Analog Art and Digital Avatars

There is a kind of art in the ever more ubiquitous Digital representations of our world. The software engineers, the hardware jockeys, the web designers wield their various electronic paint brushes to draw us a picture of the world. Like Analog art, those pictures are sometimes a representation of the world as we think it is, sometimes the world as we wish it were, or even sometimes a world we want others to believe in. In a similar vein there are better or worse painters, and viewers with more or less sophisticated ways of absorbing and interpreting those Digital creations.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon
Interestingly enough, however, we don’t seem to have had our Digital Picasso or Pollack moment, at least not intentionally. Where’s the software engineer that’s taught us a different way of seeing, the hardware designer showing us a new way of interpreting the world?

Pollack’s Painting #1 1950

 Grace Murray Hopper certainly has left her mark on the industry. We may not be writing a ton of new COBOL code, but God forbid it suddenly disappears from the planet. Perhaps, in its time it was as revolutionary as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles, that first step down the Cubist path in Analog art.

I’m sure there are those that will raise the Steve Jobs flag here, but truth to tell Jobs has been more a packager of other’s ideas, more Barnum than Pollock, though the end result has a certain abstract expressionist vibe to it. Tim Berners-Lee comes closer with his hypertext seed that grew into the web, but even there his role is more the guy who gave Picasso his paints rather than Picasso himself. The same could be said of Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce (semi-conductors).

What is Art? –The Digital Redux
As anyone who’s taken an Art Appreciation class knows, on the Analog side we’ve never arrived at a conclusive answer to the question “What is Art?” Perhaps we’re destined to that same wondering-in-the-fog on the Digital side, but I can’t help but think there’s a difference between the endeavor of Analog Art and Digital representations. I’m suspicious that we don’t have the Digital Picasso or Pollack because the work of Digital is driven by a different instinct than that of the painter or the sculptor. What’s more I think that difference can be traced back to two distinct roots. The first is a matter of time lines, the second, a matter of pragmatism.

Denis Dutton in his book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, suggests that at least some of our artistic sensibilities are hard-wired at the level of instinct. He cites studies that show a cross cultural preference in landscapes for a lot of blue sky, some kind of savannah, with a border of trees and available water. Makes sense if our sense of beauty got wired in when we were coming out of the trees and being to walk up right. The folks who survived that stage of our evolution would have had a preference for exactly that kind of landscape and passed that preference on to their progeny.

Perhaps we don’t have the Digital Picasso yet because we are, at least Digitally, just coming down out of the trees, exploring what it means to stand up right, so to speak. There is, after all, some 30,000+ years between the cave drawings in Chauvet, France and Pollack’s “Painting #1, 1950.”

Another way of thinking about this is the perhaps apocryphal story of the king who declared he wanted a fine painting of a rooster. His advisors began a search for the finest painter of animals in the realm and eventually landed on one artist. The king personally appeared at his studio and commissioned the work. When asked when he could expect to take possession of the picture, the artist told the king to come back in one year. A year passed and the king became ever more obsessed with having the finest painting of a rooster in existence. Finally the day arrived and he swooped back into the artist’s studio, barely able to contain his anticipation of the great work, a year in the painting.

The artist looks up from his work and says “Ah, The king arrives.” He gets up, walks over to a blank canvas, and in a few minutes a beautiful picture of a proud rooster emerges. All assembled admire the subtle coloring, the cocky strut, the vibrancy that almost has them hearing the rooster’s call. The king, however, is not amused. He sputters out an angry declamation that he did not wait a year to have this artist slap dash something together no matter how good it might appear. A deathly silence falls across the studio, but the artist remains cool.

He summons the king to the door of a back room. He opens the door and reveals thousands and thousands of drawings, paintings and sculptures of roosters, and even one or two of the live birds picking through the chaos. “My most revered highness, I could not have done that one painting without the year it took to work through all of these.”

Perhaps Digital is just not that far along in its own exploratory “year.” We are still early on in the process of understanding both the medium and its subjects.

Why is Art? – Digital Redux II
If the first art history question is “What is Art?” then surely the second has to be “Why is Art?” That leads directly to the second foundation of difference in Digital and Analog art. The “Why?” question on the Analog side spurs more debate than answer.  On the other hand, the why of the art of the Digital is usually pretty obvious. There is some pragmatic problem to be solved, some unanswered (and sometimes unimagined) need to be filled. There is a defining pragmatism in the art of the Digital that is not present in the Analog Arts.

The art of the Digital is rarely concerned with purely philosophical or aesthetic ends (which might explain all the really ugly software and websites out there). At least part of the fervor for Apple products is their ability to wonder into those realms while at least making a wave at meeting the uber-measure of good Digital which is practical application. We flock that direction because it satisfies a part of us that technology does not usually touch and in fact does its best to ignore. Trimming that quirky, individual human perception out of the binary, either/or representations is necessary to sustainable Digital experience. Those very aspects of our selves that most make us most human are least susceptible to representation in the art of the Digital as currently practiced.

So the Analog Underground calls out to all the artists of the Digital. Practice on! Labor through our “year” of exploration! And as we create the digital avatars of our various selves, perhaps it is worth a look aside to the world of Analog art. We might find some guidance there, from that span of 30,000+ years, on how to represent those things that make us most human.

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