Thursday, August 08, 2013

Art and writing

There is much in modern life to induce a state of melancholia. Much that Sir Robert saw has become more poignant and painful in the passing of the years. It could be said that though mankind has advanced in many ways it has regressed in many that make up the quality of our daily lives.

Many of these regressions are so entwined with our current understanding of "the way things are," others may superficially seem to benefit humanity and still others may seem like divine gifts promising better, more productive and peaceful lives.

But, as in all things, balances must be struck, easements and bargains must be made. Something may be given with one hand, but you may be sure that the other is extended for recompense. Though the price of a thing may seem to be merely money, far more may be expected. Other tenders accepted might be the quality of conversation, of intimacy, of sympathy, the blind acceptance of mass delusions, the appreciation of nature and of one's own humanity.

An artist working in digital media may seem to be more fortunate than his predecessors. No longer need he grind colors, inhale turpentine fumes, sharpen pencils, clean the charcoal from out his pores, stretch canvas and paper, clean brushes. No longer need he be poisoned by the very basis of his art and be driven mad by lead, cadmium, lapis lazuli and more. We may admire the work of mad artists but I would venture the thought that few of them took up a brush with the intent of descending, or rising, into insanity.

Beyond that, the digital artist has no need to mix paint to get the color needed, his brushstroke is not a hand skill developed from long practice but a selection from a menu. He need not despair that the proper paper is not available when he can duplicate its tooth and absorbancy with the press of a few keys on a keyboard. Waste is reduced since there are no failed attempts to crumple and discard. There is always plenty of ink, graphite, charcoal, and paint ready at hand for no additional cost.

On the whole it seems that working digitally provides many advantages to the artist. The question becomes what must she give up?

One thing that is lost is what I call the zen of preparation. That meditative period of time between her thought and the beginning of its realization. A computer screen lets her jump right into creation, which on the face of it, may seem to be a good thing. There is no searching the sofa cushions for enough change to buy a tube of Phthalo Blue, no stretching of canvas  or paper, no gesso, no preparation of the palette and brushes or sharpening of the pencils, no time between inspiration and attempt. There is no time for her unconscious to rotate, palpate, and mold the thought into something more durable, more potent.

Another casualty is the contribution of the ground and the medium, the differences in the feel of applying ink to paper with a brush, or acrylics to a gessoed and stretched canvas, or water color to illustration board, or egg tempera to masonite. the flow of the medium onto the surface under the tip of a pen, the hairs of a brush, or the spring of a palette knife.This is a direct modification of physical entities and there is a feel, a resistance, an impetus that travels the nerves in a constant feedback loop as the artist senses the rightness of a line, a swirl, a dot in the nerve endings of her fingers, a positive sense that travels upstream to her brain to show that her hand and eye are in perfect coordination.

A physical painting, drawing or sculpture is unique. True, they can be forged, but it takes a great amount of effort for relatively little return. A digital work, however, is easily duplicated and reduplicated and rather than their signature and style for authentication, they needs must rely on watermarks and electronic tricks like steganography, that, and mutual promises from artist and owner not to publish any more. As time goes on artists will develop and use other devices to provide the sense of uniqueness, but their will always be a niggling suspicion at the back of the purchaser's mind.

The greatest loss is something that only certain types of people think about, mistakes. It is not just researchers, and scholars who treasure the missteps, the sketches, the cartoons that are created in the process of creation, they are the trials, the half-formed concepts, the discarded errors that tell the story of the genesis of a work. The tale told in the intermediate steps is often lost with a digital creator who, more often then not, will simply revise the original leaving no breadcrumbs for their most diligent admirers to follow.

Lest you think that digital artists are being unduly singled out, let me hasten to say that the same is true in the writing profession. In the basement of a library in New England there are ten steamer trunks filled with manuscripts, drafts, and revisions constituting the life work of a major poet. It will be rare for future scholars to find the same profusion of documented trial and error for writers working today.

I am not immune to criticism on this account. I sit typing this text into a text editor, correcting spelling and grammatical errors on the fly aided by some handy software and leaving little trace of the fact that, when typing, I often substitute "d" for "g" as I do when handwriting. Is this something that some, as yet unborn, scholars would find useful? I know not, and yet I hate to deprive them of their clues. Will they deduce the brand of spellcheck and grammar parser from a meta-database of linguistic red flags? Will they find traces of corrections in the data files and try to redefine my writing in terms of their assumptions as to what I had originally written. I know not. Occasionally, I even despair.

I will continue this investigation.