The definition of art is something that can be and has been debated ad nauseum – one man’s art is another man’s broken porcelain urinal – so I feel a bit hesitant to declare myself an artist. For that reason I’ll skip definitions and justifications and just say that I’ve been creating art since I was old enough to hold a crayon in my hand. It’s something I take great pleasure in and will continue doing for the rest of my life. However, the methods and materials I use to create art have changed greatly during my lifetime. Technique, media, influence from other artists and financial considerations are just some of the factors that have changed the way I make art over the years, but one of the most critical aspects has been changing technology.
My art generally follows three phases: planning, during which I decide what I want the piece to be and how I want to make it; execution, during which the piece is physically created and brought into the realm of these four dimensions; and finally, there’s the finished phase, during which the completed work is shared with others, displayed, critiqued, (hopefully) sold, or otherwise presented to the world at large. Technology has affected all three of these phases, resulting in a shift in both my methods of creation and in the art itself.
My work of late has focused on combining traditional painting with kinetic sculpture that incorporates elements of time, motion, and tactile interaction to create a richer storytelling experience. These pieces can become somewhat complex and so they always begin with a plan. I ask myself, ‘What do I want to say, and how am I going to say it?’ Until recently, answering this question would require trips to the library for reference materials, perhaps taking several photographs and waiting days or weeks to have them developed. It also often resulted in several iterations of the piece itself as I discovered, through trial and error, how to properly go about accomplishing my goals. In the last few years, however, this process has changed tremendously. Reference photos are only a Google Image search away; cheap digital cameras allow me to take photos anywhere and download them instantly to view, and the advent of video-sharing websites such as YouTube allow me to research new techniques at the press of a button. Once I’ve done my research, I can lay out a plan using software such as PaintShop Pro and Photoshop, which are designed expressly for artistic and graphic work. Using these programs in conjunction with a digital tablet and stylus, I can draw directly in my computer and create detailed working plans to help me decide on design, composition, and color choices, as well as working through the myriad mechanical challenges that arise when creating a kinetic sculpture.
Once I have a plan and am ready to begin work on the piece, current technology comes into play in its most practical form. A final drawing or diagram can be photographed, uploaded, and resized, then either printed out on various materials and applied directly to the work, or projected onto canvas, wood, plastic or metal to be further worked into the form I desire. Before I had access to this technology, I would often use ancient techniques for reproduction and resizing – such as laying grids over both the original and the canvas, then painstakingly hand-copying the image a fraction of an inch at a time. While perfectly adequate, many of these techniques were tedious, time-consuming, and didn’t guarantee accuracy. Being able to apply an exact reproduction of an underpainting or sketch to the media allows for an increase in magnitudes of accuracy in the final product when compared to my original idea.
Pieces with interconnected moving parts must be accurately constructed and precisely assembled. I used to spend many hours of trial and error attempting to properly configure the mechanisms. I often had to change my designs because I couldn’t find or afford the materials necessary to realize my original idea. Today, I have access to cheap parts that I never would have dreamed of being able to incorporate even ten years ago. Small electric motors with powerful lithium-ion batteries have replaced costly, heavy, and possibly dangerous A/C systems that require wiring and power outlets. Laser-cut gears can be ordered online. Sound systems can now be incorporated unobtrusively by using miniscule MP3 players instead of bulky, unreliable tape systems that would be far too large and difficult to use. I can even use LED lighting systems that won’t pose a fire hazard and are easily programmed to meet my needs.
Figure 2 Some finished works, made with the help of modern technology.
One of the most important aspects of art is communication. Working with and speaking to other artists is a source of inspiration, a way to share ideas, and a way to learn valuable skills from others. When I was young, contact with other artists was facilitated by school. In high school, we were all brought together from across a very large geographical area and placed in a small room. We were forced to share every resource, from tools and materials to texts and teachers. When we came together, the exchange of ideas and critiques influenced and shaped our work. Now, as an adult with a busy personal and professional life, I don’t have the luxury of spending several hours in a room with other like-minded people. The internet, however, allows me to keep in touch with artists from all over the world. I can send snapshots of works in progress through email to a friend in California or discuss a collaborative installation with several people over Skype.
Similarly, selling my art is now much easier. In the past, I’d have to try to convince a gallery owner to carry my art with a 50-75% commission fee attached to everything I sold. I was largely limited to local galleries and had no control over the audience my work was presented to. Now, I can reach millions of potential customers on social networking sites designed specifically to cater to individual artists. Entering design contests and online shows is as easy as attaching a JPEG. I can submit designs for t-shirts, prints, and posters that are printed and shipped after they’re sold, with no overhead costs to me. With the internet, I’m able to control the final destination of my art, and the power that gives me makes all the difference.
While I would still be making art if my only resources were mayonnaise and shoe leather, modern technology both aids me and helps to shape the work that I make. Research and reference articles are now within easy reach, as are ways to share techniques and ideas about how to create my work. Technology helps the process of creation by providing powerful tools to help me flesh out the design of my work, as well as execute the finished product. The piece can then be shared with both my peers and audience in a way that reaches people I might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact with. It facilitates viewing and marketing, selling and shipping and, ultimately, helps me to create better art.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
I leaned back in the kitchen chair and admired my handiwork: three handwritten pages, a letter to my grandmother who lived five hundred miles away. Every word was meticulously formed in my best handwriting, each sentence precisely crafted. The well-worn hard cover family dictionary lay next to me on the table in the event I was unsure of the spelling of any particular word. When I was satisfied that all was well, I carefully folded the sheets and sealed them in the envelope. I asked my mother for a postage stamp and inquired as to when the next trip to the post office would be. There was no home mail delivery where we lived, so I would have to wait until tomorrow when she was planning a trip to the grocery store. It would take another week for the mail to arrive in my grandparents’ big steel rural mail box. Slipping that envelope into the mail slot the next day was a satisfying conclusion to a process that I had taken great pride in. Not because I was different, but because I was sure that everyone did their very best.
Since I mailed that letter thirty years ago, my notion that most people always do their best has drastically changed. You need to look no further than your email inbox to see the extent of poor spelling and incorrect word usage. The problem is epidemic. From personal communication and social networking to business publications and product manuals, the quality of the written word has declined sharply. As a child I knew the difference between “there” and “their”, and that the “e” came before the “i.” Many adults today do not. Why have we sunk to such depths of inferior composition? Poor spelling and incorrect use of words may be rooted in technological advancements and aggravated by complacency.
Over the last several decades, the way we communicate has undergone a complete transformation. I doubt that many teenagers and young adults have ever written a letter on paper and mailed it through the postal system. Most of our communication is now electronic via email and text messaging. As much as I love the ease, convenience, and speed of email, I lament the loss of care that went into composing a letter. We live in a disposable society where sending an email costs nothing, and thereby has diminished value. An email can be sent for free anywhere in the world in less than a minute. Forgot to mention something in an email? No problem, just send another one. Failed to clearly communicate a problem or idea? That’s okay; they can fire back any questions in a heartbeat. Spelled a word wrong? Don’t worry about it; it’ll be in their trash folder soon anyway. Internet chat and text messaging have contributed even more to the destruction of the written word. Every day, our once stately language is further reduced to a string of unintelligible slang terms, abbreviations, and acronyms. It has become like a different language which is based on brevity and speed rather than accuracy and eloquence.
On the occasion that we do need to sit down and write something of consequence rather than just an email, the typewriter of yesteryear has been replaced by word processing software on the computer. The process of writing has remained much the same, save for a notable difference: spell check and autocorrect. Even the worst speller in the world could, in theory, write a letter without a single spelling error. All a person needs to do is type some rubbish that sounds reasonably close to the actual words and if autocorrect doesn’t fix it as the writer types, running the spell check will. Even if the words are all spelled correctly, there can still be errors in usage of incorrect words that are pronounced similarly. Since knowledge is no longer required, this convenience has resulted in the decline of language and spelling skills across our population.
Much of our learning process is visual. We absorb considerable information by merely observing the world around us as we go about our daily lives. We see and read a lot of printed material nearly every day and can learn a great deal from it. Although that is true, we must consider the quality of the information flooding our minds every day. A few decades ago, our primary sources of the written word were found in books. They were most often written by educated people who were well-versed in language. Their works were meticulously scrutinized for correct spelling, grammar, and word usage prior to publication. Many a fantastic tale was spun in classic literature which fueled the imagination and leveraged an extensive and rich vocabulary. What are we feeding our minds now? Websites have replaced quality literature in many households. They are often filled with shoddy articles and pop culture fodder which are hurriedly produced to satisfy the voracious appetite of the masses. The internet has become the literary equivalent of chicken nuggets. The processor of our mind acts accordingly: garbage in, garbage out. It stands to reason that constant exposure to poorly written text will affect our own writing.
Are we powerless to stop this onslaught of technology that is replacing the requirements of education and intelligence? Of course not! We still have libraries full of great literature from which to learn, enjoy and build our vocabulary. The internet, in spite of its downfalls, can be a great source of scholarly information if we choose to use it that way. We can take the time to look up words which we are unsure of online. But do we? I have occasionally mentioned misspellings and word usage issues to people in an effort to help, only to be met with a mere shrug of the shoulders and the statement “it’s no big deal”, or “I don’t have time.” Is this the standard to which we now aspire? We have no time for even one more mouse click for “spell check?” It seems we have relegated the task of proper language use to technology and completely washed our hands of responsibility as individuals.
The effects of poor writing abilities can be quite devastating to a career. In an era of scarce employment opportunities, our use of language is critically important. Human resource departments are increasingly staffed by well educated professionals. A well-written and error-free introduction with concise communication of employable skills is more likely to catch the eye of a keen employment recruiter. When faced with a hundred applications for one position, professionalism really does stand out. If you were a human resource manager hiring an individual to represent your business or corporation, would you choose the person who displays the attitude “it’s no big deal?” I doubt it.