One of my earliest blog essays (Terror Becomes Bad
Art) was about Luke Helder, the pipe-bombing “artist” who created
a brief scare back in 2002. Arguably more disturbing than Helder’s
“art” was the fact that he genuinely thought it was art, because none
of the supposed artists or arts educators he was in contact with had
ever taught him any better and his own talent was not sufficient to
carry him beyond their limits.
I am not the first to observe that something deeply sick and
dysfunctional happened to the relationship between art, popular
culture, and technology during the crazy century we’ve just exited.
Tom Wolfe made the point in The Painted Word
and expanded on it in From Bauhaus To Our House. Frederick Turner
expanded the indictment in a Wilson Quarterly essay on
neoclassicism which, alas, seems not to be available on line.
If we judge by what the critical establishment promotes as “great
art”, most of today’s artists are bad jokes. The road from Andy
Warhol’s soup cans to Damien Hirst’s cows in formaldehyde has been
neither pretty nor edifying. Most of “fine art” has become a moral,
intellectual, and esthetic wasteland in which whatever was originally
healthy in the early-modern impulse to break the boundaries of
received forms has degraded into a kind of numbed-out nihilism.
There are exceptions, though — artists who engage the world, who
are deeply involved with ideas, and who playfully incorporate all the
possibilities of our technological age into their work. When I was a
guest of honor at Arisia 2004 I had the good fortune to meet one of
these; Arthur Ganson, an
artist/engineer who creates beautiful and sometimes disturbing kinetic
One that I’ve just discovered is Bathsheba Grossman. She
visualizes and then realizes beautiful ideas from mathematics,
cosmology, and organic chemistry. Contemplate her Large Scale
Model, an image of the galactic clusters in the three hundred
million cubic light years around Earth — an eidolon of a
substantial fraction of the observable universe laser-etched into a
three-inch-tall glass block.
It isn’t quite “to see the Universe in a grain of sand”, but nobody
with more sensitivity than a brick could fail to have dizzying and
wonderful vistas of time/space and paradoxical thoughts about scale in
the presence of this luminously beautiful work of art. All too many
artists portentiously claim that what art is supposed to do is induce
one to meditate on one’s place in the universe, then deliver pettiness
(or perhaps a toxic political screed) as the punchline.
Ms. Grossman’s Large Scale Model is the real deal, and a hard slap in
Or contemplate Ms. Grossman’s gorgeous metal sculptures, derived
from mathematical forms by a process that combines hand-modelling with
CAD and produced with cutting-edge 3D-printing technology. It’s not
just the end results that are beautiful but the whole dialogue between
art and technology implicit in her
After reading about it, I am not surprised to learn that she sometimes
writes her own modeling software — and, having seen her art, I
would lay a healthy bet that she writes damn good software.
There’s something refreshing even about Ms. Grossman’s most narrowly
commercial work. She will laser-etch the protein structure of your
choice into glass, using the same technique as in the Large Scale
Model, for prices starting at $145. These images of cloudy, intricate
structure are visually beautiful enough as abstracts, but they derive
their true power from being about something. About
hemoglobin, the molecule in your blood that carries oxygen. Or about
the DNA polymerase crucial in cell replication, or the
neurotransmitter acetylcholinesterase. Each one is a joyful
celebration of our ability to know, to find beauty and meaning in the
complexity of the natural universe.
To see these craft objects, unashamedly made for money (that’ll be
$40 extra for molecular-surface etching, thank you), is to have your
nose rubbed in the desperate poverty of most modern art, to be
reminded of the vacuum at its core and the pathetic Luke Helders that
the vacuum spawns. It’s a poverty of meaning, a parochialism that
insists that the only interesting things in the universe are the
artist’s own psychological and political quirks.
Bathsheba Grossman’s art reminds us that exploration of the narrow
confines of an artist’s head is a poor substitute for artistic
exploration of the universe. It reminds us that what the artist owes
his audience is beauty and discovery and a sense of connection, not
alienation and ugliness and neurosis and political ax-grinding.
Forgetting this value rotted the core out of the fine arts and
literary fiction of the 20th century. We can hope, though, that
artists like her and Arthur Ganson will show the way forward to
remembering it. Only in that way will the unhealthy chasm between
popular and fine art be healed, and fine art be restored to a healthy
and organic relationship with culture as a whole.