withdrawal of the body
Post #648 • October 19, 2005, 9:31 AM • 23 Comments
A librarian cleaning out some old archives at a theological seminary in Pennsylvania recently discovered a Beethoven manuscript, and Edmund Morris, biographer of Roosevelt, Reagan, and most recently, Beethoven, can hardly wait to see it. "It is reported to be typically three-dimensional, with erasures worn into holes, and a large patch of rewritten music spackled onto one page with sealing wax." He likens its draughtsmanship to the work of Bernard Dufour, and after reveling in Dufour's skill, he continues on to muse about the consequences of decreasing tactility in art.
Then down the sharp thing comes, at a deliberately obtuse angle, so that the first line is not so much drawn but dug out of the paper. Nor is there as much ink running as you would expect; the artist seems to be daring his inspiration to dry up. More swoops and gougings, then suddenly a deliberate splash of ink, which the heel of the hand smudges across some cross-hatching ... and lo, the curve of a naked woman's thigh materializes out of the whiteness, and art begins to happen.
It is moving to watch, because we can feel Mr. Dufour's love of struggle, his sheer joy in being bespattered, stained and even resisted (when a sketch obstinately refuses to cohere) by the materials at hand. Such relish is of course characteristic of workers in the plastic arts. But with the decline of painting and drawing in recent years, in favor of hands-off processes like video recording, performance art and installations farmed out to contractors, even artists are putting less and less of themselves into their work - with the result that what there is of it, is cold. I had to spend a few weeks earlier this year looking down from my window at Christo's orange hangings in Central Park, and got back from them nothing but a sense of manufactured lifelessness.
I worry that further withdrawal of the body will increasingly depersonalize creativity in our computerized age. It is already a given that many young architects can't draw, relying on circuitry to do their imaging for them. Nor can many of them model, never having built things with their hands as children, and felt the pliancy and fragility of structures, the interrelationship of empty space and solid mass. Recently my wife and I bought a country house designed by just such an architect. It looked great until we discovered that the main floor sagged in the middle because it lacked the kind of central support that a child, 40 years ago, would have sensed was necessary in the foundation.
We're talking about architecture now, but I think Morris has a point. I love technology. I daresay that I am the one of the few painters anywhere who can hack XSLT. But I don't want to deal with life in a computer-like way. As a teacher, I see what happens when a student's computer skills outstrips his drawing skills: art becomes a nail for which there is no hammer except Photoshop. The results are a tragic collision of filters and Google Images. You don't judge a medium by its worst usages, of course, but grappling with the medium lays bare its inner workings, and I have witnessed how digital tools favor a disembodied approach that cannibalizes other peoples' solutions. You have to labor mightily to get them to do something better. Beginners at drawing, even when they fail miserably, still produce something that is recognizably theirs.
Does anyone remember those studies they did, in which they isolated baby monkeys from physical contact, gave some of them terry-cloth monkey dolls, and found that the monkeys who had dolls to hug came out psychologically healthier? What does it mean when my only physcial contact with my art is an interface of hard plastic?
I still believe that quality has no qualities, which means, in theory, that digital tools have as much of a shot as any other at producing wonderful work. In practice, I think that for a long time we're going to be seeing a lot of things from them that look cool, which is good, but also feel cool, which is not.
(Also in the NYT recently, one of the finest sentences to grace modern journalism: "Oni pa'a Imua Pa'a'aina, at 450 pounds, was the only one of 14 sumo wrestlers who managed to finish one of the giant sandwiches Tuesday at the Carnegie Deli in Midtown Manhattan." No withdrawal of the body here.)