WINDOW OF INFINITY

 

JESSE SHANKS  
The anonymous cave man 20,000 years ago prepares his pigments in the darkness of a cave. The modern digital artist presses the power key on a Macintosh PowerPC. The cave man mixes the paints in his mouth. The digital artist launches a painting program. The cave reaches into his mind for the image and leans over and spits the paint onto the rocks of the cave. The digital artists pulls down the file menu and clicks on "New."
So much discussion of digital art is centered on the validity of the tool used to realize the artist vision. To some it is too easy, or too fast or the result is too artificial. Very little attention is paid to the vision of the artist creating the piece. But this is not a new phenomena. The history of art is littered with the bones of people who could not accept a new way, a new style, a new vision or a new tool.
Study of the discovered cave paintings made by Cro-Magnon man thousands of years ago, has laid bare the desire of human beings to bring into tangible form the images that inhabit the mind. In his study of Fauvism, Albert Skira quoted Henri Matisse:
"I can make no distinction," confessed Matisse, "between the sense I have of life and the manner in which I express it." Art, then, is a pure transfer, an act of empathy, in which object and subject coincide.
In a Time Magazine feature about the recent uncovering of the Chavet cave paintings near Avignon, the question of the artist drive of ancient human was addressed by an anthropologist:
As anthropologist Margaret Conkey of the University of California, Berkeley puts it, "Many cultures don't really produce art, or even have any concept of it. They have spirits, kinship, group identity. If people from highland New Guinea looked at some of the Cro-Magnon cave art, they wouldn't see anything recognizable" - and not just because there are no woolly rhinos in New Guinea either. Today we can see almost anything as an aesthetic configuration and pull it into the eclectic orbit of late-Western "art experience"; museums have trained us to do that. The paintings of Chauvet strike us as aesthetically impressive in their power and economy of line, their combination of the sculptural and the graphic - for the artists used the natural bulges and bosses of the rock wall to flesh out the forms of the animals' rumps and bellies. But it may be that aesthetic pleasure, in our sense, was the last thing the Ice Age painters were after.
The question emerges: Is the first level of definition of "art" the fact that it must be created "as art." Is there such a thing as unconscious art? Something that is produced for another purpose or for no purpose that, because of some other attributes "is art?" What is called "computer art" springs to mind as a computer can be programmed to do certain things a certain way and sometimes very closely mimic the creative process of the human mind.
Anyone who studies the chess games of supercomputer "Deep Blue" against World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 would have a hard time saying that the games were "computer-generated." But is the computer "playing chess?" Chess has always represented an intellectual and artist bastion of human thought. No one thought a computer could be programmed to beat a Grandmaster of the game. Even in victory,however, the computer seemed to take little pleasure in its achievement despite the satisfaction of its programmers.
Man, is a tool-using creature. It was true in the Paleolithic era and it is true now. He uses tools to build and create. The computer is a fancy tool, of that there is no doubt. But, nonetheless, it is only a means in which the sense of life is expressed. It is not about the medium. Without the sensitivity to life, without the empathy there can be no art no matter the tool.
Today there seem to be so many mediums of artistic expression that it can be difficult to even distinguish which are really artistic medium and which are not, much less even begin to make a distinction as to their relative esthetic quality. But, we can take comfort in the fact that this has always been true. People have always been confused by art.
One can imagine our anonymous cave artist, showing off his creations to his friends. Can a more ignorant audience ever be imagined? Not only to have never seen "art" but to have never seen an image. We are not some victims of some modern malady, it is a continuing struggle to come to grips with our humanity and to make sense of our existence.
Digital Art is a historical imperative as a continuation of humankind's development as a tool-using creature, a continuation of human aesthetic development and, at the same time, a new and unique level of interaction between artist and medium.
One reads of the struggles in the latter part of the 19th Century and the earlier parts of this one, to bring a deeper meaning to art beyond mere representation. The movements abound, their names reflect the attempts to find deeper meanings as their collective visions resonate: Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art, Abstract and on.
Looking back further to the Great Masters, the same questions arose and were answered the same way. An expansion of the human capability to realize, to represent, to explore and to understand. One can imagine the son of our anonymous painter, putting together a brush of grass or hair and imitating his father, applying strokes of paint to a wall and being told that mixing the paints in the mouth and spitting onto the rock was the only way to do it. Any other method was a taboo, to be shunned.
Why do digital artist use a computer, when there are so many more so-called "acceptable methods" of creating art? It is difficult to penetrate through the qualifications ("well, i still work with paints, too") and the defensiveness ("not that the computer could ever replace real painting") to see the same drive that compelled our cave man to paint a rhinoceros on the walls of his cave. That same compulsion that is in certain special people to take something so huge, or so complex, or so difficult, or so fearsome and put it into a form that can be accessed; that can bring forth our awe, our delight or even our revulsion.
Digital art is part of the Zeitgeist that defines us as this step in the progress of humanity from then to now and beyond. One can almost feel that if it did not exist, it would have to be invented. One can look at the movements in other realms of human creative and intellectual endeavor and see digitalism fitting hand in glove. In philosophy, the ontological struggles of the last century have lead us to alienation, existentialism and deconstructionism. History is devolving into a constant, evershifting revisionism. Poetry is just as confusing as art. What is a poem? Drama has split into camps of delirious symbolism to aching naturalism and all the shades in between. Lines between fantasy and reality and fact and fiction have blurred and doubled over on themselves. A movie about making a TV about creating art, must be art... mustn't it?
In many areas of artistic expressions archaic and secure forms have broken and left us rudderless on existence as it more truly is. An infinite sea of forms and patterns, so slippery, so seductive.
In drama, the boundaries of plot, time and space that are so comfortable in our understanding of "what is it about?" are now merely devices that serve as a launching board to a broader, riskier attempt to capture that "lightning-in-a-bottle."
Literature has brought us away from the story-teller narrating a series of events that march lockstep from birth to death, to exploration of the infinite inner voice. James Joyce, in his experimentation from Ulysses to Finnegan's Wake has demanded from the reader such an engagement of intellect that we are surely tempted to run away like a creature emerging from the cave into the brightness of the sunshine.
In philosophy, the breakthroughs of Logical Positivism, with its razor cutting demand for truth, the terrifying demands of the loneliness of Existentialism and the brutal crushing of all expectation found in Deconstructionism have all contributed to this new far riskier and exhilarating place we call "our world."
Poetry is another form of human expression that can give us another glimpse of the interaction of artist and computer. Imagine a small poem writing program that contains arrays of nouns, verbs, articles and adjectives. Also, in the program is an algorithm that uses formulas and criteria to plumb those arrays and select words and then combine them into a written form defined in the algorithm. Is that poetry as we know it? Or is there some element of humanity that is lost in allowing the formulas and criteria for word selection and combination to reside in that extension of our mind that the computer becomes? Certainly no one is going to stop picking up a pencil and paper because of this program. But, created by this method can be some bits of expression that can be as sublime and touching as any by the "old-fashioned way."
The demand on our intellect to understand our existence as humans has never
been greater. We must, for example, take into considerations these
extensions and mirrors of our minds: the computer. Conversely, our
requirements intellectual have never been greater. We can no longer be
satisfied with the mundane because we know that life is not mundane. To
re-cast an old expression, "there are no mundane lives, only mundane livers
of them."
Practicality can now rear its head into our discussion. What is the purpose? Where is the utilitiarian quality that we know to be a part of our existence? We ponder our cave man and wonder if it was this magnificent metaphysical drive that compelled him to create his cave art? Or was a more practical purpose, perhaps to show young hunters that this animal is what we kill and this animal is what can kill you? We look at some of the great works of art history and some we know were not created by this spiritual demand, but rather were created because the artist had several mouths to feed and had a contract to complete.
In our disparate 20th Century world, it is easy to romanticize the artistic vision, to dramatize the "working artist" and to place at their doorstep unwanted demands of purity of persistence of vision. What right have we as art consumers to demand such from our artists?
It is the same compulsion from both sides, the same historical imperative that took us out of the darkness and safety of the cave out into the expanses of this earth. It is the same imperative that forces us to keep trying to understand ourselves, our world and our universe - our existence. It is the same compulsion that forces us to look over the next hill and ask "What next?"
Extrapolation is a tricky business. If this, then what? On the computer this is called a conditional. In logic, if the if is true then the conclusion is true. But in looking ahead to where we are going with art as the digital medium attracts the most creative and expressive, it is difficult to assess.
In ARTNews appeared the following, pertaining to the use of computers by architects. It brings to mind some of the more idealistic philosophical ideas found in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead":
Beyond the curves are what Los Angeles architect Michael Rotundi of Roto Architects calls "compound shapes" - that is, complex geometric forms using straight lines rather than curves - which, Rotundi believes, are becoming the significant forms of the Digital Age. The technical possibilities of form are wide open. The avant-garde is being redefined. If Cézanne invented the idea of art as research into form, then the computer has reinvented the idea, and the waters are yet uncharted. "We are in our infancy," says Rotundi. Because of the computer, hitherto unimaginable hyper-complex forms can be electronically visualized, engineered, and constructed.
"Hitherto unimaginable hyper-complex forms" is quite a mouthful. At the end of the same article, the same architect is quoted:
"...there are still many unknowns. Rotundi sees a convergence of the practical and the spiritual, symbolized in the primitive form of the tepee. It's based on a golden section spiral - an ancient curve - which has geometric and mythological significance. "The tepee," Rotundi says, "is as much about the meaning of that spiral as it is about the geometric ordering system of the spiral."
Not only "unimaginable forms" but also unimaginable combinations of technique and artistic experience are possible in the digital realm. One looks only so far back to this century and the difficult to understand experimentations of Matisse and Picasso in bursting the seems of the physical work of art and the mental barriers of its perception. No need to delve into the counterfactual conceptions of "what if they had a computer?" to understand that the same drive the compelled them to attach bits of paper, or work in painted sculpture or combination the familiar with the contrapositional.
Art grapples with the metaphysical in a physical form. One can imagine an artist in the past struggles with expressing the inexpressible; trying to bring the ideal into the physical, trying to capture the essence and bring it into existence and muttering to himself, "If only..." Digital art works can burst those bonds as no medium ever has allowed. Given the chance to flourish free of pretension and condescension, the digital artist has a chance to use the computer, which is nothing more than a creation of man, for man, at the service of man to create true "windows of infinity": glimpses of that metaphysical reality beyond our senses.
The history of perception changed irrevocably when it was found that the sun revolved around the earth instead of the long held belief that the earth was the center of the universe. To this day, you can walk outside and look up into the daytime sky and apparently the sun moves. It rises and sets and dances across the sky as if it were the chariot of Apollo in the same way that the ancient Greeks conceived it. But we know different. We know that the sun is the center of our solar system and we are revolving around the sun and the earth itself is rotating. Further, we know that the sun is just one of many suns that are arrayed across the vast expanses of space and revolving around the center of our galaxy, which is itself one of countless galaxies! Now we can we postulate an infinite and ever-expanding universe with infinite combinations and mysteries for our continuing exploration.
It was our magnificent tools that all made it possible to penetrate past the the veil of our seductive senses to conceive of truths never before imagined. The call can go out to our "digi-nauts" to use this tool, take us to places inside ourself we have never conceived of or imagined. Utilize the history of technique, the body of expression and the progression of artistic understanding; hone those deeper understandings of our existence; use those symbols, shapes, archetypes that speak to our collective understanding; add the wildcard of individual inspiration and create those windows to infinity. The imperative of history demands it and the struggle for the soul of mankind requires it.
Therein lies the dichotomy. The question of what is valid. What is true. Does somehow the use of a computer either rob the piece of art of some undefinable soul that makes it art, or even more closely does the computer make it impossible for that undefinable soul to even exist? Or is it that something created by a human, no matter the tool can have the soul and it is the artist, not the medium that strives for the validity, the truth mentioned?