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Analog versus Digital Art

September 7th, 2009

The controversy of digital versus analog has been raging for years, but I've recently seen a number of discussions on FAA and other sites that compels me to throw in my two cents worth. When I was in school in the late 60s, there was no digital medium. I was taught to use paints, brushes, pencils, etc., and the concepts of how best to utilize them in the creative process. I also learned how to play the guitar - on an acoustic instrument. All were "traditional" tools of expression. In the 90s, I began experimenting with computers and found them to be a toolset that expanded my conception of what was possible, in both the visual and aural arts, as well as allowing for a broadening of creativity. Just like the camera obscura improved the quality and realism of the painting of the 16th and 17th centuries (through the visualization of detail and perspective), the computer (and the monitor) have expanded the possibilities for visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries.

When man (and woman) first picked up a charred piece of wood to make a mark on a cave wall, the idea of artistic expression came into being. Some time later, the sister concept of philosophy materialized and humanity sped off into what we call civilization and culture. The reason I consider philosophy a sister to artistic expression is that they both deal with the expansion of consciousness and the illumination of spirit, through self-expression and self-awareness. These are probably the two most transcendent attributes exhibited by Homo sapiens and, to a large extent, have been responsible for the progress that we have demonstrated as a species.

Since those first scribbling attempts on a cave wall, we have improved the technology used for expressing ourselves. The first person to discover that berries made great colored paint was probably ostracized (and asked to leave) by his fellow cave-mates, who insisted that the "purity" of charcoal must be preserved. But, he did make an advancement and others, who had more foresight and open-mindedness, ignored the "purists" and improved on the technology with different colored clays and minerals. These people, too, were probably asked to leave and, subsequently, formed their own communities where progressive and liberal ideas held sway. Of course they were then probably invaded and attacked by the purists from Charcoal Land, who demanded that everyone subscribe to their vision of what was acceptable and traditional. Can't have these new-fangled ideas corrupting our traditional values and such, now can we?

And don't even get me started on the first folks to sculpt stones, metals and minerals into arrowheads or beads. These were craft folk and had no business in the artistic cave community, the Neanderthals.

In the music arena, I recall that when Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was first performed, there was a near riot in the concert hall. Why? Because he had the audacity to be creative with the tonal structure and utilize what were then considered to be unusual and non-traditional rhythmic patterns. Some people thought the world was going to end. Today, the piece is considered a staple of any modern orchestra, and very much a classic. Bob Dylan progressed from using acoustic instruments to the electric guitar. The traditionalists howled and screamed. He was perverting and destroying "the form". However, since then, it has become generally recognized that some of his best work was done during that nascent period. His talent and vision did not whither away and die. He simply found a different tool for expressing himself.

As a musician and an improviser, one has to develop one's technique to an exceptionally high level in order to be able to improvise over a variety of musical structures and with a variety of different musicians, when playing in an ensemble. A painter also requires technique in order to adequately express himself, although painting is generally a solitary activity. However, there have been a number of "primitive" and untrained painters that exhibited a natural affinity for the tools of the trade, without the requisite training or technique, and many of their works were considered, by the art world's elite, to be good, if not great, art. Go figure. It almost makes you think that those who complain about new tools, new technologies or lack of training are simply expressing frustration because they had to work extremely diligently to develop the same artistic capabilities as some of those who just seem to have an inherent talent and natural capabilities. But, that just can't be right. Artists are open-minded, intelligent people who would never begrudge another's talents or abilities. Aren't they?

When photography was first developed, painters primarily created realistic or classical paintings. The camera caused some initial disdain but since it did not render images in color, the "art" community wasn't too put off, even though the exact reproduction of reality did cause some consternation. However, when effective color film came into being in the early 20th century, which was a game changer. All of a sudden you had artists exploring different styles of painting - impressionism, abstract expressionism, cubism, etc. They couldn't compete with the camera so they decided to provide a different view of the world, transmutating color and form. This surge of creativity was also seen in music and literature. Still, we had the "traditionalists" complaining about paint being smeared across the canvas, and noise being produced in the concert hall rather than music, and non-linear, nonsensical writing being published by authors. Today, all those forms, methods, styles, and techniques are accepted, appreciated and even revered. Digital art will someday join that illustrious group, despite the critics.

There have been drawings I've seen, made by 5-year olds, that I found to be quite interesting and expressive, albeit lacking in "traditional" technique. However, isn't the ultimate aim of so-called art, to express oneself in some way? Whether it's a concept, an idea, a vision, visual reality, or an experimental technique, it all boils down to self expression. Some people might think your self expression is crap, and that's fine. Not everyone will appreciate everything. But just because you use a different medium, or a different tool, does that automatically negate what you are doing? And why are these people sometimes so vociferous in their opposition to digital art? Methinks they doth protest too much. Often, the most vocal opponents or critics of a particular form, method, technique or medium are those who have something to fear from the general acceptance of that thing. Or they are so closed-minded and rigid in their thinking that they can't accept anything new, no matter what it is. In either case, fear seems to be the driving factor.

Sociologists have, over decades of research, basically confirmed that those who display conservative, or traditionalist viewpoints, are generally more fearful, authoritarian and closed-minded than the population as a whole. They have a tendency to seek out only information that corresponds to their view of reality, closing themselves off to any other inputs that might interfere with their "written-in-stone" concepts. Those who only, and religiously, watch FOX News, are a perfect example of this rigidity. But with understanding and patience, maybe we can someday insert a little ray of light into the darkened corridors of their thought process, and help them reach a more open and enlightened way of thinking.

There are many definitions of "art", just like there are many different "artists". However, there is one commonality - it has to be created by a human being to be considered art. The natural world around us is exceptionally beautiful, but we didn't create it. The solar system and the universe are also beautiful, but we didn't create that either. Compared to nature, the beauty we humans create with our art is insignificant, at best. In that light, shouldn't we be more willing to accept any possible creative method or modality in order to brighten our existence, make us think, or inspire us as human beings? Rejecting things we refuse to acknowledge as having worth, simply because they don't coincide with our perceptions of what is real or valid or not, cannot be beneficial to the creative process, or to the evolution of our species. Exploration is a part of art, just as it is a part of life, and should be encouraged, and not dismissed.