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Digital tools

Post #991 • April 17, 2007, 6:23 PM • 32 Comments

Brian Curtis, from A Voice Crying in the Wilderness:

...I would like to address the destabilizing, de-civilizing influence of digital technology. The mechanical, impersonal nature of computers makes them the preferred weapon in the dematerializing of the art product and the deskilling of the art producer in what has now been a hundred-year war on traditional taste and media. The current pedagogical emphasis on digital media has been greatly amplified by postmodernism's inherent disdain for anything resembling traditional high art media.

As much as I agree with the overall gist of Curtis's essay, some of what he wrote about technology I think could bear a challenge. Not the above, which is fine. I believe that a curriculum that instructs a student in digital media before he can get a successful outcome out of a pencil is doing him an enormous disservice. But Curtis continues:

Computers are being promoted as being agents of individual empowerment, democracy, decentralization, and egalitarianism. Unfortunately, however, it is governments and large private corporations that are doing the promotion. That ought to tell us something. Did you know that Rupert Murdoch now owns MySpace? According to Neil Postman, a social theorist, the United States is dangerously close to a technopoly. Technopoly is a cultural system in which technology is granted sovereignty over social institutions and national life. It places its faith in mechanical calculation rather than human judgment thereby depriving man of the common source of humanity and leaving him without moral foundation. According to Richard Sclove, rather than decentralizing political power, as promised, computers and the web are encouraging stateless megacorporations by enabling them to leap boundaries, to intimidate labor unions, elude domestic political opposition, threaten meddling government officials with plant closure and capital flight, and sidestep regulatory hurdles. This anti-democratic process has been termed Walmartization and its ultimate goal is a world wide corporately controlled monoculture.

I believe that Curtis is conflating some unrelated complaints here. For one, it's unlikely that my writing would enjoy the audience that it has if not for digital technology. In fact, concerns about corporate monoculture led me deeper into technology. Specifically, I wanted off of what I've started to call the Adobe-Go-Round. Adobe's acquisition of Macromedia a couple of years ago, I felt, was going to lead to the deletion of perfectly good products and the dilution of the remaining ones. John Gruber, in 2005:

But Chizen's rise at Adobe tracks precisely with the company’s drift away from its roots as a great software company. When the company was run by graphics/technology enthusiasts, it was a great graphics/technology company. Now that it’s run by a sales guy, it has turned into a company that seems more interested in the sales and marketing of its products than in the products themselves...

I know dozens of people whose livelihoods are based on creative work produced using Adobe software, and every one of them was at least mildly annoyed by the "CS" marketing nonsense. The entire "CS" campaign has the feel of a company that is marketing down to its customers, rather than treating them respectfully as peers. If it doesn't appeal to their core audience, who is the "CS" brand meant to appeal to?

I suspected even then that Adobe was about to get into the upgrade business, by yoking the entire product line and bumping the version number up a whole integer every year. Sure enough, this year Adobe will roll out CS3. The so-called Master Collection lists for $2500. How much does it cost to build a whole new computer from parts, install Linux, and download open-source design tools? About $1800. Guess what your author did.

Using the Hot Rod guidelines at Ars Technica as a jumping-off point, I came up with a shopping list, and bought it on Newegg. Via Craigslist I found a gamer who helped me pop it together for $50; I got other offers to do it for beer, but decided to go with a semi-pro. Assembly was a hair tricky, but nothing out of control with the help of someone who had done it before. We didn't have to consult any manuals. Open the case, screw down the mobo, drop the CPU on it, pop in the power supply, push in the drives, plug in the cards, connect the cables, and hit the power switch. Ubuntu installed on the first try, and it's a beautiful OS. GIMP and Inkscape are damn fine programs and do everything I need them to do, in some cases better than their proprietary counterparts. For the trouble, which wasn't much, I'm running 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with two DVD-RWs, good graphics and sound cards, a 19" monitor, and a 2.1 sound system that could injure the neighbors. Plus, I had a learning experience. Adobe got nothing.

Curtis again:

On the educational level computers reinforce and compound unstructured thought processing and learning styles. Douglas Rushkoff, in his book Playing the Future, inadvertently admits that "screenagers" tend to discard linear logic in favor of a spontaneous outlook that celebrates indeterminacy much the way channel/web surfing does and where "CNN seems less real than Pulp Fiction." In the real word, however, without the ability to manipulate ideas systematically, screenagers, when confronted with difficult challenges, are condemned to a life of rolling their eyes and muttering "Whatever!" Both video and computers expose us to the tyranny of the disjointed moment and bind us to the demons of popular culture and dispirited materialism. Digital technology is a frighteningly efficient delivery mechanism for the various contemporary anarchical trends of contemporary practice I mentioned above. Attitude, anarchy, negation, and alienating technology all morphing into a Hydra of pedagogical disruption.

It's a tool. You can use it to decrease the friction in the conduits that convey idiocy to your brain. You can also give yourself an amazing intellectual experience, one characterized by logic, causation, and order. I feel that exposure to these three qualities has been tonic when it comes to dealing with art and the nonsense perpetrated in its name.

But of course, I'm not using technology as some kind of replacement for drawing, and that's the core issue here. When Gilbert and George talk about the hand in art as if were an embarassing defect, they're spewing the party line about the use of traditional media as a completed enterprise. Even without digital tools they would find some other means of doing so. The problem is not one of technology, but cynicism, even if the former is being made to serve the latter. Cynicism makes it equally possible to subvert a labor standard, insult tradition, sell something that nobody needs, or roll your eyes and say Whatever! when faced with a challenge. But here's the secret: the discipline of drawing uncovers wonders in the ordinary world, and wonder is the opposite of cynicism. No software will take you to that place of refined and meaningful seeing. That's why a certain class of contemporary educator would like incorporate technology into the foundation curriculum, and why people who care about art will insist that the only digital tools that should be taught at that level are the ones at the end of your arm. But with that accomplished, use any tool that does the job. Just make sure that you're using it, not the other way around.




April 18, 2007, 3:08 AM

Congrats, Franklin, on the Linux machine with the open source software! [Oh, hey, and on the job, too!]

I'm wholeheartedly in favor.

On the subject of digital technology, I feel that until recently, the internet and its associated technologies privileged writing as much as--and perhaps more so than--seeing. Certainly, orthography has been in flux, but non-standard orthography is not necessarily an indicator of non-systemic thought. Written language allows for more of a systematic thought process than visual, I believe, and I suspect that the criticisms Brian (Curtis) is assigning to technology have more to do with use (as you suggest) than they do the types of technology. For example, the visual language used by advertising is a likely culprit for the indeterminacy of thought which Brian reviles. The alliance which advertising crafts between visuality and desire is one unlikely to include systematization or traditional (linear) logic.

Concerning Brian's issues with anarchy, political anarchy is not mutually exclusive of the formation of small, interested collectives, for example--standing in almost direct opposition to the "Walmartization" process he describes. Though not exhastively read on the subject myself, I would nevertheless like to object to this use of "anarchistic" as a pejorative term.

As for your suggestion of cynicism as the enemy culprit, I am keen to remind you that cynicism also makes it possible for people to suspect that buying a bridge might not be the wisest move. In a patriarchal, money-dominated nation such as ours, I think cynicism is not a bad option at all.

As for the discipline of drawing, well, I am curious as to whether or not you and Stevie Wonder would see eye to eye on the topic . . .

Let's hope that the visual is not the only means to combat "whatever".



April 18, 2007, 8:32 AM

Anarchy as opposed to civilization, as Brian means it, is nothing to aspire to. Anarchy as opposed to authoritarianism, as you do, may very well be. Gary Snyder has written eloquently about anarchy in the latter sense, and he means it as "self-governing." This is certainly laudable and makes one healthfully immune to both governmental and consumer coercion.

Similarly, cynicism as opposed to wonder is nothing to aspire to. Cynicism as opposed to misplaced faith certainly is. When Catfish rained on my parade in the last post, I welcomed it.

I doubt that the visual is the only way to combat "Whatever"; that wasn't even my point. But wonder is important. I sympathize with Brian's frustration with the notion that art education is supposed to lead to a critique of the culture, rather than an aspiration to its greatest heights.



April 18, 2007, 12:51 PM


Laguna College is a dream job. The highs totally outweigh the lows. Congtatulations! They are fortunate to have you on their faculty. My enthusiasm for their program stems from its deep roots in discipline, craft, and skill development but in the spirit of full disclosure I understand they have at times required my introductory perceptual drawing text in their foundations drawing program.

Two years ago I wrote a critique that focused solely on some of the negative implications of the techno-euphoria currently engulfing our culture. That paper can be found at:

Regarding your challenge to my assertion that digital technology is a de-civilizing and de-stabilizing force I would like to re-remind the new Chief of Technology Innovation at the Laguna College of a post you made on a month or so ago.

"I'm reminded of the Upton Sinclair quote that has become a favorite of Al Gore's: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."


Marc Country

April 18, 2007, 1:56 PM

I think what KH is refering to is 'skepticism', which has a slightly different connotation than 'cynicism', in my understanding.

You're right, Franklin. Digital technology is a remarkable tool which can be used by the relatively powerless, and the relatively powerful alike. Blaming the ills of globalization on IT, (rather than on inequitable trade policies or corrupt corporate practices, for example), and then, going on to lament those who "tend to discard linear logic in favor of a spontaneous outlook" is richly ironic.

Either way, I'm glad my salary doesn't depend on it.



April 18, 2007, 3:01 PM

hmm.... good point, marc, about the irony. art has become a characteristically inclusive entity in recent history. new media proliferates the over all scope of art practice more and more. some people seem to believe that there isn't enough room on the raft for everyone, as though video, for instance, might nudge painting overbaord just to make more room. fortunately the real artists are busy day and night expanding and improving the raft rather than bickering about who has the most space. i for one feel that there remains plenty of room for me and my brushes. so...whatever. oh...and my video camera too.



April 18, 2007, 6:46 PM

check out Some very good digital painting/animation



April 18, 2007, 7:32 PM

I dont believe digital media is out to kill art and the artist. this is balogne. Being myself a screenager as well as an artist, i can attest to the fact that both methods in seperate ways inform and influence eachother. i wouldnt want it any other way. I can solve layout problems ages faster on adobe illustrator compared to a pencil and ruler, and in no way does that affect my appreciation nor desire to execute work by hand. whenever i get that itch to see what hundreds of circles look like in a pattern i conjur up in my head, you better believe i'm not going to do it with a pencil.

Understanding a piece of software in depth is a skill equal to knowing the perfect way to stretch and prime a canvas.

and so what if i want to do all my arguing and major thinking online. not having a face to bitch back at you makes communication all the more efficient... but... whatever. im just a screenager ( i like this term actually)



April 19, 2007, 2:05 AM

Thank you. Anxiety is not the root-word of creativity, even though pain is the root-word of painting.



April 19, 2007, 8:12 AM

Regarding the Sinclair quote, I made it clear to them that I have a very broad conception of technology. If the ideal solution is index cards, I will evangelize index cards. The point is to use the technology for what it's good for. Hands down, the best one for cultivating visual sensitivity is drawing.



April 19, 2007, 8:51 AM

"Hands down, the best one for cultivating visual sensitivity is drawing."

I'm not as confident in my capacity to understand art as is Franklin. That's because there is nothing in my expreience of any work of art that suggests a "hands down" explanation for how art in general is made, works, or otherwise functions. Instead, what comes across is that every one of them -the great ones especially - is specific, i.e., an exception.

I once served under a dean (from music) who insisted there was an underlying canon that was foundational to all visual art and that we should be teaching it. He never could say what it was, though. In frustration, he would say that discovering the canon was my job. I said to him just what I said above.



April 19, 2007, 9:40 AM

Digital is just another tool.

Tools don't make art,
artist's make art.



April 19, 2007, 3:36 PM

Of course, George, but it is more complicated than that.

Computers allow students to generate images which look respectable but have no development or evolution or learned facility. It may be that sooner or later this will be as evident to the eye as a bad drawing is, and that teaching computer imaging will have sufficient density of experience built into it to incuklcate that development, but that is not the case now, and we may be letting our students down, as Curtis fears.



April 19, 2007, 9:49 PM

re#11 Op,

Of course, I was just funning.

In painting, there is something important about kinesthetic memory. On a tablet, or with a mouse, the hand moves are small. It's not the same kind of movement as moving across the expanse of a canvas.

Not only that, I think the brush mark, splash, or whatever gets on the canvas, is reconstructed by the viewer (assuming they have any experience with paintings) as a form of experience.

Works created digitally and brought to the canvas, often leave a Photoshop footprint which can often suck the life out of something.



April 19, 2007, 10:57 PM

Re# 11
George, didn't Hockney say that in the " Secret Knowledge" video ?



April 19, 2007, 11:09 PM

JM, dunno, I've never seen the Hockney video.

I think I read something in the neuroscience literature which suggests that part of the visual stimilus goes to the motion points in the brain.

Visual information is processed in a very complex cascade to several different specialized brain locations. One of the areas involved has something to do with arm-hand movement. Certain visual stimuli will cause the same brain process that occurs when you move your arm/hands, the actual physical moition is supessed.

Sorry to be so vague about it.



April 20, 2007, 9:36 AM

Just to keep everybody posted, I just got back from Vermont, where I saw the Olitski warehouse, the Vermont Studio Center, and the the Ben & Jerry's Factory. New post later today, roundup tomorrow.



April 20, 2007, 10:10 AM

A full-course dinner!


Marc Country

April 20, 2007, 11:06 AM

Franklin, I just had a great idea... should lobby Ben and Jerry's to give Olitski his own Ice Cream, like Cherry Garcia, or Stephen Colbert's AmeriCone Dream.

I'm thinking something like a Nerd's Blizzard (Canadian's know what I'm talking about), with colourful little candy specks throughout the ice cream... I need a little help on the name though... Suggestions?



April 20, 2007, 11:32 AM

Jules swirl

Gel Jewels

Sparkle Plenty (derived from Dick Trecy's daughter in law, daughter of B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie)





Olitz Chocobitz

Banana Splitski


Marc Country

April 20, 2007, 11:48 AM

Sparkles! Of course!

How 'bout this one:
Jewels Olitskream



April 20, 2007, 1:41 PM
Free virtual modeling download/application - sculpting and painting virtual - like

Franklin, Mr Lombardi is lending a space on 24th street until the end of the month. Opening could be on the 28th. - wave you anything to contribute ?



April 20, 2007, 5:40 PM

"like" and "wave" were supposed to be funny.



April 20, 2007, 11:21 PM

I don't see George in those paintings.



April 21, 2007, 12:49 AM

I am glad catfish is warning caution when it comes to declarations about the paths we might assume lead most directly to good art. Even a statement as seemingly self-evident as: "...the best one for cultivating visual sensitivity is drawing" can lead off-course. (I can't believe you, Franklin, got far enough into reading the BBC Gilbert&George interview to find that reference - after a single page I had to skim ahead to find it - they make so many outrageous, ridiculous claims, without embarrassment, presumably.) But maybe a negative statement works better: "...the worst one for cultivating visual sensitivity is thinking about it." Nah, I prefer the slightly oxymoronic: "...the best one for cultivating visual sensitivity is looking carefully and unreservedly."



April 21, 2007, 7:10 AM

There's a part of this art-making project that we can talk about, and then there's a part we can't. Max Doerner had a beautiful phrase for the latter: the full flower of the art. It is extremely mysterious.

I think of it as analogous to the exoteric and the esoteric aspects of religion. In Zen, they teach a meditation technique and practice it daily, at times at long stretches. But does the technique result in enlightenment? No, you're already living as a perfect manifestation of Buddha nature. So why is anyone sitting? Good question!

Likewise, you have the practice of art, and you have good art. You can't say that the practice results in good art. You can't say that it doesn't result in good art. Catfish says, "there is nothing in my expreience of any work of art that suggests a 'hands down' explanation for how art in general is made, works, or otherwise functions." This is my experience as well. It is also my experience that I can teach people to draw using simple techniques of measurement, line quality, and a few kinds of modeling, and it has a profound effect on their visual sensitivity. If we're not talking about drawing, we're going to be talking about something like it: color theory, composition, whatever. Are these mutually exclusive notions? Yes, but they also appear to be simultaneously true. And you can't teach Catfish's "no explanations" until you're pretty far along with a student in the realm of explanations. Or likely Catfish is a better teacher than I am.



April 21, 2007, 7:26 AM

But there is "more or less likely".

Although talent affects the outcome and pace of making better art, it never gets made without an extensive density of choice behind it, and certain procedures, or types of procedures, must facilitate it better than others.

This could probably be determined, within limits.



April 21, 2007, 9:46 AM

Re #24, while I won't waste my time reading the interview in question, I submit to Ahab that G & G are saying precisely what it is their business to say. It's all part of the act, and since the act sells to a certain audience, they're simply giving their public what it has come to expect. Ahab, obviously, is not part of the target audience, so it makes no difference what he thinks of the stuff and nonsense.

As for what is the basis of good art, well, training and experience certainly play important roles, as do sensitivity and exposure to good art by others. However, ultimately, there has to be an innate aptitude or facility or gift there to begin with; otherwise, the best training and intentions in the world won't suffice. That innate capacity, call it talent, can be wasted, misused or left undeveloped, like a diamond in the rough, but if it's not there, good (let alone great) art will never happen.



April 21, 2007, 10:04 AM

Franklin: knowing that nothing explains art in general nor indeed art in particular, does not stop me from teaching "something". I start out with quite specific "somethings", in fact. They don't work for everyone, but they work for many. Everyone has to start somewhere.

I suppose if I were to hazard a (probably false) generalization, it would be that artists, whether students or old pros alike, must become physically engaged with the media first. What follows after that is a function of talent, intution, ambition, and a favorable cultural environment. As (bad) luck would have it, the last of these four is in short supply currently.



April 21, 2007, 11:11 AM

I like Opie's suggestion that there must be a "density of options". I don't recall where I heard or read this, but it is an intriguing notion that the most creative part of any scientific undertaking is in the hypothesizing. For any given problem there are unlimited (infinite?) possible hypotheses, but the scientist has to pick one. Is the better scientist the one who consistently chooses a good hypothesis, or the one who's always good at testing? Similarly, during any given moment in the creation of an artwork one option must both be judged by the artist to be better than another and brought effectively into being. Cycling through every possible option - impossible! - impossible in thought or deed.



April 21, 2007, 11:37 AM

By density of choice i actually mean choices made rather than options, Ahab. there are always way too many options. Good art, except perhaps qualified in the case of absolute musical genuis like Mozart, were it just seems to pour out,alway climbs a mountain of guesswork and judgement. Most bad art does too; it's just that the wrong choices have been made

And you don't have to "cycle through every possible option" because as one's art gets built over time the possible options drop by the wayside. You are then left with very few options ("mature style") but very important ones. Most people have no idea how narrow great art is, and how it absolutely depends on editing out.

As for the scientist, let's hope the experimenter is working for the on who can intuitively guess right rather than the other way around. They are still working on Einstein's guesswork.



April 21, 2007, 11:48 AM


It's like the old cliche, "painting yourself into a corner."



April 21, 2007, 12:01 PM

From, Seed magazine - Science In Silico
"Computer simulations and visualizations are performing the thought experiments of the 21st century and pushing the limits of human vision and imagination."

Computer simulations [video]



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