Art isn’t about images. It’s about people. This is what Vieunite focusses on: the art of human connection.
I am an artist. I don’t often depict people in my own work, but throughout history most art is figurative. If you leaf through any overview of Western art and culture, you will see landscapes, buildings, and – above all – lots of pictures of people. Most of these are portraits.
Portraits show what people look like. But they are not just ‘factual’ images. A good portrait also creates a sense of connection. Photography does this too. People carry photographs around with them, in their wallets or on their phones. These images connect viewers with their loved ones.
Art does not have to be figurative to promote connection. This is because art also connects the viewer with the artist who made the work. This belief is embedded in the language we use to discuss painting and sculpture. Imagine for a moment that you are lucky enough to own an original painting by the Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko. You might say, ‘I was just looking at my Rothko the other day when the telephone rang…’. Or you might invite your friends to ‘come and see my Rothko’. But you wouldn’t say: ‘Hey, do you want to come and see my painting by Rothko’. The preposition is not only unnecessary: it misses the point. This is because a painting, sculpture, or drawing – so long as it is made by a competent artist – represents the whole of that artist’s work, even their whole person. This connection transcends centuries. Walk around the National Gallery in London, and there’s ‘a Botticelli’, there’s ‘a Titian’. It’s as though the artists are still alive.
This might sound like a strange idea, but it is well established in our culture. The belief underpins any biographical approach to art history. And it is well recognised in anthropological literature as well. If you are interested in learning more, read Alfred Gell’s book Art and Agency (1998: 232-251). In this he describes how each individual artwork in an artist’s oeuvre is part of a network, connected to every other work they have made. This network constitutes a body of work, which can be accessed through any individual work that the artist has made. The same idea, albeit discussed in different terms, can also be found in much older literature, such as Bernard Berenson’s work on connoisseurship. Berenson talks – rather coyly – about a ‘Sense of Quality’ (1920:147-148) that connects an artist’s work, without this being reducible to any one object. My view is that an individual artwork is a fragment that contains the whole of an artist’s output, and something else besides: a sense of the artist’s style and quality. This is a potential that belongs uniquely to the artist and that exceeds the material facts of any individual artwork. In this way, any individual artwork is what it is, empirically and exactly, as a material object; but it is also infinite and abstract, an intellectual or – (if you prefer) – a spiritual thing.
If you don’t get this, then just think about yourself. Are you the sum of everything you have done in life? Or are you more besides? I think most readers of this article would believe that their life is more than a series of facts and occurrences. The same is true of art. An artist’s body of work is not just a collection of made things. Each artwork, to a varying degree, connects the viewer to the artist’s unrealised potential, their artistic quality. This is the spirit or the aura of their work.
Nearly a century ago, the great cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. In this, Benjamin states that photography can capture the external appearance of art, its factual semblance, but not its aura. Benjamin was writing at a time when photography and film were disruptive new technologies. I find it interesting that he contradicts himself in other texts. For instance, in his Little History of Photography, Benjamin describes early photography as the perfect technology for capturing the aura of its sitters. The same thought is present in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. This is now a mainstream idea. You’ll know yourself, from the photos in your wallet or on your phone, that photography is not a purely descriptive or factual medium. Photography has switched from being a science to an art.
The disruptive technology of our age is Artificial Intelligence. This is also being researched here at Vieunite. Its potential is largely unrealised: Dr Anthony Adole recently wrote about the capability of Ai to create therapeutic images to connect viewers with nature, at scale: imagine the benefit this could have in a care home or hospital.
My feeling is that Ai algorithms for the creation of images – Ai art in other words – will make that same journey as photography, from science to art, and that it will end up being a natural part of artistic workflow. For the time being though, Ai art feels different; it has a different quality. It doesn’t exceed itself in the same way that human art does. It doesn’t yet connect the viewer to the same aura as human art does. It is an amazing technology for visualising and communicating outcomes, but these still feel descriptive of – and bound by – the algorithmic process. The technology will evolve. My hope is that artists will learn to benefit from it. And when this happens, I reserve the right to change my mind.
Vieunite already uses Ai in a different way, to categorise art made by human artists, and to make connections between collectors and artists. Through using the Vieunite app and Textura canvas, a collector can follow an artist’s creative journey, and support their development, at the same time as enriching their own life through art. It’s a powerful tool for connecting with artists: a gallery in your own home.
Vieunite – like art itself – is all about people.
Benedict is Vieunite’s Culture Director and a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.