Jumping Mediums: Is Polymathy the Future of Art?

We’re all familiar with the Renaissance, during which Europe experienced an explosion of innovation across all facets of culture and society. Scientific and mathematic discoveries inspired a novel approach to art in which new understandings of human anatomy, perspective, and engineering became integral. The rising popularity of new tools such as oil paints, canvas, and the printing press changed how art was created, and humanist philosophy seeped into what it portrayed. Suddenly to be an artist necessitated being a scientist and philosopher as well, and the modern conception of the “Renaissance man” was born.

Today we forgo the gendered aspect of this terminology by referring to these multitalented, multidisciplinary individuals as “polymaths”, a distinction that I argue will not only become more common among the art community as we move forward, but that in fact represents the future of art.

Business and Technology

While the history of art is rife with examples of polymath artists, the majority have tended to be more or less specialised. Painters would paint. Musicians made music. Writers wrote. And so forth. There are of course examples of crossovers and experimentation with other mediums, but these tended to be exceptions rather than the rule.

All of that is changing due to the evolution of business and technology.

Consider, for example, how the Internet has revolutionised the way an artist can conduct business. Artists have long benefited from possessing business acumen, but now an artist with a bit of tech ability can take their business to a new level by leveraging the Internet to network, promote, and sell their work.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how artists are using technology. The actual production of artwork itself increasingly requires a high level of technical knowledge. Spend any amount of time in a modern gallery or museum, and you’ll see more and more visual artists implementing electronic, digital, and even AI aspects in their work. 3D printing, virtual reality, coding, robotics, drones, and so on are all being used by artists who are on the leading edge of what tech has to offer.

This requires that a creator not only be an artist, but an electrician, computer programmer, or engineer as well. It’s a level of artistic and scientific fusion that would make Leonardo da Vinci proud. Imagine what Michelangelo would have done with Virtual Reality, or what Dali would have done with a Neural Network?

The Gig Economy

As the human understanding of art and technology expands, so does the practice of polymathy. Artists who grow with this trend will enjoy not only greater recognition from an audience craving diversity, but the rich rewards that come with expanded knowledge and capability.

Nick Hilden

Artists have long been forced to cobble together a living by any means necessary, but in the modern “gig economy”, this lifestyle of combining multiple streams of income is becoming institutionalised. It’s an ideal scenario for an artist who is capable of wearing many different hats.

Consider the life of a musician. These days it’s not uncommon for a musician to fill a vast number of roles: songwriter, studio or touring musician, venue booking agent, sound engineer, band promoter, poster designer, music journalist, instrument technician, producer, lighting and stage coordinator, etc. This requires an artist to possess a wide range of creative and technical skills, not to mention a mind for business.

The more you know and the more you can do, the more you can earn. In other words, polymath artists tend to worry less about putting food on the table.

Audience Sophistication

For a long time, television sets were disparagingly referred to as “the idiot box” thanks to the consistently low-grade entertainment they offered. But in the early 2000s that began to change with the emergence of shows like the Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad—programs that delivered complexity, quality, and thematic elements that elevated the medium to cinematic heights. The change occurred when showrunners and networks began recognizing a growing level of sophistication among audiences.

This reflects a wider trend in art in general. For most of history, art consumption was mostly determined by time and place—one could only appreciate what was available. Thanks to the Internet, however, audiences now essentially have access to the entirety of human artistic knowledge. As a result, art and entertainment enthusiasts are more educated and possess more varied tastes than ever.

For artists of varying talents, this provides the opportunity and incentive to explore different mediums and to push the boundaries of complexity. I recently experienced a prime example at a Rashid Johnson exhibition in Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo. In it, Johnson leveraged a broad range of mediums to examine issues of race and identity. Painting, film, interpretive dance, and sculpture incorporating art, architecture, and electronic elements—the exhibition was the perfect example of how dynamic modern art can be.

'The Crisis' by Rashid Johnson

How to Become an Artistic Polymath

So how does an artist become a polymath? There is a misconception that genius is prerequisite, but while brilliance certainly doesn’t hurt, the fact is that passion and practice are more important than anything.

Above all, polymaths are highly curious. That should be your first step—curiosity and experimentation.

Follow a range of artistic and technological avenues. When trying an unfamiliar medium or tech tool, don’t expect mastery from the get-go. That takes time. Allow yourself to try and fail, and if the interest remains in the face of failure, try again. When you do begin to apprehend a range of mediums and methods, the next step is to practice relentlessly until you can wield the new skills with confidence and competence.

As the human understanding of art and technology expands, so does the practice of polymathy. Artists who grow with this trend will enjoy not only greater recognition from an audience craving diversity, but the rich rewards that come with expanded knowledge and capability.


Article written by Nick Hilden

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