OK kids, time for our weekly art lesson.
Once in a while, a piece of art grabs the headlines. Usually when it’s found (an old Rembrandt at a flea market, for instance), stolen (as “The Scream” was in 2004), or auctioned off for some astronomical sum, such as Beeple’s “The First 5000 Days” was at Christie’s this week.
The Beeple auction made news not just because of the sales price, but also because it was the first piece of digital art sold by Christie’s and because it was authenticated by an NFT, a non-fungible digital token that resides on blockchain. NFT technology and its potential application is fascinating. Right now, NFTs are being used primarily to authenticate art and collectibles, but at some point we’ll probably use NFTs to authenticate land deeds, home ownership, car registration or college degrees.
But we’re not focused here on the price of Beeple’s piece or the technology behind it — we’re interested in the art behind it. Beeple’s piece, and two other examples we’ll explore, try to build something unique out of disparate pieces. They’re intentional assemblages that attempt to create wholes which are more than the sum of their parts. Let’s call it “mash-up” art.
Consider “The First 5000 Days.”
At first glance, it’s a collage, random pieces stuck together. Or maybe a derivative of a Chuck Close painting. Or maybe fractals (an infinite repetition of similar geometric shapes). But there’s something way more interesting going on here.
Beeple is actually a guy named Mike Winkelmann, who looks like an insurance salesman and lives in Charleston, S.C. with his family and says he drives a “piece of shit Corolla” (not for long!). For about 15 years, he’s created a new piece of digital art every day and posted them to Instagram — basically, giving them away for free. His pieces are fantastical, full of imagination and vividly rendered.
“5000 Days” is literally an assemblage of 5,000 pieces of his art in one digital frame. As a whole piece, it’s mesmerizing. As your eyes take it in with a natural left-to-right movement, you’re rewarded with a flow of color from light whites to dark blues, oranges and magentas. Initially it does have a fractal quality but if you pinch the screen and zoom in, each square could not be more different. And yet, taken together, they make a whole.
But it’s more than a mash-up of content. It also condenses time. “5000 Days” represents that amount of time, literally — the time it took to build the components of the piece, laboriously and individually. We associate anything digital with speed, but this is the artistic equivalent of slow food. As it condenses 15 years of history into a single piece, “5000 Days” also moves forward in time, incorporating the future by virtue of its digital nature, particularly its residency on blockchain.
The second piece of today’s lesson is recorded art, “We Will Always Love You” by the Avalanches. This is one hat trick of an album.
The Avalanches are Australians Robert Chater and Tony Di Blasi. Like Beeple, they take their time putting their art together. They’ve released three albums since 2000. And like Beeple, their art couldn’t exist without digital technology.
There are so many disparate parts to this record that it’s difficult to give a succinct synopsis. They use a lot of samples — pre-recorded tracks, vintage vocals, digital loops and snatches of songs by artists as varied as Smokey Robinson, Vashti Bunyan, the Shirelles, Leon Bridges, Alan Parsons, and Pat Metheny (there are so many samples that it took Chater and Di Blasi a couple of years to get all the clearances). The inspiration for “We Will Always Love You” was the so-called Golden Record, the audio time capsule that was placed onboard the Voyager interstellar spacecraft. In fact, they originally intended for the voice of the Voyager’s creative director, Ann Druyan, to be included, but it didn’t work out. What they did include, however, was a recording of Druyan’s brain waves while she was thinking about Carl Sagan, who she worked with and fell in love with while making the Golden Record. Let that sink in.
The music on this record is disparate but seamless, atomized but unified, worldly and ethereal. If I could reduce it to one theme, it would be synthesis or integration, literally putting pre-existing pieces together into a unique and utterly original composition. Like Beeple’s work, it’s a mash-up of content and time into something new.
For our third piece, the author is invoking his prerogative to include his own work, “Two Americas: A New Birth of Freedom.”
This is a much simpler and more pedestrian (i.e. amateurish) piece than Beeple and the Avalanches, but I include it here to let you know that you too can create mash-up art from the comfort of your own home!
“Two Americas” is also an assemblage of disparate parts: Lincoln’s hat from the Ford Theater, which I photographed at the Smithsonian; Jerry Garcia’s “Capt. Trips” hat, photographed at a “Summer of Love” exhibit in San Francisco; crude reproductions of the Gettysburg Address and a flyer for a Dead concert at San Francisco State University in 1966; and two interpretations of the American flag. It cannot be adequately rendered digitally; it’s actually a three-dimensional construction displayed in a shadow box.
Lincoln and the hippies (for whom Jerry was an avatar) shared a common sentiment: the desire for a better America. In 1863, at Gettysburg, Lincoln famously imagined “a new birth of freedom” built on the sacrifices of the Civil War, leading to an uncluttered government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Just over 100 years later, Garcia told CBS News, “What we’re thinking about is a peaceful planet. We’re not thinking about power, or revolution or war, or any of that. Nobody wants to get hurt. Nobody wants to hurt anybody. We would all like to be able to live an uncluttered life.”
“Two Americas,” although crudely executed, is a mash-up of images and ideas separated in time, but unified in a common sentiment expressed explicitly by Lincoln and implicitly by Garcia: “a new birth of freedom.”
What all three pieces show us, I hope, is that no matter how disparate our experiences and our cultures are, we are bound through time and space by common aspirations of creativity, beauty and love.
Here ends the lesson.