Player Pianos and Photorealism
Like the surgeon or mechanic, an artist may be a technician, making innumerable choices and adding innumerable personal variations, but working wholly in the real world. For a visual artist or a musician, the comparison to a camera or a computer is apt. In her "Oh, it looks just like the photograph!" Kristin Kest takes us through the visual stage of the senses.
In an age of mechanical reproduction*, is there art in mimesis? If one's aim is to reproduce what one sees *exactly* as the camera sees it, the question should be why? Why try to re-create reality exactly as the camera sees it? The camera can do such a better job at it and can do it much faster.
As far as motivation goes, there's certainly a "why": people (call them "consumers" if you prefer) associate art-by-hand with tradition and refinement, so rendering a photograph of someone's loved one in oils is more likely to bring a financial reward than snapping a picture and getting the drugstore to print it out. The imperfections the hired-gun-artist produces in the rendering make the painting more real as a painting, and even if the picture accomplishes nothing, it can feel like it has a value of a few grand, rather than $1.99.
How valuable is that near duplicate of a photograph relative to the photograph itself? Particularly when the idea that "oil painting equals the grand tradition of the Enlightenment" fades into the past, and when cultural memories of dignified British estates, their halls lined with oil paintings, are forgotten? Measured in terms of human eyesight, the closer to perfection grows the oil painting, the more like the photograph it becomes. As Kest asks, why try to re-create reality?
Easy: texture! Perhaps the slight variations in the surface of the oil copy make it, like an early form of hologram, better somehow.
All variations on her core question, in an attempt to escape the existential dilemma it poses, become again her core question in a different form, breaking upon the rock of technology. The idea of "art" is tied to the greatest essential questions of philosophy, which is why her question is so important ~ more advanced cameras and printers could render the photograph on canvas in oils. A robot could be commissioned to do the rendering via brush strokes delivered by an artificial arm. The robot could be programmed to paint, or it could be programmed to learn how to paint by watching master human artists (or pre-experienced robots!) and, thereafter, paint. Would that robot then be no different from human painters?
Technology forces the artist to confront issues that mathematicians confronted in the twentieth century, when facing the first computers. The mathematicians may have thought themselves unique in their quandary, but the strongest caveman would have already faced the same quandary when confronted with a wheel, a wagon, or a domesticated horse: namely, "Is there any difference?"
Player pianos can play any piano solo (or duet, et cetera) more "perfectly" than a human(s). Computers can play any symphony more perfectly than any group of humans. Even one human, the finest human clarinetist ever, playing third-chair clarinet among a symphony of computers, would detract from the technical aspects of the performance--even if in ways that only the computers themselves could detect.
Why ever, then, hear "live music" (and why is it "live music" when it is played by a living person, but not when it is a recording listened to by a living person?)? Why ever learn to play an instrument when hundreds of variations on each symphonic instrument, adjustable to degrees beyond the pitch of trained human hearing, can be purchased for a few hundreds bucks? Integrated suites of software can overpower any resource of fabrication or duplication the performance artist performs or composer composes, just as the camera can better (and better every year) record (and alter) images of what something looked like (or would look like) at any given time.
But, but the slight variations of live music or the unique twists of the wrist (or the humidity of the room and the wetness of the brush...) cause completely unpredictable variations. And computers (or their seeing-eye cameras) can't create new things; they can only "record."
Ah--not so. Full Information Security discusses how computers can create all art. All writing, illustrating, programming, music, feature cinema with screenplay and soundtracks and dynamic lighting and surround sound cues, and potential genetic variations in this portion of the verse can be expressed as pieces of data by powerful enough computers spitting out random pixels. Writing can be reduced to pages, words, letters, or pixels in certain orders; any illustration can be reduced to pixels, and any sculpture done here can be plotted as a three dimensional map of tiny units of space either "filled" or "not filled" by this or that particle. Slight "mistakes" for better or for worse, improvisation, and all potential new output could be generated, analyzed, and archived by a really cool supercomputer. A googolplex worth of bits would not even be needed.
The live virtuoso, under this regime, becomes an "athlete of the small muscles," not an artist, with micro-variations in pitch, timing, and expression nothing more than: (1) deliberate mathematical adjustments to standard formula, or (2) twitchy mistakes of the fingers, indecipherable to the trained ear or the average ear, depending on pulse and wavelength.
If that is true creation, then that is the sum of art: bouncing particles charting What Must Be. If the artist's task is simply to render with a "personal touch," adding variations to that rendering that reflect the person, then the artist is merely a Project Manager at Universe, Inc., choosing which pieces of the universe to frame at any time. Namely, the artist is a camera, but one that we prize for how highly flawed it is, resulting in unexpected output.
Worse, the artist is also like a record company. The argument of record companies has long been, "There is a whole universe of bad music out there; we winnow the bad stuff out, and present the good stuff to you." Is that the artist? Choosing which pictures to paint, and which not?
"Imagination," per se, does not save the example. If no one has ever seen (or thought of) a six-legged duck with two polka-dotted beaks attached to its left wing-pit (like an arm-pit, but for a duck), and an artist paints a six-legged duck with two polka-dotted beaks attached to its left wing-pit, is the artist, by virtue of that act, a creator? What if, three days ago, some kid in Dubuque had left on his old copy of Photoshop, spitting out random pixels onto image after image, and by chance, had produced that same duck image? Down to the tiniest discernible detail? (Or, what if Full Information Security had already produced that duck years ago, and this one has a picture of the duck printed out and hanging over the fireplace?) The results of what we think of as our imagination can be plotted and produced randomly, like a very big dice rolling eternally, producing a different number each time. Anything you can express in sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, or genetic material can be randomly created without you.
The End of Life
Buildings may be built, and equations solved. In this world--in this worldview--there can be nothing truly new or original, and if something happens to be "new," it's only because someone else hasn't done it first. Artists in the above worldview, of mere rendering or imagination, are merely claim jumpers, struggling to hop on a piece of art by claiming it before another guy does (or before a supercomputer in the year 2,734 produces that art randomly to pass the time between analyzing satellite images of citizen lovemaking for signs of anti-government intentions).
This bleakness, this swallowing, impersonal void, is art as it exists in the world of matter alone. It is the poisoned miscarriage of ancient art's child, struggling to breathe under the boot of materialism, neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism, and scientism, where all existence can be tracked and recorded, and everything is reducible to holy books and particle physics. The best the artist can do--the best anyone can do, at anything--is to be a primitive, inefficient computer, either copying or internally generating sounds or images that, in the aggregate, could be done by anyone given infinite time. This is the worldview of outsourcing; of mindless factory labor; of stripping a community for a coal mine because nothing matters anyway except being the first to lay your claim to a resource that has no intrinsic value; of committing suicide because nothing you do matters anyway.
Artists-as-technicians can be, and regularly are, masters. They can produce things of incredible beauty, and demonstrate supreme skill. Yet, they may flounder, dazzling the art world with demonstrations of technical proficiency, always searching for something true to display. The virtuoso duplicates Rachmaninoff nine hours a day, or plots a mathematical composition based around shifting octaval chords, sure to impress--like a Frankenstein's monster, but without an accidental soul. The lost painter, possessed of mountains of ability in translation, but feeling that something important is missing, struggles to render the Saints of Christ, the Scions of Science, or other Monuments of Old, always seeking meaning; always hoping that a rendition of the components of something that others find meaning in might produce, by happy accident, a soul in that forlorn creature lying on the table. The pained dancer, features locked in a smile, spins and jumps perfectly on cue, faster and more precise than any other organic performer, not quite sure any longer why people once enjoyed anything about this pastime other than the part where it's been done perfectly and people are murmuring and clapping.
Happy Endings, Happy Beginnings
If that is the world of art--if that is life; if that is the world itself--then those are the highest achievements. The masterful technician who adds her or his "touch" to any act of reproduction or imagination, possibly unique in that epoch, is doing the finest thing possible. Those things are neat, anyway. Technicians can be great, and cool, and fun, and eminently worthwhile. A pile of random dirt and rocks can be a mountain, and it can be beautiful. If that's the sum of existence, then the beauty is the randomness. The technician is, like a sunset or falling rain, a randomly occurring part of nature, where elementary particles bump into each other, and an onlooker may decide to be pleased with it, or not be pleased with it. If that brings you pleasure, and you wish to look no further, then a future of lots of time to browse supercomputer archives of "all possible art" is the best possible future.
If you're not interested in mimesis; if you're not interested in being the best camera you can be, what then? The salvation for an artist displeased with being an early computer is the artist-as-conduit. Continued in Part 3.