Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Digital Art

Bill Thompson’s latest piece on the BBC News Web site, on the subject of “digital art,” gets off to a great start:

At a recent conference on the future of the arts in a digital world the opening night panel was asked to name a digital art work that had impressed them.

All stumbled, perhaps unsure of who was doing 'interesting' work in this rapidly changing field, leaving the delegates at the Media Festival/Arts with the sense that digital might not really count as far as they were concerned.

Unfortunately, he then goes on to compensate for the tongue-tied panelists (whom he never names) and decides to take a crack at answering the question himself.  For my part, however, I found myself more interested in why such a seemingly innocuous question should have been so problematic.

By way of a disclaimer, I have to say that, after many years of sitting on both sides of the table for such events, I find just about all panel discussions to be highly counterproductive.  A panel is rarely anything other than a platform on which a collection of egos can strut.  As such it rarely throws any informative light on the topic being discussed and is at its most entertaining when the boredom of self-preening is disrupted by a heated difference of opinion.  When the panelists are all full-fledged citizens of the world the Internet has made, any available light is further dimmed by a lack of context, particularly historical context, behind any propositions that are asserted (by those with enough linguistic coherence to get beyond meandering and get down to actually hypothesizing or asserting).

There is a good chance that the panelists at this particular event, with its emphasis on art in the age of digital media, could easily have been oblivious to a favorite mantra of the man who may be regarded as the grandfather of media studies, Marshall McLuhan.  The mantra is one that he supposedly picked up on Bali, where he claimed that people said, “We have no art, we do everything as best as we can.”  As a young student I had the usual gee-whiz reaction to this declaration.  Now I realize that it comes close to one of my own hobby-horses and may explain why the question put to the panel so flummoxed them.

Assuming that McLuhan’s account is a faithful one, it strikes me that his Balinese informants had an appreciation for the distinction between the world of nouns and the world of verbs that McLuhan may not have explicitly considered (either when he was in Bali or in any of his subsequent writing).  As I discovered on my own visit, there are lots of Balinese who are very skilled in fashioning artifacts in a variety of media;  but it took me a while to appreciate the extent to which the act of fashioning was more important than the resulting artifact.  Ironically, the lesson was staring me in the face during my visit;  but it took me about a decade to realize what I had learned.

My education took place during a visit to Ubud, an inland village (far from the madding beach crowd) that was home to a community of wood carvers.  When one of those carvers thought we were not impressed with the pieces in his shop, he invited us upstairs to see where the work was actually done.  The first thing I saw in his workspace was a pack of wooden coyotes, all exquisite copies of those Mexican carvings that became popular when urban centers like New York discovered southwest art (many of them making the discovery while going to the Santa Fe Opera, as my wife and I had done).  I pointed at the coyotes.  The carver smiled.  He told me that another American had come to him with a photograph (which he showed me) and asked, “Can you make these?”  The results were now there in great array, all howling at a desert moon halfway around the world.

To an American this might be little more than another story about the extent of the knock-off business progressing from Gucci handbags to Southwest American folk art.  For the carver, however, it was nothing more than the recognition that any “art” (if the word can be used at all) was in the act of carving, regardless of what artifact emerged from the act.  His personal identity was one with the verb-based world of working the wood;  and what the noun-based result of that work happened to signify, whether the reference was to Hindu or Hopi mythology, was virtually irrelevant.

This noun-based misunderstanding of art is as prevalent in the Western world as it is in this remote village in Bali.  In my own writing for, this was particularly evident in my take on The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs, which was so absorbed in marveling over the artefactual qualities of Ludwig van Beethoven’s final symphony that it lost all track of what I called “a sense of Beethoven as a ‘man at work,’” even if that sense got to the real heart of Beethoven’s own identity.  In our own culture, of course, the resulting artifact has assumed more relevance than any of the artifacts of that Balinese carver;  but too much attention to the artifact still distracts from the fact that, where music is involved, the heart of the experience will always be in the making (both compositing and performing) and the listening, both of which are semantically anchored in verbs, rather than nouns.

From this point of view, any question to the panel about “a digital art work that had impressed them” is, by its very nature, seriously misplaced.  One might better ask which, if any artists, have created lasting impressions based on work with digital media (and it might even be fairer if, in the Balinese tradition, the noun “artists” were replaced with the more general “individuals”).  For example, from a verb-based point of view, I have been thoroughly delighted with some footage I have seen of David Hockney doing finger-painting on his iPhone, even if I could care less whether or not any of the results end up on the walls of gallery or museum here in San Francisco.  Ironically, Hockney’s name never came up in Thompson’s piece, either in his account of the panel or in his own efforts to take on the problematic question put to them.

The subtitle of McLuhan’s Understanding Media book was The Extensions of Man.  The significance of that title seems to have been overshadowed by the title of the first chapter of the book, which is the sentence most associated with McLuhan, “Medium Is the Message.”  (Note that this phrase is frequently distorted by inserting “The” at the beginning.)  I would argue that this noun-based focus on “message” is far less important in understanding McLuhan than is the verb-based question of how media have come to extend the capabilities of “man the message maker.”  Perhaps that is because the extensions have now overwhelmed any thoughts about just what messages we want to make.

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