When Picasso placed images of African masks in his painting Des Demoiselles d’Avignon, viewers were reasonably certain that he either personally observed African masks, or at the very least had access to quality reproductions. The very fact that his hand recreated the forms of the masks on canvas confirms that he did some careful looking. Had he done the same in constructing a computer image, viewers would not be so sure. Because the computer can be the instrument which transmits and stores information, as well as the construction tool, it places the artist in a different relation to source materials. Today, Picasso could have bought a laser disk on African art, cut out a mask with only a passing glance at the visual qualities of the object, and then placed it into his painted image. Is one form of appropriation more sincere than the other? Does actually holding the mask show more respect for the culture which produced it? Does working with it inside the computer help us to understand it, or is it always theft? How can we use the computer to expand the cultural materials with which we build our art, without exploitation?
I am a converted appropriator. I used to believe that taking images from other artists, no matter how long dead or removed from my own culture, was in some way immoral or cheating. And doing this with the computer was even more immoral, because it did not even require that I had the technical skills of drawing and painting. It was as if the computer and the dead artist conspired to eliminate me from the process of making art, leaving me as only the conduit. The fear was that somehow I could not make art all by myself. After all, those of us who are artists like to think that we are producing something unique, something which is a reflection of ourselves as individuals, something that could not be done by anyone else, and without our direct participation.
- Cynthia Beth Rubin has exhibited computer art in the United States, France, Canada, Hollanci, and Australia over the past ten years. She currently teaches computer art in the Fine Arts department at the University of Vermont, USA
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