There’s a brief article over at The Atlantic about “Fresh Flowers,” a current show of David Hockney’s recent iPad and iPhone paintings. Using the popular painting app Brushes, Hockney is creating a new painting every few days, then electronically transmitting them to the exhibition space in Paris where they’re displayed on screens. I find the paintings themselves very unremarkable (some are quite bad, even) but I do think they’re interesting for a few reasons.
First, they imply an endorsement of the touch devices like the iPad as a tool for making art by a big (huge) name artist whose fame was forged in the pre-digital world. That credential matters to some people, because it demonstrates, however weakly, that this new and unfamiliar device is not just a passing fad. Hockney’s motivation for creating these paintings was presumably that he found the iPad interesting and worthwhile; he certainly doesn’t need it as a gimmick to burnish his already sterling reputation. When a leading light of the art world shows interest in a medium so young, it speaks volumes. To some people.
More telling I think is the kind of work that the artist decided to create. You can argue over their artistic merits all you want, but what strikes me about Hockney’s iPad paintings is that they’re surprisingly unimaginative emulations of another medium. The iPad is a full-fledged computing device capable of doing many, many different things. But reproducing the quality, texture and aesthetics of analog paper, canvas and paint seems to be one of the least interesting of them all, at least to me. Someone like David Hockney, you’d expect, would be able to show us entirely new worlds through drawing on a device like the iPad. Instead the works in “Fresh Flowers” are faint echoes of a world we already know very well. They’re pretty, but they’re boring.
All of which underscores the fact that, in this still very early stage of touch-based tablet computing, there is very much a tension over what the iPad is, whether it’s a digital breakthrough that will let us do new things, or whether it’s a digital reinvention of analog conventions.
It won’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with my writings in the past on similar subjects that I very much believe that the iPad is something entirely new, and that it should be treated as such. But it’s worth noting that the current prevailing perception of the iPad seems to be that it is a digital reinvention of analog conventions. This is why we’re talking so much about iPad newspapers, magazines, books, and subscriptions — and why an exhibition of essentially analog paintings rendered through digital means draws interest at all from art lovers and writers.
I think this is a misconception, that it underserves the potential of the device to think of it so narrowly. At the same time I have to acknowledge that there’s a power to this particular understanding of the device. Perhaps emphasizing its familiarity is part of what will earn it mass adoption, setting the stage for more informed uses. If this is a transitional stage, then I hope it doesn’t last too long, because the iPad’s potential to remake things like art making is so painfully evident to me. Ultimately, the iPad is much more interesting than Hockney’s paintings, in my opinion, and artists who truly understand the medium will show us things we can barely even imagine right now.