Artistic Expression.

Matthew Hutson, English 111, Brown University (1998)

Our discussion of the fundamental differences between digital and analog information quickly escalates to an analysis of artistic expression within the digital realm. Using the non-traditional tools at our disposal, we have new opportunities and new limitations. Making the transistion toward this new medium will not come easy, as it questions the very nature of what we define as aesthetic. The discrepency in process between digital and analog creation reminds us of the tools that stand in the way between concepts and their successful external expression. We have gone through this process before, as we adopted writing, paintbrushes, trampolines (kinesthetic expression), music synthesis, and photography, all of which feel natural and respected among my peers. Walter Benjamin states simply that, "the history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form."

It should be clear that the state of art relies heavily upon the kinds of tools we use to create the art, but many still resist the modern utilization of digital computers for humanistic expression. Why should this be so? Many have gone beyond saying that meaning is merely dependent upon medium for its expression; perhaps meaning is actually defined by the medium in which it exists. Sven Birkerts relates this claim to the medium of text:

There is no pure "word" that does not inhabit context inextricably. I don't think the medium is absolutely the message, but I do think that the medium conditions the message considerably. A word incised in stone (to be extreme) asks to be read as a word incised; a word skywritten (to be extreme again) asks to be looked at as such.

Ralph Lombreglia writes in a column in the Atlantic Monthly that he aknowledges this interdependence, and that he feels artists should accept this fact as part of the continued evolution of their art.

Bob Dylan had the guts to go electric despite the howls of grief from his "traditional" fans and no doubt from his business managers. Some extraordinary new folk music came out of that departure -- music that did not invalidate the man's equally wonderful, but different, acoustic music. I feel the same way about the much-maligned Miles Davis. Was all of Dylan's and Davis's "electric" work as good as their very best acoustic work? Has all of it aged equally well? No, but as I said above, that's not the point. Real artists don't lie down in "tradition" as if in a casket. If Bach and Charlie Parker and Shakespeare and James Joyce could be alive in their working prime at this moment, they wouldn't be doing the work they did in their time. But they'd be doing their work.

Similarly, software designer Kai Krause states that "the simple fact is that there ought not to be a real distinction between electronic versus analog media. A true artist will never blame his tools."

Many artists, philosophers, and writers have elaborated on their distrust of the new medium. Sven Birkerts put forth in his book, The Gutenberg Elegies: "[circuit and screen] are entirely inhospitable to the more subjective materials that have always been the stuff of art. That is to say, they are antithetical to inwardness." In the August 1995, Forum in Harper's, he added: "What the wires carry is not the stuff of the soul." (source)

Unlike an analog device such as a pen or a paintbrush, there is a long, unseen string of causal relationships between the hand moving the mouse and the pixels lighting up the monitor. In 1992, artist Lillian Schwartz voiced her similar dismay at the unintuitive interface of digital expression. In her book, The Computer Artist's Handbook, she writes:

. . . even on today's machines, a mastery of this new medium, along with its myriad of tools and powers, still requires effort and a great deal of patience on the part of the artist. The dots on the screen may not flake like mismatched paints, but there is a definable chemistry behind the electronic palatte, a combination of data, logic, and equations that inevitably begins as an obstacle to an untrained artist and as a potential diversion from his future sophistication. (14)

Schwartz goes on to point out that software interfaces do not only obstruct the artistic process, but it also places much of the creation in the hands of the software designer. ". . . the birth of the program (often followed by the need to tinker with it over the years) displaces the artistic act. The program becomes the artwork, and the fontanelle through which creativity has previously surged unimpeded becomes impenetrably blocked." (16)

Does the new technology at our disposal give us tools to escape the constraining circumstances of traditional media, or does it put our creativity at the mercy of others', namely the authors and engineers of our new world? Can an artist, or anyone else for that matter, claim true independence within the digital realm?

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