Sunday, January 29, 2012

ESSAY: A paintbrush is a tool. A computer is a tool.

We are delighted to publish this essay by Kim Darling, an artist and art teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy, whose work you can see on her website, This essay deals with the sometimes controversial question of whether computer-generated or -enhanced work is “art,” and brings to us the important perspective and experience of a teacher working with the upcoming generation of visual artists. - Ed.

By Kim Darling

Years ago, when I had recently finished my study of painting at the Art Students League of New York and was working hard in my studio to further develop my skills and voice, I had a conversation with my father that has stuck with me through the years. My father is a physicist who worked for the navy, programming and using computers from the time that they were gargantuan machines, filling large rooms. Those computers were programmed using punched cards of heavy paper, and my first drawings were made on discarded punch cards. I wish I still had some of those drawings. They would be interesting artifacts of the early days of the technology that I use today.

The conversation - or rather, argument - that my father and I engaged in had to do with painting and computers. He said that someday computers would be able to paint. I said that no, they wouldn't - painting is a uniquely HUMAN activity - and while a computer might be able to be programmed to make certain kinds of marks and designs, it could never PAINT in the full sense of the word. It was a heated argument, and remained unresolved. I stuck to my side and he stuck to his. Now, as my own artwork and my work with students becomes increasingly involved with technology, the memory of this argument is never far beneath the surface of my thinking. The fact that, despite my own use of new media, I have never changed my position, informs my work with students every day.

Art-making is a human endeavor, whether using a piece of charcoal, a brush and paint; clay; a camera and darkroom; or computer hardware and software. It is in the interface between human intention, tools and materials that ideas are manipulated, and it is the artifacts of that process that are shared as "art". With some tools, such as a brush, the interface between human brain, hand and artifact is fairly direct, seemingly simple to understand - and innately human. We humans have been making marks with intended meaning for a long time. With complex technologies, the tool itself sometimes influences the form of the artifact to such an extent that its very hard to know how much of the work can be attributed to a specific artist's ideas, and how much of what we are seeing is that which a program was designed by someone else - or by numerous other people - to do. When I first began employing complex programs, like Photoshop, in my work, I would see all those names of the developers of the program come up when the program was opening, and I felt like they were all unknowing collaborators in my work. I've stopped noticing that - this complex arrangement of digital switches has become like a piece of charcoal to me in some sense - and I'm not sure what that means.

If simple mark-making with a stick is innately human, and effectively communicating with more complex technologies involves a complicated learning process, it makes sense to think of the simple media as being in some sense foundational to the more complex media. In my experience with students, it is in the simple encounters between idea and writing stick and paper that important compositional elements and ideas are most effectively explored, and the language of visual communication is worked out. As more complex technologies are employed as a means of expression, these basic elements of composition and expression are adapted and used, so I consider the idea that drawing is a foundation for other forms of visual communication to be valid. However, we can look at the idea of "foundation" in more than one way. Are traditional, hand-driven forms of art-making foundational in the sense that they should come first in the unfolding of an educational progression, and then they will lose their usefulness as a student becomes adept at more complex art-making forms? Or, do they function more the way the foundation of a building functions, or the way that learning to walk is foundational to the understanding of one's place, and knowledge of, the physical world? We don't discard the foundation once the house is built, or stop walking once we become oriented in the world.

The changing admission-portfolio requirements of post-secondary schools over the past ten-or-so years reflect an evolving understanding of the relationship between traditional art media and "new" media. Ten years ago drawings and paintings included in portfolios might be made from observation of life - but work that was copied from a photograph or traced and filled in was just as acceptable to schools, as was an image produced entirely from the imagination. A variety of media - sculpture, collage, pottery, and photography - was acceptable and encouraged, for showing a student's diversity of experience. A few years ago most schools began to require the bulk of a portfolio to be drawings made from direct observation, which seemed to be evidence of a growing understanding of the importance of drawing as a foundation for other visual work, as well as a response to the large number of works schools were receiving that had a technology-derived finished quality to them, making it difficult for evaluators to understand how much of the production of the work was due to the student's own efforts and abilities, and how much was due to technology. Over the past few years, schools have required evidence of highly developed visual problem-solving skills through drawing, and they have discouraged technology-created artwork - even for entry into computer-design related programs. However, from talking to students in these schools, it became obvious that, after entry into the programs, very little emphasis was placed on drawing itself. The attitude seemed to be: you've got that as a foundation, now we'll teach you the real, important stuff.

This year I've noticed a shift in post-secondary education toward an increased focus on work made with the hand, while, at the same time, art and design programs are asking for either a student's "best work", regardless of the medium, in application portfolios, or a combination of drawing from observation and digital work - as well as work in other hand mediums. Artisan programs and craft schools are proliferating, MFA programs in drawing have appeared, and the ideal students entering a computer graphics or game design course of study will both be able to draw, and have computer design skills. Schools are expecting more from their applicants than they used to - and I think that this is because, as animation and game design has become such a huge part of visual culture, the need for strong drawing skills has entered the public consciousness. With animation software so available, to retain a relevant position within the culture, visual art schools need to keep the quality of what they are turning out a step or two above what anybody with a computer and a little knowledge of drawing can do. They are asking for evidence of a high level of combined skill in application portfolios. They ask for these things because they can, they know that students with these skills are out there, and they need to keep ahead of the game.

Here is the way I see these changing cultural positions in relationship to art and technology playing out in my high school students. When planning individual projects and exhibitions, students increasingly want to use sophisticated technologies - particularly video and digital photography. I encourage this, but almost always find that the students know less than they think they know about creating quality work with digital media. Programs like iMovie that are designed for ease of use with minimal involvement with learning about the how and why of the way they work lead students into a false sense of proficiency. They can make a video that their friends think is great and, with a keystroke, upload it to YouTube, but they know almost nothing about video production and editing. They commit themselves to complex projects, then they realize the unbelievable amount of work that is ahead of them. They lose hard-earned video clips because they don't understand what exporting a file is - and they have little sense of how to adequately save and back up their work. They crash their computers because they have no conception of the size files that they are working with - and that in the process of editing they are duplicating those huge files over and over again.

A couple of years ago I was questioning the value of teaching complex technologies within a high school art program. Our place seemed to be more in developing solid foundation skills - and particularly, drawing skills - that would place our students in a strong position for continued work in whatever medium they chose, as well as keep them competitive in the college admissions process. I think that our job has recently become harder. While solid traditional art-making skills are more important than ever, so is a working knowledge of technology. And as popular image manipulation and video editing software increasingly provide easy templates for maneuvers that simulate professional work, we need to be sure that students are gaining a basic understanding of file handling and sharing, and we need to provide real professional software to students to learn and to use, so they aren't confined to the moves that are built into popular software programs.

Again -

A paintbrush is a tool, and so is a computer.

Mannequins withTV heads, by Yemaya Briggs-Guzman
Projected video, which included a video including interviews with the St. Johnsbury Academy kitchen staff, by Hanley Chu