Don’t be blue: Handmade is here to stay

From Sunshine Artist Magazine, March, 2010

As I write this month’s column, Avatar is passing Titanic to become the highest-grossing film of all time. Its success seems driven not by its writing or acting, which are mediocre, or even its basic story, which has been told in slightly different ways before, but by its technology. People seem more and more driven to embrace new technology not just for its scientific and industrial merit but for its artistry as well. It seems to matter little that Avatar, though visually and technologically stunning, falls aesthetically short of many other great blockbuster films that also produced breakthroughs in special effects.

This is not to say that the effects found in the film are not worthy of praise. Indeed, digital animation is and always should be regarded as a legitimate art form. And that’s true in the world of art shows as well. But whenever I see people getting all glassy-eyed over the latest computer graphics, whether they be in a movie of a piece of art at a show, I find myself comparing those graphics to more traditional art.

In cinema, shouldn’t we admire the matte paintings and exquisitely constructed sets of yesteryear slightly more than the CGI of today? Shouldn’t we respect Pinocchio just a bit more than the films of Pixar? And in the visual arts, shouldn’t we give more credit to the painter or sculptor who does everything by hand instead of relying on a computer or mass production? I’m inclined to say yes. Of course, there’s plenty of traditional, handmade junk out there. No one should wax nostalgic for a movie or a piece of art just because it was created without the benefit of technology. Each work has to be judged individually. But all things being equal, shouldn’t handmade carry more weight?

These are questions that many of you, as art-show artists, have probably answered, silently to yourselves, long ago. That’s why you chose the career you did. But that’s not the case for most people. Unfortunately, the public has to be repeatedly reminded of the value of handmade work — and the best ones to do the reminding are the artists who create the work. So don’t get discouraged. Keep on doing what you do. And keep on talking about the importance of original, handmade art.

If it makes you feel better, I’ll end with some much-needed perspective on this whole Avatar thing. The media like to hype the fact that the film is breaking all records and potentially ushering in a new era in movies and, to a certain extent, art itself. But because our culture is money driven, the media seem reluctant to point out that these financial records are possible simply because of inflated ticket prices. When you actually look at the number of tickets sold, Avatar and its big blue title characters are currently #21 on the domestic list, right behind Disney’s Fantasia. It will be lucky to break the all-time top 10 and will likely never come close to history’s top film, Gone With the Wind, and its — brace yourself! — matte paintings. So maybe the public is getting it right after all: Technology is a great tool for helping create some types of art, but it’s still people who do the creating.

Note: This is one of my many monthly editor’s pages from my days as editor in chief of Sunshine Artist Magazine, the nation’s leading publication for the artists of the art and craft show circuit. I thought it fitting to include it here because of the comparison between handmade work as it relates to the visual arts and what we perceive as “handmade” in cinema.