Sunday, 7 June 2009


The painter Margaret Keane married a real jerk.

Early in her career, Keane created a popular style of painting children with huge, sad eyes. Although artistically dreadful, the paintings became wildly popular in the 1950s and 60s.

Keane's domineering husband Walter boasted that he painted the pictures, and he persuaded her to go along with his lie. For twelve long years, Walter took credit for Margaret's work. When their marriage dissolved and his meal ticket seemed about to disappear, Walter insisted that he owned the rights to the art, and even challenged Margaret's legal right to continue painting using the now famous "Keane" name. In court, it was his word against hers.

Then the judge came up with the ultimate test: he asked both Margaret and Walter to paint in front of the jury. Margaret successfully painted one of her trademark portraits. Walter claimed he was unable to paint due to a sore shoulder so they kicked his ass out of court.

There is no test of an artist more unambiguous than what he or she can do all alone with a pencil or brush. Again and again, people have returned to this standard as the measure of an artist.

After World War II, Han Van Meegeren was prosecuted for having sold an important cultural treasure, a Vermeer painting, to the Nazi occupiers . Faced with long imprisonment, Van Meegeren objected that he was not guilty because he personally forged the "Vermeer" he sold.

Scholars and art experts ridiculed his claim, but the court put him to the test by demanding that he paint another Vermeer in prison under observation. The testimony of Van Meegeren's brush was more persuasive than all of the art experts and scientists combined. The prosecutor dropped his charges of collaborating with Nazis (and prosecuted him instead for forgery).

Whether an artist is locked in a jail cell or isolated in a courtroom or stranded on a desert island, they always retain the crucial ingredients for their art: their eyes, fingers and mind. These are what the judges were trying to measure by eliminating interference from assistants, collaborators, photoshop, xerox machines, mechanical crutches or other such camouflage.

I sometimes think about the relevance of this test when I am enjoying the extraordinary new fruits of digital art. I have been dazzled by the brilliance of the animation art in Wall-E:

as well as the fabulous garden scene in Coraline.

These works of art are extraordinary and consuming, but they can neither be made nor viewed without the collaboration of utility companies to provide electrical power, financial institutions to provide funding, computer companies to develop software, and hundreds of animators, visual effects experts and other art professionals. None of them as an individual could "prove" their worth the way that Keane or Van Meegeren did for earlier generations. Today the creativity of electrical engineers can be as important as the creativity of the art director.

I sometimes wonder whether in the future this marvelous art form will eclipse more antiquated art forms, such as drawing and painting. And if it does, what will be the ultimate proof of an artist then?

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