I once imagined the push and pull between the natural and the mechanistic as a desperate struggle: spiritual individuals vs. industrial machines. Is now much easier to see this relationship as symbiotic. Walter Benjamin’s hugely influential work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction describes what happens when artworks are reproduced mechanically. But in a digital age–when production may or may not mean object-making–the lines between production, editing, reproduction, and consumption are blurred, resulting in tectonic shifts in seeing, making and learning.
It can be easy to forget that the humble pencil and the acoustic guitar are forms of technology. Before graphite there was metalpoint; before the guitar…lutes? Unlike designers who wear their Adobe technologies on their sleeves, for visual artists, tracing, working from a photograph (as opposed to working from life), painting by numbers, digital reproductions like giclee prints, and many other forms of image-making are seen as inauthentic. The corollary for musicians is computers-aided editing software and the excessive use of plug-in’s like auto-tune. When is the use of technology cheating? And what is the difference between a tool and a crutch?
At nineteen I remember listening to an early version of a song I had written, after the track had been recorded and heavily edited by an established record producer using an early version of Pro-Tools recording software. My drummer and good friend Sam said, “We sound like machines!” And the band did, suddenly, sound like robots. The players we were listening to were us, but at the same time not us–we had never performed the song with such a high level of precision (coming of age in the heyday of grunge rock). However, after hearing the song several times in its new brutally mechanistic incarnation, we began to internalize the more precise rhythms. The next performances would grow tighter and tighter until we achieved a nearly machine-like proficiency. We became more machine-like, after a machine showed us the way. (For a related discussion of musicians and digital editing check out RadioLab short: http://www.radiolab.org/story/313542-dawn-midi/)
Just as recording artists create and modify arrangements and performances “in the box” (on a computer), visual artists now make use of Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and other digital image manipulation software to generate imagery to then paint or draw from, print, 3D print, etc. And just as musicians have learned from computers, artists too now borrow from the aesthetics of computer-generated imagery without ever touching a computer.
Consider Rembrandt’s self-portraits. As a virtuosic painter, Rembrandt often hid or completely eliminated the marks of his paint brush in his early years. Later, he began to experiment with embracing brushstrokes, leaving evidence of the tool as if to say, “this is a painting. Look what I have done with paint! Boo-ya!”. As contemporary artists, we too must grapple with the decision to disguise or parade our tools, from photoshop to paintbrushes.
Usually, computer-artist exchanges happen covertly; the resulting charcoal portraits, landscape paintings, and indie-folk albums read as organic and naturalistic regardless of any digital interventions along the way. But for some artists, digital-machine-partnerships are more evident. And occasionally, the tool becomes an integral part of the product, as the paintbrush did with Rembrandt’s paintings.
Below is a small sampling of visual artists using digital tools more opaquely to inform or create art. Can you think of others? Can you think of recording artists who leave evidence of their digital tools?