Technology in the art world is ever growing with methods of production and representation now including 3D printing, lasers, robots and polluted air. Advances in technology also have allowed us greater visibility on older works, including those by the Old Masters. High resolution online photography permits viewers to scroll and zoom over works too delicate to be on display and digital tours allow virtual visitors to ‘pace’ the floors of galleries all over the world. The film ‘Loving Vincent’ released last year, showed the life of van Gogh through an animated series of paintings, each representing a different frame.
Gone are the days of only being able to view reproductions of pieces in books and on posters, yet the debate continues as to whether there is merit in still seeing artwork in the flesh. We now have the ability to digitally see a piece from every angle and in the context of the wealth of other pieces on display, so what is the advantage of seeing something in person?
Until we have holograms in our homes, we still will struggle to gain a sense of scale, space and the interrelationship between objects in museums. Works that involve physical human participation, texture or sound are often best enjoyed in the context that they were designed for, but it is the artist Emyr Williams who makes the strongest point, ‘reproductions can be an aide-memoir… yet the electricity of the encounter is missing’. It can often be the very visceral experience of encountering an artwork personally, that conveys its true meaning.
However, we can ask ourselves, does one method of viewing an artwork necessarily detracted from another or prevent a user from appreciating another? Does having seen van Gogh’s sunflowers online or in a film lessen the magic of seeing it in real life? Applicants to study Fine Art might like to explore this question in more detail in preparation for their interviews. Art Historians could further investigate new ‘ways of seeing’ artworks.
How should art institutions, and society in general, respond to the art of figures whose creators or subjects are now seen as in some sense morally reprehensible? This was the question faced by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco when they unveiled their exhibition Casanova: The Seduction of Europe earlier this year. In an unpredicted coincidence, the exhibition opened its doors just four months after #MeToo first appeared online, and hence amidst a flurry of discussion about sexual assault and harassment.
Giacomo Casanova, the notorious figure behind the exhibition, was an adventurer, writer, and womanizer from 18th-century Venice. Although he has often been characterised as a dashing and charismatic romantic figure, some of his behaviour constituted sexual assault and rape. Hence, inadvertently, the exhibition provided an opportunity to discuss art and morality. How, if at all, should we present such exhibitions? Since Casanova himself is not the creator of the works of art displayed, is it misguided and unnecessary to make him the focus? Are we in danger of romanticising misogyny? Curator Melissa Buron comments, “Casanova is a complicated figure—there were things he did in his lifetime that were scandalous, certainly illegal in our current climate, but I don’t think it does anyone a service to whitewash or rewrite history, especially as a museum.”
The museum decided to try to incorporate these darker elements into the exhibition instead of shying away from them by inviting academics to give talks to provide historical context to the exhibition. Art critic Monica Westin, although suspicious that this approach might constitute museums “trying to have their cake and eat it too”, agrees that troubling historical events and figures such as Casanova cannot simply be ignored or excised from history; “they bookmark an entire set of histories and understandings about the world that we have inherited and must deal with.” On the other hand, such discussions about “rewriting history” raise questions about the nature of what we call “history”. To argue that de-centring certain figures or voices constitutes rewriting or whitewashing history assumes that history as we know it is a seamless and unified truth, rather than one particular narrative we have pieced together. The past, and indeed the present, can of course be seen from multiple perspectives. Julia Bryan-Wilson, for example, a professor of modern and contemporary art, argues that museums should be making an effort to present a variety of diverse voices.
Applicants for History of Art should think about the question of morality in art. Do we have a duty to de-centre art, music, or films by figures of the past or the present who we deem to be morally reprehensible? Can art ever be separate from society and transcendent of morality? Students wishing to study History should think particularly about the nature of history itself. Is history objective? What does it mean to “rewrite history”?
Can robots make art? The annual robotic art competition is now in its third year, with over 100 submissions this time round and a first place prize of $40,000. The founder of this competition Andrew Conru argues the idea of using robots in the artistic process is no different than any other advancement in artistic technique or genre. “Every generation tries to come up with a new genre, a new style, a new category of art. I don’t see robot art as any different than yet another way for people to express themselves.”
The term ‘robotic art’ covers a range of categories. Some of the submissions to the competition directly involved humans in the creation of the piece itself, for example where a robotic tool was wielded by a human controller, whereas others relied more fully on artificial intelligence. The 2018 winner Pindar Van Arman used what is known as ‘deep-learning’—a type of machine learning that differs from task-specific algorithms and aims to more closely mimic the brain’s neural networks—in order to create “increasingly autonomous generative art systems”. The third place winners focused on technique, training their robot to record and precisely mimic the exact motions and pressures used by a brush to paint a specific work of art.
Not only are robots becoming artists, they’re also giving art critics a run for their money. Berenson, a dapper-looking figure in a bowler hat and white scarf, uses his robotic facial expressions to react to art around him based on analysing the reactions of other museum-goers. On the other end of the critical spectrum, Novice Art Blogger is an automated blog that processes and attempts to analyse abstract art based on deep-learning algorithms. The blog’s descriptions of art are almost more abstract than the art itself, and it is often hard to see how it reaches its conclusions. For example, Stringed Figure by Henry Moore is described as “a close up of different pieces of a paper bag or rather a piece of wood cutting out of a box with a pair of scissors in front of it. It stirs up a memory of a cake in the shape of a suit case”. Perhaps we mere mortals are simply not on this critic’s level…
Van Arman wonders whether his AI system is “simply being generative, or whether the robots were in fact achieving creativity.” Applicants for Computer Science, Fine Art, or History of Art may wish to ponder this question—can AI ever be creative? In fact, are humans truly creative or do we, like robots, simply analyse, process, and generate based on our own neural networks?
A recent press conference in Rome saw the unveiling of a small painted tile of the Archangel Gabriel; the scholars who unearthed it, Ernesto Solari and Rosa Bonfantino, claim that it constitutes the earliest known work by Leonardo da Vinci.
The tile is made in the glazed earthenware style known as ‘majolica’, which is typical of renaissance Italy. The scholars claim that the tile was made by an 18-year-old Leonardo in 1471, and that it represents the artist’s own self-portrait as the angel; indeed, coded inscriptions on the tile read “I, Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452, represented myself as the Archangel Gabriel in 1471.” Solari claims that detailed scientific tests have confirmed the 15th-century origin of the tile.
Other experts, however, are not convinced by the claims of Solari and Bonfantino. Indeed, it is very common for works of art to be discovered and claimed as being by da Vinci. One example is La Bella Principessa, presented to the art world as being by the great Renaissance master but later claimed by the forger Shaun Greenhalgh who insists that the drawing is in fact his portrait of Sally, a cashier at a Co-op in Bolton. It is still not known whether Greenhalgh’s claim is genuine or simply a playful attempt to confuse the art world. Leonardo expert Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of Art History at the University of Oxford, has dismissed claims regarding the majolica tile, saying that “the chance of its being by Leonardo is less than zero. The silly season for Leonardo never closes.” According to Kemp, the quality of the tile is not of a level that would be expected of a work produced only one year before Leonardo’s Annunciation, which is far more sophisticated.
Applicants for History of Art should familiarise themselves with the processes by which works of art are dated and attributed to a particular artist. They might also like to consider the concept of forgery. Can forgeries be considered skilful works of art in and of themselves?
How can neuroscience be used to improve your museum experience? The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachussets has gone so far as to hire a full-time neuroscientist, Tedi Asher, to help them revolutionise the way they present their art. Director of the museum Dan Monroe notes that museum culture is changing dramatically, with a significant decline in museum attendance and an increased emphasis on fun and entertainment as the priority for museumgoers. Because of this, Monroe realised the need for museums to evaluate their standard practices in order to stay relevant, and he struck upon the idea of incorporating neuroscience.
Carl Marci of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience breaks down engagement into three aspects: attention, emotion, and memory. Attention alone is not enough to produce a lasting impact; we all pay attention to things that we subsequently forget. He suggests that a significant emotional response is necessary to trigger a lasting memory. By priming museumgoers with a task before they view the exhibition, Tedi Asher hoped to elicit a stronger engagement with the art and to produce memories. This hypothesis was tested, with subjects divided into three groups and given different goals. Group one were just given a fact about the art; group two were asked to analyse the art to find a particular element; and group three were asked to make a personal judgment about the work. They were then interviewed to assess their engagement with the exhibition. Over the summer this data will be analysed; Asher hopes to establish whether the group given the personal reflection task displayed a greater emotional engagement.
The Peabody Essex Museum is in fact the second museum to directly incorporate neuroscience into its programme. In 2010, The Walters Art Museum collaborated with Johns Hopkins University to produce “Beauty and the Brain”, an exhibition-cum-experiment that asked museumgoers to analyse their reactions to abstract sculptures by 20th-century artist Jean Arp. Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the American Alliance of the Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums, comments: “in general, all of these interdisciplinary approaches are ways to provide new points of entry to diverse audiences”.
Applicants for both Psychology and Fine Art may wish to think about how studying the human mind can contribute to both the content and the presentation of art.
Can art be so bad that it’s good? It would stand to reason that we would appreciate art that is well-thought-out and skilfully made and sneer at what is poorly made. And yet across different artistic media there are examples of art that becomes popular precisely because it is so bad. In fact, there’s a whole museum devoted to bad art – the MoBA in Massachusetts.
A notable example is the 2003 film The Room, written, produced, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. If you haven’t seen The Room, words cannot convey quite how undeniably awful it is. The plot makes no sense, the acting is appalling, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg; and yet it has achieved cult status, with fans throwing plastic spoons during screenings (spoons mysteriously feature heavily in the film) and shouting out famous lines such as “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”
Crucially, good-bad art has to be sincere. Part of what’s so attractive about The Room is Tommy Wiseau himself; a shadowy figure with a fake name and unknown origins who, unlike everyone around him including his co-stars, seems totally unaware that his film is considered the worst film ever made. Deliberately and ironically making something terrible does not produce the good-bad art effect—it’s tainted by artistic self-consciousness, we don’t buy into it.
As John Dyck from the City University of New York explains, there are several possible explanations as to why we appreciate bad art. An obvious one is simply that it’s an example of Schadenfreude—we take a perverse delight in seeing others fail. Watching The Room would, according to this theory, be the cinematic equivalent of watching the lift doors close in someone’s face. However James Franco, creator of The Disaster Artist, a film about the making of The Room, argues that our enjoyment of Wiseau’s train wreck of a film is not a question of delighting in the failure of others. Rather through its failings the film manages to produce something captivating and beautiful that inspires genuine joy rather than smug mockery. Indeed, as Dyck points out, if the Schadenfreude theory were correct, one would assume that we could delight in any artistic failure. But this is not the case—some bad art is pretentious, embarrassing, or just plain boring.
Another well-loved example of good-bad art is the Ecce Homo portrait of Jesus from the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain, which became famous when an untrained amateur Cecilia Giménez tried in all good faith to restore the painting, resulting in what some now call Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey) or simply ‘Potato Jesus’. Cecelia’s sincerity of intention combined with the tragic hilarity of what she produced made Potato Jesus an instant hit; the artistic group Wallpeople even made it into an exhibition in Barcelona, commenting that “Cecilia has created a pop icon”.
Applicants for Fine Art and History of Art might link to think about the concept of good-bad art. Do you believe that there is such a thing? What are the criteria that separate good-bad art from simply bad art? Can such works really be thought to have any artistic merit?
Recent scholarship has added to the conversation about Shakespeare’s originality—or lack thereof. Published in the mid-20th century, Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare detailed the stories that Britain’s most famous playwright has used and altered, for example how he brought two separate stories together to make The Merchant of Venice. However John Kerrigan, professor of English at the University of Cambridge and a leading Shakespeare scholar, has recently argued that the bard’s creative borrowing far exceeds previous estimates. Delving far deeper than Shakespeare’s obvious sources, he uncovers a web of allusions, references, and imitation.
In his book Shakespeare’s Originality, he discusses the very meaning of originality and plagiarism, which is largely a modern concept. Rather, before the late 18th century, imitation of established models was the sign of a work’s merit, whereas we now hold innovation in far greater esteem. Even in the last century Picasso famously stated that “art is theft”, and T.S Eliot quipped, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In fact, Kerrigan actually concludes that Shakespeare differs from his contemporaries in that he doesn’t boast about his literary knowledge through his writing or rely heavily on recognisable plots. Instead, he demonstrates a more nuanced and subtle use of older material, and his references would have gone unnoticed by the majority of his audience.
Applicants for English Literature should think about the concept of originality, what it means for readers and audiences today and what it meant in the past. Along with students wishing to study History of Art they should consider what in their opinion distinguishes a good work from an average one, and how value judgements on literature and other art forms are influenced by culture and change over time with the changing demands and expectations of audiences. This may lead to a discussion on what constitutes “art”, and whether or not it is a useful category.
A new study conducted at Northwest University has indicated that children in the US are drawing more female scientists than they did in previous decades. In the 1960s and 70s, less than 1% of children who were asked to draw a scientist chose to draw a woman. Over the past 40 years, this figure has risen to 28%. Despite this progress, children are still more likely to depict scientists as male — especially older children, who are more aware of the gender imbalance in these professions. Indeed, the study’s lead author David Miller points out that equal representation in drawings cannot be expected while inequality persists in the real world of science. When children taking part in one particular study were asked to draw teachers, only 25% of children drew men, demonstrating that at least among children certain gender stereotypes are being dispelled at a slower rate than others.
It was also observed that while girls on average draw 42% of scientists as women, boys only draw 4% as women, despite the fact that women represented 49% of biological scientists, 35% of chemists, and 11% of physicists and astronomers in the United States by 2013. Researchers also noted that on average 79% of the drawing depicted white scientists.
Bianca Reinisch, a scientist at the Free University of Berlin, expressed some scepticism at the study, arguing that children’s responses could be influenced by the way in which the task was explained to them, as well as objects and posters they see in the room.
Applicants hoping to study Psychology and those interested in gender and women’s studies may wish to keep this study in mind as they think about how children absorb and perpetuate cultural information such as gender and race biases, and whether their perceptions can constitute a useful measure of social progress. Students interested in Art could consider whether children’s drawings can be considered “art”, and how some artists’ use of abstraction and “naïve” styles could be compared to how children express themselves and reflect the society around them.
The past few years have seen a surge in the practice of digitally colourising black and white photos, encouraged by social media posts that showcase the skill by comparing the altered photo to the original. This process is not wholly new; colourising photos by painstakingly painting over them by hand is almost as old as photography itself. In the digital age, however, these ‘paintings’ have become increasingly accurate and lifelike.
Colourising photos is a labour-intensive process that requires extensive research and collaboration with historians and experts to identify the exact colours that would have been present, as well as detailed knowledge of how lighting affects colour and the ability to realistically convey complex structures such as human skin with layer upon layer of colour for a nuanced effect.
Colourised photos can be as moving as they are impressive, removing the distance between the viewer and the past and humanising historical figures. However, critics of the practice argue that artificially colourising photos is tantamount to rewriting the past. Whilst certainly striking, these digital paintings are at best an educated guess as to what the past might have looked like, and they should not be treated as historical documents alongside the original black and white originals. Indeed, some colourised photos in circulation contain glaring errors.
Applicants for Fine Art may wish to familiarise themselves with contemporary artistic tools and techniques and the impact of modern technology on the art scene. Those wishing to study History or History of Art should think about the relationship between art and history through the ages — for example, how art has been used by those in power to influence the public perception of historical figures and past events.
In recent times, voices have emerged to challenge the appearance of elitism in opera and to clear the way for new audiences and new ways of relating to classical music.
Comedian and columnist Chris Addison argues that far from being exclusive, opera evokes feelings that are universal, and contains “something visceral […] something capable of catching all of us”. Companies such as Silent Opera stand at the cutting edge of this traditional art form, reimagining productions in new and exciting ways. Such innovation in classical music comes partly as a response to dwindling audience numbers and concerns about the future of the industry.
Opera Holland Park has recently undertaken a project to introduce inner city teens to opera, documented in the short film Hip Hop to Opera. Director Michael Volpe points out that “we often look suspiciously at young, working-class people and consequently set extremely limited aspirations for them”. Throughout the process he aimed not to convert the sixth-formers to classical music or to present it as a superior art form, but to help them challenge their own view of themselves and their preconceived notions of what they are capable of enjoying.
In fact, despite its reputation, opera has a long history of appealing to the working class. The most famous patrons of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan are the loggionisti, less wealthy yet highly discerning opera fans who for centuries have crowded into the standing galleries to loudly cheer or boo performances; they are feared and respected by even the most talented singers.
Applicants for Music should consider different models of performance and the impact of those models on how music is received and perceived by an audience, as well as the future of classical music in general. Students interested in art may wish to think about elitism in the arts, and how categories such as class, race, and gender have affected the definition of ‘art’ and the perceived value of different art forms.