In 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.