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Creativity, Computers, and Manual Labor

Update:  I edited this post to submit as a writing sample offline on 9/18/08.  I’ve decided to post the revisions – most are related to style, none of them are substantive changes.

Today, Slashdot brought up an interesting topic regarding the (perhaps small) resurgence of manual labor and processes in the design fields: hardware.slashdot.org/hardware/08/08/17/205232.shtml.

The post points to two articles.

One, by G. Pascal Zachary in the New York Times, about the phenomenon itself: Digital Designers Rediscover Their Hands.

And, Two, an op-ed in the Guardian by Richard Sennett: Labours of Love.

The phenomenon itself is something that I’ve long thought inevitable within the pendulum swings of social and technological changes, as they feel out the right directions for themselves.

But, it’s the second article that really interests me.  Because, it articulates a belief system and a real experience that underscores the manifestation of those ideas in the events of the first article.

It’s an issue that’s near and dear to my heart because I’ve taught digital media art in higher education and elsewhere, for about six years.  But… I studied painting and drawing.

Toward the end of my undergraduate study, I started using the computer to help with making silk screen prints on photographs − that I would sometimes continue to manipulate with traditional drawing techniques after printing.  Because I lost access to school facilities when I graduated, and because my interests turned from linguistic theory to exploring less theoretical interactions of visual form; during the years between undergrad and grad school, I returned to a studio practice in which I mostly painted with oils.  Then, the truth of graduate study in fine art today is that being in the “painting” studio in most programs really means you can do anything.  And, I did.  I also made a lot of work that applied digital media within more traditional studio discourses.

In a way that you can probably imagine, nearly all of the opportunities I’ve found since then have involved new technology.  That has been, of course, due in part to the recent emergence of those technologies in art and a glut of older faculty who already have considerable experience teaching art materials and techniques that have been around in one form or another for centuries.  I was one of very few people in my graduate program who could teach the Computer Graphics classes.  And, that has continued to be the door I’ve most often found open.  As a person who studied painting, I’ve had faculty jobs teaching digital drawing, intro to digital media as a fine art course, intro to digital media as a design course, page layout, web design, and animation.  None of this seems unnatural to me.

I’ve even put forth significant efforts to integrate digital media, and 3D modeling at that, into traditional studio foundations classes.  I developed online resources and brought student blogging into my computer-based classes.

In my art work, I continue to use both digital and traditional media on the surface of a single work.

So, I’m no Luddite.

But, to counter the drive toward technoligizing educational settings is most surely to make one’s self anathema.

When I’ve suggested that it would be better if my introductory computer graphics classes did not have internet access, I’ve almost always been met with bewilderment and confusion.  When drawing/painting faculty I’ve worked with have expressed kindred views, they’ve invariably been cast as anachronistic trolls (most weren’t).

Here though, is what caught my eye in the Slashdot blurb, from the NYT article:

Making refinements with your own hands — rather than automatically, as often happens with a computer — means “you have to be extremely self-critical,” says Mr. Sennett, whose book “The Craftsman” (Yale University Press, 2008), examines the importance of “skilled manual labor,” which he believes includes computer programming.

And, self-criticality is so important in art.  In fact, art’s ability to teach critical analysis in general is among the things that I tout most when fighting the (supremely difficult) battle about the importance of art within a general curriculum.

While new technology brings the issue to the surface, however, the phenomenon isn’t unique to it.  While I was working as the preparator for a gallery that showed his work, I twice had the opportunity to visit Jun Kaneko‘s massive studio facilities in Omaha.  I even stayed in a guest apartment, I think usually reserved for resident artists at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, once.  What struck me then was that as a wildly successful juggernaut of the ceramics world, Jun Kaneko can do anything he wants. He’s even got a staff of half a dozen or so highly skilled assistants whom he can ask to fabricate or prepare whatever he needs.  So, here’s the thing: in terms of ineffable art qualities like “poignancy” or “being challenging”, I don’t think it helps him − because he doesn’t have to be self-critical. He doesn’t have to reign himself in.  It sounds enviable, sure, but reigning yourself in, knowing that what you’re working on has to count, forces a deeper engagement that usually produces better art.  To put myself in contrast, at that time I had so few financial resources that I had to analyze and evaluate each step I made.  If I ruined a painting, it could take a day’s wages just to replace the materials.  And I think that pressure made me a better artist.  Now, true, I was young and aspiring and Jun Kaneko was older and long quite accomplished; and each of us in need of very different assets for development.  But, how do you maintain a sharpened self-criticality when you do not have any external factors driving it?

And there in a nutshell is the struggle I’ve had with balancing digital media within my own creative process.  You see, working with my hands once played a formative and significant role in my creative thought process.  I grew up in and around construction work.  By the time I was 17, I was passable as an apprentice bricklayer.  I could and had framed houses, installed drywall, shingled roofs, poured concrete…  All the while my art is fairly cerebral (not to say intellectual).

Yeah, but… there are so few things more comforting than knowing you can press “ctrl+z” after you screw up an image.  Just keep clicking and dragging stuff around until you get what you want…  It’s wonderful.  Yeah, uh-huh, but… the down side is that you don’t suffer the same pains, as Richard Sennett describes, of “dwell[ing] in waste, following up dead ends”, “creat[ing problems] in order to know them” as is par for the course in non-digital media.  You could suffer those things.  It’s just that most of them are so easy to fix.  If you remember the old cartoons, when a brush would wipe across the screen with a couple of zig zags and suddenly a whole drawing would be right there; creating on a computer is the next best thing.  It’s awesome.  It risks one of the external factors that motivates critical thinking.

I used to think that after enough practice and development, the “struggle” of craft and expression would evolve so much as to become unrecognizable as what it once was − to essentially go away.  Now, I can identify that event as the moment at which an artist’s work just goes and falls flat.  The next struggle that ensues is one to balance confidence with maintaining a sufficient depth of engagement.  I’ll leave it as a few open questions then − because I don’t have the answers:  What are the relationships to external factors that artists need to forge in order to sustain that balance and depth of engagement?  To what extent do you need your media, your resources, your hands, or your time to present obstacles in order for you to continually grow through your art?  As facility changes your relationship with your work, is there a point at which that facility is no longer an obstacle in itself?


2 Responses

  1. Hello. Would the author of this article please send me their name and contact information? Thank you.

  2. Anyone interested in contacting me can do so at: meteechart@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s interested in posts on this blog, or topics near and dear to me, such as art and teaching.

    To offer an anonymized version of the private response I’m about to send the first commentor:

    I visited Jun Kaneko’s Facilities as a person who loaded and drove a big truck full of his art to a gallery in a different city. I did so twice, and also for other artists, because I enjoyed long distance trips. When I stayed in the “guest apartment”, it was because it was the most economical arrangement the gallery would make to house the most economical mode of transport: me. As much as I wished it involved cocktails and ruminations on deep truths with a prominent ceramicist, it didn’t. I was a young guy gaining experience through sweat, trying to find my way as an artist. And, I’m glad I had those, and other, opportunities to do so.

    I linked to it and Kaneko’s site and to the Bemis because I hold both in high esteem, even if the comments I made seem critical.

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