apple – sleek, sexy and designed to inspire envy. But what impact will the iPad have on the art world?

Digital artists are already excited about the art apps being offered for the iPad, which allow users to draw using either fingers or a stylus using any number of digital brushes. This enthusiasm is hardly surprising, given that last June an illustration done entirely on the iPhone using the iTunes Brushes app graced the cover of The New Yorker. The magazine’s art editor, later told The New York Times he appreciated the fact that the cover didn’t feel digital, and that the image was “free flowing…poetic and magical.” The artist, Jorge Colombo, confessed that one of the biggest attractions of working in this medium was its low profile and portability, which permitted him to stand for over an hour on 42nd Street in Manhattan without being bothered by curious onlookers. Obviously, that would have been a rather more difficult task, if he’d been working on an easel! (or even with a sketchbook).

Of course, not everyone is thrilled. Performance artist Kenny Irwin of dOvtastic Microwave Theatre has already engaged artistically with the iPad – by microwaving it. Yup, there are some who feel that the best response to this new technology is to destroy it using less advanced technology (or perhaps I’ve missed the point – if there even is one).

But others are making more optimistic use of the iPad.  Claudio Arango of Bogotá, Colombia, has become the first known artist to conduct an exhibit of his artwork using the iPad.  

Below you can see a film of Arango demonstrating his art to passersby using the iPad:

On his blog, Arango states that his goal is for his artwork to be “móvil, remezclado, y libre” (“mobile, remixed and free”). It’s a noble manifesto, and one that seems appropriate for art created on such exciting new technology. Of course, some will note that the people who encounter Arango on the street may be more interested in the iPad than what’s on it. This is a valid point, but I am intrigued by Arango’s art, and by his forward thinking approach. Arango does digital artwork, primarily female nudes, and he is highly tech-savvy (he blogs and is on flickr, twitter, YouTube, tumblr and Facebook). With more and more artists taking advantage of the sort of presence social media affords, it won’t be long before technologies like the iPad are as important to artists as paintbrushes were in the past. The web has already become the primary medium in which people encounter art, how long before it becomes the principal tool for creating art? Of course, as an art blogger, I may be a bit biased, but when you consider today’s architects and designers, most simply could not function without computer aided design, and artists are quickly joining the ranks of the technology- dependent. This may be disturbing to some, but then again, thousands of years ago, artists who painted on cave walls were making use of frightening new technology!

Now, I’m not sure if digital art is the future of art, but it will certainly be a key component of the art world of the future. And how could it not play a pivotal role? Representing yet another portable, web-friendly device, the iPad ensures that art will never be more than a click away. It will change the way an entire generation interacts with visual media. It’s strange, but the iPad may very well be the first place my daughter creates her own art.

What do you think? What place does emerging technology like the iPad have in the art world, and how might it change the way we look at art? I’d love to hear your thoughts (and if you are an artist who is already brainstorming ways to take advantage of this new medium, or others like it, please join in!).