Note: This article appeared on for about two years - 1999-2001. I decided to archive this article on my site.
The links have been disabled and there are a few glitches in my translation of msnbc's formatting, but you can read the article in pretty much the way it was originally presented.
Ira Altschiller, Summer 2001

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Painting with light in cyberspace
An artist muses on the new challenges of being creative
  Image: A cyber painting by Ira Altschiller

By Ira Altschiller
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 22 —  The Internet is vast and holds such promise. It’s like a kid’s dream, wide as the imagination, but accessible enough to be explored in the safety and comfort of home. For artists, the Internet represents a whole new way to be creative and to interact with the world. But the competing forces of commerce and pop culture threaten this creative and nurturing environment. And the winners of the cultural tug-of-war get to cart off a piece of the future.


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The Internet can change how art work is seen, how the public thinks of it; what art might mean in a new context.

       I’VE BEEN PAINTING for 35 years and started using the computer four years ago. At first I thought I’d use my Mac only for text. But natural inclinations soon took over and I found myself exploring the electronic labyrinths of Photoshop and Painter. All the while the Internet was leaping forward, becoming a huge presence. So I taught myself to put up Web pages. It was thrilling to see reproductions of my paintings and original digital images move directly from the artist to the viewer.
       The Internet seems a perfect way for artists to explore a new medium and at the same time introduce themselves to an enormous new public. Consider this e-mail I received from someone who had visited my site: “I just know I wouldn’t go to a gallery or museum, but going to your site let me learn what you were doing.”
       I like the Internet’s ability to allow people to see my work without being subjected to gallery “attitude” or having a museum making the choices and the interpretations. I want to get my ideas about what I think art can be out on the level playing field the Internet provides. The art world bureaucracy plays a scarcity game, but the Internet is a cornucopia.
Lightning, one of a series of Ira Altschiller's explorations of making art online.
Art online: an image of lightning by Ira Altschiller
       The way art is exhibited and sold hasn’t really changed since the late 19th century. But what’s revolutionary about this new medium is that the Internet can change how art work is seen; what the public thinks of it, and what art might mean in a new context.
       I don’t think the fine arts will ever be truly populist. It takes years to hone taste — looking at a work of art, thinking about it, going back and looking some more. Some may think of this process as elite, but this is an elitism of hard-won knowledge.
Digital work may not have the breadth and the soul of painting, but it isn’t a reproduction either.

       The fundamental relationship between the viewer and the artwork cannot be changed. The original work must be experienced. That relationship cannot be violated without a loss of the power of the image. Digital work may not have the breadth and the soul of painting, but it isn’t a reproduction either, if done as original work. And I think art critic Robert Hughes is wrong when he says that the image you see on the Internet is a total fraud, not the art experience at all.
       Many artists get at least some of their education looking at those little reproductions in books and art magazines; much of the art world conducts its business through 35mm slides of artwork. On the Internet, the order could be reversed, with the online image leading the viewer to original work exhibited in museums and galleries.
       I started out creating computer images first to see if I could do it; then, to see what it would be like to sell them online for a nominal fee to a global audience. And as a result, my work can be found on the computers of students in Singapore, businessmen in Japan, a librarian in Norway, retired military in Georgia. There is a feeling of unfettered freedom in reaching so many people so directly.
       Our natural inclinations lean toward the claims of the individual. Many
       people besides artists believe in the possibilities of using the Internet to create community. There is a whole subculture of people on the Internet who have donated their efforts to create software and collect information — often for free or just a nominal charge — to ensure that the electronic arena remains the domain of freewheeling individuals. These people have a fierce and admirable belief in the power and value of the individual.
       The values that rule this domain are simple: no censorship; no invasions of privacy; no use of this incredible technology for anything but creating, communicating and, well, linking up. It’s the Sixties all over again.
       In his enthusiasm for the technology of the telegraph, America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman, envisioned a century ago a future that the Internet can now fulfill: “A vital public sphere of communication,” Whitman wrote, “can foster free and diverse speech, a sense of community, and purposeful action.” But commercialism and pop culture threaten that idealistic vision of how technology can help create community online.
A study of The Planets, from Ira Altschiller's ongoing experiment in painting with light online.
Image: Ira Altschiller's online art
       The ethos of merchandising is transforming the Net. Here’s another frontier, waiting anxiously to be sanitized for the orgy of commerce to come. This is the claim of unbridled commerce: if you just let us go ahead with our plans, things will be fun and easy to use; there will be toys galore and the benefits will trickle down to everyone in society.
       That monster adjunct of business, popular culture, is also contending for Internet dominance. Popular culture feeds our appetites with a nutbrain mix of great energy and skillful marketing to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it might seem that the popular culture is American culture, but the popular culture is really a commercial folk tradition on a grand scale.
“A vital public sphere of communication can foster free and diverse speech, a sense of community, and purposeful action.”
American poet
       We are treated to a daily parade of celebrity pontifications and garish, narcissistic personal conduct. Everything is seemingly for sale; popularity is conflated with significance. It reminds me of Balzac: “Fame is a loud noise,” he said.
       Popular culture comes at us with a zest that seeps into everyone’s conversation and thinking and personal pantheon; it manufactures needs and renders our public life shallow. Best suited for a well-to-do 12-year-old, pop culture delivers conventional thinking, boxed and beautifully packaged, ready to be shipped by next-day air. Sometimes I can’t tell if the public even realizes they are being sold something fraudulent.
       But give the Devil his due. Popular culture is also great fun, filled with energy and sexiness and laughter. Popular culture is not something I want to get rid of, just put in its place and give room for other ways of sizing up our experience.
       The Internet could be an alternative. It is an unformed culture now, but one that might find its own tastes. Maybe it won’t be any better than other mass media , but at the very least it can give us a break from the mind-numbing spectacle of John Travolta musing on the state of the world to Mary Hart. It’s a good sign that the demands of using a computer, keeping it running, and getting on the Internet require a certain savvy. That savvy might translate into a hip cultural literacy, which could produce a more informed and skeptical public.
       The supreme art of this country and this century may turn out to be salesmanship. And it’s possible that the conflict between mass commercial culture and artistic individuals will resolve itself amicably. If we care about the outcome, the Internet will accommodate conventional and unconventional wisdom; for good taste and bad taste; for commerce and for that which is not supported by advertising; and for the unheard voices of the eccentric, the personal and the artful.
Ira Altschiller is an artist who lives and works in San Francisco.

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