Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's very clever but is it art?

Like that picture? It's a pencil drawing. It really is. It's NOT a photograph. And nor are these:

They're all pencil drawings, as are all the pictures in this blog post. They were drawn by Paul Lung, a Hong Kong-based graphic designer, who specialises in creating utterly photorealistic drawings using a 0.5 mm technical pencil. The 38-year-old spends up to 60 hours on each drawing. Here's his self-portrait:

He has an extraordinary skill and I'm sure, like me, the majority of you went 'Wow!' I bet you still can't quite believe that you're looking at drawings rather than photos. But I wonder how many of you also share my confusion over whether his pictures qualify as art or not? Let me expand on that.

Art, like language and music, is what separates us from every other species on this planet. Creating art is making something from nothing, it's an expression of our personalities. And because we're all different, the art we create is all different. A Picasso doesn't look like a Chagall. A Mondrian doesn't look like a Banksy. Even conceptual pieces - think of Damien Hirst's pickled shark or Tracey Emin's unmade bed for example - carry something of the artist with them. It's all very well saying 'Anyone could put a shark in a tank' ... but they didn't, did they? Hirst did because it's a very Hirst idea.

But when I look at one of Lung's extraordnarily skilled pencil drawings, I see nothing of the artist. It's a carbon copy of a photograph. There's no emotion, no story, no interpretation, nothing except exemplary mechanical draughtsmanship. And that's why I find myself asking these questions; if you could programme a computer to drive a pencil to create an exact replica of a photo, would it be art? A photocopier deposits toner onto paper creating an exact replica of a photo - just like Lung's pencils. But is that art? Can the photographs that Lung works from be called art too? If not, and they're simply visual records or photo-journalism, does copying them with a pencil turn them into art even though the image remains essentially unchanged?

It's a quandary isn't it? Art is such a difficult thing to define. What Lung is demonstrating to me is a highly developed ability to 'see'; to transfer what the eye perceives to the hand and the paper. But is that a technical skill or is it art? People can be capable of the most incredibly intricate and precise physical actions: a brain surgeon knows that one tiny slip could radically affect the patient forever; a watchmaker can assemble hundreds of tiny components into a working timepiece; a jeweller can cut facets into a diamond the size of a pinhead. But they are all working to a template, following a set pattern of rules and instructions. There's very little free expression involved. Part A follows Part B to complete Stage One and so on and so on. Is that any different to what Lung does? Isn't he just copying a photo, line for line, tone for tone, like some human photocopier?

This post is not meant to in any way put down Mr Lung who, as I say, is an extraordinarily gifted man. However, the 'Wow' factor comes from learning that it's a pencil drawing rather than a photo. So the thing that amazes me, and probably you, is his skill and not the artwork itself. And that, dear reader, is why I wonder whether it is art - surely it's the picture and not the person that we should be admiring?



Sami Mughal said...

isn't this where picasso started, creating amazing likenesses of great paintings, but then using the skill he had learnt and achieved, went on to set new trends!

Helen Smith said...

Yes, yes, yes - put me down on the 'art' side. Wonderful pictures.

Debby said...

I think that it is art. Think of Michaelangelo's 'David' for example. It is an extraordinary sculpture, and it is praised for its realism. I don't see this as any different. It evokes. It evokes 'Wow!' just like Michelangelo does.