Monday, August 16, 2010

The Upper Shelf

"Dry Leaves"

Were I to brave the upper shelf in my closet, next to the row of three-ring binders, stuffed to overflowing with large format paper negatives from two decades of work, I would discover a small assortment of composition books, the kind with the stiff cardboard covers mottled in black and white, within whose stitched signatures of college-ruled paper would be found page after page of mechanical pencil scrawl and technical description (blogging, of sorts, before the term "blog" was coined), mostly dating from the mid-to-late 1990s, and which covered a variety of subjects, but mainly that of photography and video art theory.

It seemed at that time I had developed an interest in the arcane outer boundaries of video art; low-resolution, sub-consumer grade, surveillance quality pieces along the lines of Fisher-Price Pixelvision; inspired by such work as Eric Saks's "Don From Lakewood", and by having regularly attended Basement Films shows, a local, mobile micro-cinema.

Keeping in mind that this was the mid-1990s, when the concept of jumping off the Technology Treadmill had hardly occurred to anyone, the idea that bigger, better and faster wasn't, well, bigger, better and faster seemed revolutionary to me.

It has recently struck me that the Age of Good Enough has finally arrived; point-and-shoot cameras, cell phones and micro-video devices are all "good enough," provided one's intent, rather than being on the five-minute-long Bleeding Edge of Technology, is rather to use these devices as tools for expressing one's creativity, documenting one's world and communicating to a global, Internet-connected audience. Network journalists are now documenting war reportage with Flip video cameras, for instance.

The Equipment Junkies (I confess that I'm still recovering) can continue their endless arguments over which camera can absolutely "kick major butt," "totally demolishing" the competition, but quite frankly I'm tired of all the nonsense. From the sound of it, you'd think they were discussing some cheesy Saturday night professional wrestling TV theater, wherein the Canon 5D MkIII jumps off the top rope and body-slams the Nikon D700, to the roar of the approving crowd.

But really, thumb through any photography anthology from the best of the 20th century's photographic imagery and you'll discover that skill, vision, technical mastery of the medium (and a bit of luck) were all supremely paramount (could "kick major butt") over any thought of what camera or film was used in the creation of these masterpieces. Sure, the latest Canikon Wunderkamera could "run circles around" the gear that the Old Masters used; but true creativity has never been about just technique and equipment. To be sure, Master Craftsmen have always had definite opinions about the merits of their particular tools, which you'd have to pry from their cold, dead hands; but it takes more than a velvety-smooth red sable brush to paint like Rembrandt.

You see, I'm not Rembrandt, or even very artistic, but I'm astute enough to know that we live in an age when we have available to us tools of creative expression far better, in almost any conceivable metric available, than in any preceeding age. You want to print with hand-laid type on artisanal paper (like Gutenberg, in 1439)? You still can. You want to make wet-plate collodion portraits? You still can. You want to create 3D interactive cybernetic art spaces? You can, too. It's not like we've abandoned the past to make room for the new (although it can seem that way through the myopic refractory of popular culture), but rather that there exists an evolutionary continuum in the relationship between man and his tools, a world that, despite opinion to the contrary, refuses to exhibit the properties of a Zero Sum Game. Knowledge is additive, not subtractive. The world of art, technology and culture is open-ended, synergistic even.

So what will our descendants read when they dust off the equivalent of our composition books, high on the upper shelf, and read (or watch, or experience) for themselves the works of our present age? I would hope that they would find us not so obsessed over the cleverness of our own brain-spawn that we had failed to make that essential leap from mere toolmaker to true artist. Our progeny requires a heritage more profound than the merely technological.


Blogger Strikethru said...

What people lack in artistry and practice they (try to) make up for with equipment, oftentimes. I wish it were that easy. No matter how nice my camera is, I still take lousy pictures.

10:07 PM  

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