Mad Old Men unearthed

So many people seemed interested in my recollections about old typewriters that I thought I’d share this dusty relic, a three-part conversation between Tommy Kane and me in which we discuss all the old technologies that used to be part of our work in advertising. If you’ve had a long career in design or what you used to be called ‘Madison Avenue,’ it’ll ring some ancient bells.

We recorded it about four years ago. It’s sort of pathetic how unreliable our memories were already.

QWERTY and all that.

Hankz

I am writing this on my iPad and on a manual typewriter — at the same time.  I downloaded a new app developed by, of all people, Tom Hanks, that impish lover of World War II. It make my iPad into a virtual manual typewriter with clickety-clacking keys, a carriage return, and paper that slowly furls the page up as I write.  The idea is to give writers the sense of rhythm that come form typing, a focus on the act itself, and  a sense of progress and productivity.   It’s quite soothing and makes immediately think of when I first had this experience,

It’s astonishing, considering how lousy a typist I am, that I have been pounding a keyboard since I was in elementary school.  My family always had typewriters around, in my parents’ study at home, in their offices at the university, or in my grandparents’ medical practice.  I got one of my own to play with before I was  teen ager, a manual Smith Corona, then  I saved up to buy an Olivetti Lexikon 83DL that was in the MOMA design collection and was grey and orange and super sexy.

This app I am using lets me zoom around my document, hopping up and down with arrow keys and highlighting sections to delete.  That’s a feature I can turn off, however, so I can return to those dark days when I was stuck with every letter I mistyped. Back in the day, to deal with my inevitable plague of typos, I used a typewriter eraser, a round thing with a plastic brush for wiping away the crumbs.  And Liquid Paper which I consumed by the gallon. It also came with little plastic brush to apply the opaque paint in little dabs.

This app lacks a few other features I remember. Like the way the keys would tangle together if I hit several at the same time in my zeal to get the words down. I used carbon paper if I thought there was any reason to have more than one copy of what I wrote.  When I worked for my local paper I would write on rough yellow paper and type —30— at the end of each article.

But I always hankered for an IBM Selectric, which had the backspacing correction function and used a little golf ball with different exchangeable typefaces, like “Orator”.

Then, when I got my first job as a writer, there was an actual  Selectric at my desk.  I felt I had arrived. But within a year or two, I had my first word processor, a TRS-80, and I could save my articles onto cassette tapes, reformat them, backspace away typos virtually, and write wand write without ever having to roll in  another sheet of onionskin paper.

I have written on so many things in my life — notebooks, legal pads, index cards, pages torn from the ends of paperbacks and the corners of newspapers, on laptops, desktops, phones, tablets…  Each new tool arrives with a fanfare, but they were all peripheral to the real tool, the one resting between my ears that has not yet been replaced.  I work everyday to upgrade it — with reading, living, thinking, and pounding on whatever keys are at hand.

Lost in the giftshop

tokyo bikes

Tokyobike store, right off the Bowery, NYC.

Is art about owning?

Is the mere act of looking somehow acquisitive? As predators, when we look at something, we are tracking it, stalking it. “Just looking” can actually be an act of aggression. Is drawing even more invasive? Why do we worry that people will resent us for drawing them on the subway? We all know the cliché of the primitive societies that feared that cameras would steal their souls. When we do a good drawing, why do people say “you’ve really captured it”?

Is drawing also stealing?

Why does every single museum have a gift shop? Why do we feel drawn to shop in them?

When we have just seen the originals, why do we want postcards, tea mugs, coffee table books of the same images?

Why do people walk through museums snapping photos of every piece on the wall? Are they just adding them to their own collections?

Are museums themselves just giant closets full of acquisitions on display?

Much of the history of art has dictated by those who would own the art, the clients, the patrons.  They set the theme, dictated many of the choices for the artist.

Museums are filled with portraits of the rich and powerful. The artists didn’t choose these subjects by chance, the market dictated them. And they have survived because their various owners preserved them. The pieces that were most valuable have become what we call ‘art history’. So buying and selling and choices about importance are all bound up together.

Can art be valuable — if it’s never bought or sold?

Why it doesn’t look just like the picture.

fax-faceIn the 1980s when photocopying technology became increasingly available, David Hockney made a series of prints using a Xerox machine.  I was looking at some of these prints recently and trying to overcome my initial dismissive reaction: these aren’t ‘prints’. But of course, they are. They were state-of-the art prints in their day.

Printing is and has always been a mechanical method of making multiple reproductions of an image. In the past artists used woodblocks, etchings, engravings, then lithography, screen printing and so on. Today, many artists sell giclée prints of their work, prints that are digital scans of their drawings which are then processed and printed on inkjet printers. And what if we skip the paper part of it all together and use an iPhone and a distant computer server. Isn’t that basically the same idea?

Our instincts say no. It’s somehow not hard or special enough. Where’s the craft? But of course a good digital scan take experience and tools and work. So that’s not it. Or maybe it’s posterity, the sense that an old Xerox or a computer print out surely won’t survive for hundred of years like a Dürer woodcut. But with archival papers and inks and proper handling, that’s probably not the case either.

No, I think the real issue is scarcity. If you can just push a button and bang out an infinite number of reproductions, it is no longer precious, a limited edition, valuable. If someone can make an infinite number of copies, then there’s no value to any particular one. A Work of Art is reduced to the same status as a call report or a lost pet flyer. So the Art Market has trained us to dismiss this way of looking at it. If it can’t be bought or sold for increasing amounts, don’t bother making it.

Now, if inventive, creative, curious people like Dürer or Rembrandt had been able to make thousands and thousands of copies of their images with just the push of a button, believe me, they would not have been sweating over blocks of wood. They weren’t burdened with the same market concerns that weigh down our view of art. They made limited editions mainly because it took a helluva lot of work to get even a dozen proper prints from a copper plate.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Thinking about Hockney’s Xeroxes made me think about how technology is constantly improving the ways it solves basic human problems. Not just labor saving devices, but things that make our lives better and richer. Examples abound.

But what about image making? There was a point when people drew on cave walls with blood and mud, to make some point lost to the sands of time but they were using the best image-making technology they had. Eventually we figured out how to carve stone statues, to make fresco, to stretch canvas, and so on.

This image-making and image-sharing had a purpose. Usually it was to tell a story or pass on some vital information: this is what the Gods did, this is how we won this war, This is how handsome and powerful the King is, this is how Jesus came back, and so on. Nowadays, if Jesus came back again, we would probably use Vine or a Facebook post to share the news, not a fresco or calligraphy on a goatskin.

So if, in one split second and with no real experience or skill, you can use the phone in your pocket to make an image that is technically superior and precise to anything you can make with pencil, why make art at all anymore?

That’s a question people have been asking themselves for almost two centuries. And the answer that Manet and Monet and Seurat and Cezanne and Van Gogh and the rest of the gang came up with over a hundred years ago is that the purpose of art is no longer to reproduce physical reality, it’s to convey how we feel about it. To capture the human condition, the way we see the world through the veils of subjectivity, experience, emotion, history and all the rest of the stuff that make us who we are.

This is something we have to think about when we draw.  Stop assessing your work based on how close it is to “reality”. Don’t bother posting a snapshot of your dog next to the drawing you did of it. Who cares if you are almost as good as that camera in your pocket. ‘Cause in fact, you’re not even close. That photo is a far better way to make that image. More efficient, more accurate.

But that image isn’t really what you want, is it? What you want is to capture your soul, your inner state, the love you feel for that dog. You want to make a picture of the inside of your mind.

Don’t worry about Xerox®ing reality with your sketchbook. Focus on capturing You instead.

So far nobody, in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, has come up with an app for that.

Pulling my head out of my head.

brown paper packages

Miles Davis’ quartet is working How Deep is the Ocean a few feet away. I have an almost drained but still frosty glass of pilsner next to me on the window sill. There’s a slight breeze coming through the open window, 76 degrees, just a hint of humidity. My neighbor is roasting a chicken, smells like some tasty ‘taters and broccoli too.A cab pulls up to the stoplight downstairs, and I can year the Yankee game on his radio, there’s a pitch, a swing, and then the light changes and the game pulls away.  I am just a teeny bit light-headed from the cold beer, the first I’ve had in days.

This is the sort of moment I dreamt of in January, or in a too-long meeting, or in a middle seat to Godknowswheristan, this exact sort of moment — living is easy, all’s right with the world, summertime, deep sigh.

But this moment is only here because I suddenly let it be, put down my book, closed my eyes, felt the breeze, smelled the chicken, heard the ball game. I hadn’t noticed ten breezes, ten chickens, ten cabs before this one, hadn’t heard Miles’ last ten tunes, hadn’t tasted the last ten sips of beer.

And that’s the danger of living in my head, of not being here and now, of wishing for summer when summer is here, of missing her when she is in my arms — the voracious tyranny of imagination and distraction, of the mental life, of modern life, of mature life, of the whole parade passing by as I am busy making plans.

Time to wake up and smell the chicken.

How to fight a critic.

critic

It’s tempting to fight back against criticism. But where does it get you?

Take Manet, the father of Impressionism. Outraged by a critic’s attack, he challenged him to a duel. They met in a forest, hacked ineffectually at each other with swords until they bent them, shook hands, and limped away. Neither man was badly injured and they both went back to work.

Take Whistler, a bad-tempered and thin-skinned genius whose memoir is called “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.” When John Ruskin wrote an especially vicious review of one of his paintings, Whistler took him to court, strenuously defended his modernist aesthetic — and was awarded a farthing for his troubles.

In the long run, both men beat the critics with a different weapon — the brush.

Manet is known for launching impressionism, for making it acceptable to paint everyday life, for Olympia, Le Dejeuner, and the critic, well, his name was Edmond Duranty—ever heard of him? Whistler’s legacy is bit more ironic, due not to his critics but to fans of his most famous work, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.”  After spending his life fighting against art based on moral lessons and maudlin emotion, he is known for a painting of his mommy. But it is a great painting and, even after the trial, he continued making many more.

Critics, internal and external, can raise any artist’s hackles. They can provoke you into violent defense of your work, into self-doubt, even into halting your creativity all together. One man’s opinion, published in a newspaper, or muttered in a gallery, or imagined in a moment of weakness, can suck up your energy and threaten your creative life.  Few critic’s opinions endure and that’s something to remind yourself of. Because opinions are products of the moment, influenced by current trends, by ignorance, by poor digestion. They are not eternal, objective, blanket truth.

Any condemnation of a work of art, whether it comes from a professional, from a neighbor, from a monkey’s voice in your head, should only be responded to with more work. Prove them wrong — if you have to acknowledge them at all — but never let them get you down.

Forget lawyers and swords. Make your case with a brush, a pen, a blog post.

Why do I like?

ghost-bikeTo me, the most interesting art isn’t necessarily well-rendered, accurate, realistic. Often, quite the contrary.

So, what does make it interesting? What are the qualities that make me like a work, my own or someone else’s?

This seems important, so let me think on it a bit.

First of all, specificity. A drawing that is of a very particular thing. Not just a car, but a specific car with all its dings and reflections.  A car that looks like it was really studied by the artist. It’s true in all art forms, in a documentary, a novel, a record. The little details that make me know more about the subject.

And it’s not just that the artist noticed and captured the specifics of the subject, it’s also the specifics of how he or she did it, the feel of the hand behind the pen, the little eccentricities that make it original, the catch of the pen on the paper, the oneness of the particular piece, the particularity of the personality and the vision behind the line.

That’s why I like a recording where you can hear Segovia’s fingers squeak over the metal strings of his guitar. Or the recognizable grit  of a specific New York street corner in 1970 in Panic in Needle Park when Al Pacino crosses Amsterdam and 86th early in the morning and you can just smell it, taste it. A Ronald Searle drawing that has splashes and blotches of ink and redrawn lines. Karl Ove Knausgard’s amazing novel, My Struggle, bringing to life the tiniest, most specific details of everyday memories to give the mundane deep meaning.

Art that is too perfect, Photoshopped, processed, loses this specificity. In fact, any reproduction lacks these little specifics. That’s why seeing an original is always a completely different experience, even if the image seems familiar.  When I looked at a pyramid of Cézanne’s oranges in a Google image search, I get the gist. But when I see them hanging on the wall of the Met, I get a feeling, a series of revelations as I see more and more through the varnish. I have the opportunity to explore deeper and deeper with my eyes, to see layers and brushstrokes that the “image” alone doesn’t convey, the way the paint that Cézanne chose and placed does when it’s sitting right in front of me. The specifics.

When I draw from a photograph, it’s often impossible to get that deep sense of seeing, to see the particulars on a deeper and deeper scale. All too soon, I hit grain, pixels.

For me, drawing is an opportunity  to avoid the clichés and the symbols and to focus on what is really there, warts and all.

Story is another aspect of specificity.

Not an illustration per se but a drawing that captures my imagination and starts a movie in my head. A captured moment that evokes a bigger context, like any painting by Hopper. Or shows the marks on a object that tells you where it’s been or what’s done. The lines and wrinkles on a face that are a roadmap, a drawing that become a biography.

Scale is another way to add interest.

To zoom in tight on something and see it afresh.  The details of a butterfly’s wings, a bagel’s crumbs, a bicycle’s greasy chain. Or to stand way back and see it in a different context. To look at the Empire State Building poking out on the horizon from behind a row of four-story brownstones. Giant blades of grass on a lawn and a tiny plane in the sky way above. A page crammed full of tiny drawings of giant trucks.

Interesting art also contains a surprise.

It could be in the lines themselves, lines with an unusual but true thickness or movement. A variety of sweeping brush strokes and then details in fine pen lines. Inconsistencies that draw my eye and, with a moment’s reflection, become a revelation.

In color: Complimentary colors, A wash of liquidy teal watercolor and a tiny, sharp spot of orange gouache.  Unexpected shades. Purple cheeks, orange eyes, a green sky.

A wall of perfectly drawn bricks and then a hastily drawn broken window. A third ear that lets me in on the artist’s process, a reconsideration, a redrawing.

Elements that make me pause, break my assumptions, jar me into reconsideration. The art in startle.

None of the above are rules, just springboards that can turn ho-bummery into something fresh and exciting. Or can help guide me in understanding why I like or don’t like the art in front of me.

Are there more? You tell me.