Is the fine artist of today the new magic act?

A trend that I’ve noticed particularly on social media is the tendency to give great attention to art which seems to come from an odd technique or an unusual individual.

One recent popular example of this is artist Stephen Wiltshire, diagnosed with autism at three, and capable of drawing whole cityscapes from memory.

With one brief glimpse during a flyover, Stephen is capable of drawing the city in great detail. His work would be amazing to see even if he had spent years studying the landscape, but he spent mere minutes.

It makes me wonder: does the artist have to be an obsessive-compulsive to be noticed? Do they have to be performing some “magic trick” for their art to be recognized as something worthwhile? Is their art even particularly appreciated; or is it more about the wow factor of watching them create something in an unusual way?

Another example of this phenomenon seems to present itself with “realistic” interpretations of old master paintings, either through people posing in pictures in elaborate makeup; or even whole landscapes or ponds made to painstakingly match the details of a painting.

Japan's Monet pond
A Japanese pond made to replicate Monet’s famous paintings.

Some may argue that fine art has been this all along: functionally, a display of moments or images meant to please or decorate.  To have people do this in a somewhat unique way makes it all the more pleasing and entertaining. It gives the resulting image an interesting story. And no doubt, the drive of a creative person can sometimes set them apart from society in part due to how they choose to create.

However, it would be sad if their uniqueness would in turn be used as a way of dismissing the greater narrative being displayed in the artwork itself. Is anyone curious as to why Stephen chooses to draw detailed cityscapes, and whether by doing so, he may be making a greater statement about his humanity… or ours? Or is the attention placed on him merely about the amazement of his ability to do something that doesn’t seem possible to us “normal people?”

When I see things like Monet’s art being “realized,” I wonder the same question… whether the importance of his continuous examination of the image is being overshadowed by the spectacle of artifice.

This is not meant in any way to diminish the achievements of these new artists and interpretations… in fact, it’s a concern that they are not being appreciated for the actual art that they create, and instead may be tolerated as a new type of circus act. The potential danger here is that we as viewers become reactionaries without substance; moths seeking flame but content with fireworks… not engaged to anything beyond the surface of what’s being presented; “surprised” that something was actualized, not concerned about the thing itself.

It makes me question whether Monet would be appreciated nowadays as an artist for the depth of complexity of his works; or would his seemingly obsessive-compulsive and repetitious studies of a singular subject be the factor that amazes the public, in the same way Wiltshire’s instant capturing seems to be.

As I was writing this, a fellow artist posted a video link from some “media/news company” of artists making replicas of photos using colored sand. “Incredible art,” it announces. Credible artifice, I surmise.