The Future of the Visual Arts

by | Nov 25, 2012 | Business Trends

On Nov 26-28th, I will be speaking at the Creative Innovations 2012 event in Melbourne, Australia. The theme of the conference will be “Wicked Problems, Great Opportunities! Leadership and courage for volatile times.”

With over 50 key influencers from around the world on hand to inspire people’s thinking, this will indeed be a world-changing event. In fact, it will be the largest innovations conference ever held in the southern hemisphere.

Leading up to this event I’ve done a series of talks and interviews as a way to help expand people’s thinking about the world ahead.

One rather unusual interview was with The Age Magazine on the future of visual arts. Writer Michael Lallo encouraged me to go a little crazy in our discussions so here is what we talked about.


Within a year, someone will make the world’s first ”printable house”. ”It might not be a very good house but it will go down in history,” says American futurist Thomas Frey, author of the prediction and a speaker at the Creative Innovation conference in Melbourne next week. ”Eventually, we’ll be ‘printing’ 30-storey buildings – and huge replicas of, say, the Statue of Liberty to put on top.”

3D printing is the ”additive” process of layering different materials to build a product – vastly different from the ”subtractive” cutting and drilling of modern manufacturing. Such printers already exist and are improving rapidly. Soon, we will be able to design a house on a computer, hit the print button and watch it take form. ”And when you get tired of your house,” Frey laughs, ”you can crush it up and print a new one.”

The focus of our interview is the future of visual arts but, as Frey points out, everything will become a canvas eventually. Our clothes will double as video screens. We can change the pattern of our dinner plates every night. Even the doors of our cars and the walls of our houses can be altered at will: a new color, perhaps, or fresh moving images.

To discuss the future of ”painting” or ”sculpting”, therefore, is to put art in a box from which it will soon escape. Within the next decade, anyone could conceivably print replicas of the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David that are indistinguishable from the original. (”Forgery in the art world will become a massive problem,” Frey concedes.) They could also ”paint” their own masterpiece on an iPad and 3D-print it with real watercolors on real canvas, all in a matter of hours.

Beautiful paintings, therefore, will no longer depend on an ability to paint. Likewise, a tech-savvy teenager could create a statue of breathtaking glory without ever lifting chisel to rock. But how will this impact on traditional art forms and those who create them?

”To look at the Mona Lisa now, you have to stand behind layers of glass and hundreds of people at the Louvre,” Frey says.

”Soon, you can create replicas that are better than the original in some respects, like the fact they’re more durable. You’ll be able to touch them and see them up close; much better than you would while wrestling for position in a crowded museum. People could pay a lot of money for these advantages.

”Yet there remains something magical about the original and I don’t think people will stop going to the Louvre. Once you get further down the line, though, original artworks could lose their value very quickly. It will be fascinating to see how the supply and demand pans out.”

Artists, therefore, could be commissioned to create an original work – which they email to the client to 3D-print at home. Indeed, when everything is a canvas, aesthetics will become even more important. Some will relish the opportunities for self-expression; others will be overwhelmed by the endless choices this requires.

The economic impact on the design, fashion and art industries remains to be seen. One thing is certain, though: arguments about taste are bound to intensify. It’s one thing to paint your house a color the neighbors don’t like; it’s quite another to display new videos on your roof each day.

Frey believes that ”save our suburbs” committees are doomed to extinction.

”The idea of ‘this is my area and I don’t want a purple house on my street’ goes out the door with these new technologies because the rules have changed so radically,” he says.

thomas-frey-futurist-speaker-The Pamela Anderson house facade commissioned by Sam Newman

The Pamela Anderson house facade commissioned by Sam Newman.

In 2000, former footballer Sam Newman caused a stir by building a home with an image of Pamela Anderson as its facade. What he would create if let loose with a printable house is anyone’s guess. ”People’s imagination will run wild,” Frey says. ”If everyone can put a dome on their roof or print a statue for their front lawn, then anything goes.”

Not all artistic advancements will spark heated debates, however.

Frey envisions a new style of cinema in which the audience sits ”in the round” to watch 3D holograms.

Going to the movies, therefore, will be akin to seeing a play – except the explosions, murders and sex scenes will appear disconcertingly lifelike.

This technology could also be used to bring Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain and other departed musicians back from the dead. To the naked eye, it will appear as if they are actually on stage. And that’s just the beginning of a revolution in live music.

”Flying drones are catching on crazy-fast,” Frey says. ”The advancements are being created by the military, who use them for surveillance and to kill people.”

In concerts, however, drones will project images and create extraordinary sound effects.

But could these non-lethal drones be used for more nefarious purposes – to assault us with advertisements as we’re walking down the street, for instance? Yes, Frey says, but this won’t be as bad as being harassed in our homes.

”In 10 or 15 years, you’ll be watching television. An intense pizza commercial – so good it makes your mouth water – will come on. All you have to do is give in and say ‘yes’ to purchase that pizza. Within 30 seconds, a drone will deliver it to your door with a six-pack of beer because it knows that’s what you like.”

Such scenarios can sound so far-fetched as to invite doubt. But Frey, described by one Seattle newspaper as ”the dean of futurists”, has seen suspicions about his predictions diminish as his prophecies come to pass. He foretold lab-grown meat and spherical computer displays years ago, for example, as well as crowd funding, store-branded credit cards and medically induced amnesia. And as the pace of change quickens, with most of us kept abreast of each advancement via the internet, his latest eyebrow-raising outlooks seem increasingly realistic.

In his 15 years as an engineer at IBM, Frey collected 270 awards for his designs and products. He is also a former member of the Triple Nine Society, which requires members to have an IQ above the 99.9th percentile. (Mensa accepts those who score at the 98th percentile or higher.)

Needless to say, Frey’s predictions are not the result of idle speculation. Rather, he uses several ”anticipatory thinking protocols” to analyze cycles and trends and build scenarios. These include extensive number-crunching and ”mastermind groups” with other experts and geniuses.

”You have these intensely bright people sitting around a table, one comment leads to another and it creates a synergy,” he says. ”I find these moments to be the most inspiring.”

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