Sunday, February 28, 2010


The mighty Titanic ruled the seas for almost four whole days before it struck an iceberg and sank without a trace in the black waters of the northern Atlantic.

A souvenir postcard from the Titanic, found in the coat pocket of Edith Brown, a young girl who was lowered into a lifeboat just before the great ship sank.

The lesson of the Titanic was clear: humans had become so prideful about our little inventions that we lost all perspective about our true place in the universe. The ancient Greeks repeatedly warned us in their tragic plays about the folly of such hubris.

The icebergs must have had a good laugh over our "unsinkable" little boat. Yet, less than a century later those icebergs are getting their asses kicked. Fifty percent of the glaciers have vanished from the face of the earth. We humans scored a TKO in the second round. Who's laughing now?

I was thinking about all this when I recently beta tested a major movie studio's prototype for the next generation of digital drawing tool. The advancements, and the potential, were really quite spectacular.

I am one of those who believes that art has some core attributes that are timeless and immutable, and probably grounded in the designs of nature. Sure, digital engineering has provided us with dazzling alternatives to a pen or brush for making marks on a blank surface, but in my view such tools have so far merely skittered along the surface of art, with no transformative effect on art's underlying values. Today, digital art largely competes in a race where the rules have been established by traditional art. It attempts to satisfy the same standards of design and composition developed by traditional art. As a technique for making marks, digital media have been judged by the same eternal criteria as the marks left by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, or the first cave painters 35,000 years ago.

But as those foolish icebergs learned, eternal truths don't last nearly as long as they once did.

Consider how quickly and pervasively digital media have conquered the world; in most places they are more accessible than a brush and paint.

More pervasive than museums or galleries.

Becoming more pervasive than books.

Consider, too, how talents that once commanded respect in the arts because they were difficult and rare (such as the ability to achieve a good likeness, or the ability to master the color wheel) are no longer so difficult or rare. Chaucer once lamented the burdens of an artist:
The lyf so short, the craft so long to learne,
Th' assay so hard, so sharp the conquerage
Today, when any high school student can photoshop a likeness or rotate through color alternatives with the click of a mouse, can these artistic talents possibly command the same respect from viewers? At the same time certain talents are being devalued, different talents have taken on new significance. Digital media have provided drawing with new criteria for excellence such as motion, lighting variations, integrated media (interweaving drawing with sound, narratives, etc.) and a variety of time-factoring processes.

The yearning to make static drawings move is not new. Some artists achieved it with blurring or speed lines or other illusions of movement. Some did it using sequential images. As a young boy, before the era of animation, the great illustrator Al Parker hit upon the idea of drawing pictures on the paper rolls that operated the keys on his family's old player piano. When his family sat in their parlor listening to the piano, the boy was able to watch his pictures roll by:

Cuddlin' and cooin' with Mary Lou in cherry blossom time

Contrast these early primitive yearnings with the ways Steve Brodner is able to use digital medium to make his pictures move. Here, he paints icebergs but weaves a narrative into an accelerated painting process and ends with animation:

Here is an even more enterprising combination of conventional drawing and the potential of digital media:

Efforts such as the above are early faltering steps, but the devaluation of traditional talents, the rise of new capabilities, and the broad, grass roots accessibility of digital medium may be combining to transform ancient artistic standards. Just as the Titanic got the last laugh, digital media may be the catalyst for an epochal change in art-- as significant as the transition from magical thinking (when animism and totemism ruled art) to art as a physical object. As significant as the transition from representational images to symbolic images. As significant as the invention of writing.

Is that the dripping of melting icebergs I hear?