The Cathedral and the, 2001

The Cathedral and the Bizarre

A digital artwork which is part of the website acidlife’s project “Deface!”, displayed at the url


Project Description:
The website acidlife has a participatory project called “Deface!”, dedicated to Piero Cannata, which according to the site explores the new interaction possible with digital media. Though the description reads a bit like the Futurist Manifesto, it none the less brings up some interesting issues.

Cannata could be seen as, at best, a poor choice to contribute to ideas about art, being one of Italy’s most infamous art vandals. In 1991 he broke a toe off of Michelangelo’s famed statue of David, claiming that “spirits” had told him to do it. Cannata was arrested and later transfered to a mental hospital. Released in 2002, he now serves as a museum guide, providing tours of Tuscany’s artistic masterpieces – including David.

He also attacked Jackson Pollock’s 1947 “Watery Paths” at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art. A similar work by Pollock named “No. 5, 1948” was reportedly sold in 2003 for $140 million, but Connata did not attack “Watery Paths” because of its economic value. He planned to vandalize a painting by the Italian abstract artist Piero Manzoni, and in his own words “I didn’t find one of his, but I found an equally ugly one and damaged it instead.”

In all fairness, Cannata’s attack against the statue of David is matched in its destructiveness by the work of the art restorer Aristodemo Costoli who in 1843 bathed the statue in hydrochloric acid.

Though Cannata’s defacements are churlish actions which sadly align with the growing problem of the far right wing’s attacks on culture, the acidlife project none the less brings up some interesting problems about digital media, reproduction, and derivative works. The Cathedral and the Bizarre makes direct references to these issues.

In 2001, I was having an unusual computer problem where the screen would not redraw correctly and objects moved by the mouse would smear across the screen defacing the image. It was during this problem that I ran across the acidlife project.

Intrigued, I decided to use the provided jpeg of Jackson Pollock’s “Cathedral”, (1947, Enamel and aluminum paint on canvas, 72″ x 35″) to make a reference to Eric S. Raymond’s seminal paper “Cathedral and the Bazaar” which analyzed why open source computer programing works so well, and which provided the final push for Netscape Communications Corporation to release the source code for Netscape Communicator and start the Mozilla project.

The essay is about finding bugs, and I am using a computer with a bug as a form of new media. The Pollock work is about the medium of paint and the process of leaving trails. This was the same effect as I was experiencing in the digital environment with pixels, so there was a nice conceptual confluence.

Raymond’s work, when published by O’Reilly Media in 1999, was the first complete and commercially distributed book published under the Open Publication License. These new types of licenses similar to the later Creative Commons licenses often allow free use for noncommercial purposes, and may even allow production of derivative works.

In an earlier time folk songs were an art form which involved making artworks from combinations and variants of earlier works with no financial remuneration to earlier artists and no restrictions on use of content. This structure proved extremely fruitful in producing cultural value for society as a whole. Yet this system works contrary to the current cultural structures we are used to working under.

Further, when artists made paintings in the past the cost and quality of materials and the unique nature of each work provided an effective exclusivity that people who appreciated the work were willing to reward financially. In new media on the other hand, there is zero cost of distribution so there can be endless copies, and when digital production is combined with open networked distribution, it is very easy for anyone to have an original copy of a new digital masterwork, or to alter it.

Large corporations controlling intellectual content have tried to put a stranglehold on this process to protect their profits, but many valuable cultural endeavors, including the revolutionary Netscape have been buried in the process.

The growing success of the open source movement makes clear there are many possible cultural structures for production and dissemination for software, and as the digital age continues, we may see as yet unimagined structures for art as well. The new systems may at first seem to many bizarre, but so in 1947 did the revolutionary work of a thirty something artist, exploring gravity, balletic movement, and the medium of paint.