The story stuck with me, but at that time I didn’t know why, and didn’t care to jot down the name of the photographer. Later, thinking about it, a question kept popping back in by head. I did not have a good answer, and so I asked many of my friends, but no one could give me a satisfying answer. Here’s the question—let’s consider another photographer, equipped with a high end digital camera, who decided to photograph the same landscapes. This person goes out every day, and spends the whole day scouting for the right image. The only difference is, he comes back with thousands of digital images every day. When the time comes to publish the collection, the photographer painstakingly goes through tens of thousands of images to find the few dozen photographs that will be in the book. It is an arduous process, but he finally makes his selection, and the book is out.
Now we have these two books in front of us, both equally beautiful. We hear the two stories behind the creation. Which one would we say deserves more artistic credit? Now pause and think about it yourself and try to make up your mind. Aesthetically they are both comparable. Which one will you pick?
Most people I talked to generally sides with the first photographer, but why? If we are to judge them by the end result, both are equally good. In terms of hard work they are also equivalent, except that in the first case more effort went in selecting the initial click, while in the second case the photographer had to spend much more effort in the selection process.
One possible explanation is as follows. There are many people who have acute artistic sensibility and taste, and given a set of images they can tell which ones are better. This is the skill of an art appreciator. Fewer people can actually create good images. In the case of the second photographer, it is possible that he has less skill to create a great image, but has the ability to pick the right one out of a large semi-random collection of images. The first photographer on the other hand just knows what would make a great photograph. Since there are more people in the world with appreciative skills than creative ones, we can be biased towards the first one. This is a plausible explanation, but I think there is another, far deeper reason. More about that a little later.
I recently started doing some digital paintings on a computer. Here, instead of a brush or a palette knife or pencil, I use a pen-like stylus. I use this tool to draw on a computer screen. The stylus behaves like a brush when I select that mode and it turns into a pencil when I chose another mode. If I make a mistake, I click on the “Undo” button and my last stroke vanishes. By clicking on it repeatedly, I can go back in time, progressively erasing the mistakes I have made. This is wonderful for an artist like me, whose skills are far from being perfect. I no longer have to worry about making a mistake and ruining my picture – I can always go back and fix any mistakes I have made. I can also break up my painting into isolated objects and layers and work on them independently. If I want to change one of the objects or layers, I can do so without affecting the rest.
This should be ideal for any artist, and I honestly do enjoy working in this medium. Yet, there is something that I miss that I get when I work on a physical medium with real canvas and real paints. It is not just the lack of direct control or the tactile feel of the brush dragging along the gritty surface of the canvas, but something else. There is a huge tension when one paints on a real medium – the tension of putting paint on a surface that I cannot take away, or at least change easily. It does not matter how skilled you are, the tension still remains. This anxiety is mostly absent when working on a digital medium because the “Undo” function is just a click way.
It is unlikely that it is this tension and anxiety that makes the process more attractive, because those are not positive emotions that we seek. We like it because the process reflects life itself. In life there is no Undo button. What we do is done – we cannot take it back. In every action we take, there is absolute commitment because we know it cannot be retracted. You need the same commitment when you draw a line on a piece of paper or apply a brush stroke on a blank canvas. Once again, as in life, the joy obviously does not come from the anxiety of making a commitment, but the reward comes when it somehow works out. We even attach a sense of virtue to the act of commitment itself, irrespective of the outcome. It is what makes a rejected lover feel good about himself while crying over the loss.
An artist likes the process of creation to reflect life itself. It is, in a way, a love affair. The immutability of each action and the uncertainty of the result makes the process exciting, and a positive outcome sweeter. Even a viewer of a piece of art can feel this tension. When we see a drawing, we subconsciously realize the risks that were taken and the resulting vulnerability makes it easier for us to identify because we face the same challenges in life every day. We can rejoice with the artist because he, like us, took some risks and it worked out in the end. That is the joy of watching a live performance – theatre, dance, circus, live music, where failure and mistakes loom at every corner, and we identify with the players with admiration as they skillfully avoid all the pitfalls and come out flawless and victorious. It is the constant possibility of complete failure that makes them magical.
May be that is why we are biased towards the first photographer. We can identify with the tension of siting at a spot, waiting for hours for just the right light to appear, with a single chance to capture it. It is the waiting for a lover, knowing well that one wrong word, a single wrong gesture can ruin it all. The second photographer cannot evoke these same emotions. We may like the final results just as much or more, but we will still miss the human vulnerability of a photographer waiting for the right moment.
Of course not art forms share this quality, and therefore it is not an essential criteria of good art. In writing the writer can change it as many times as they want, and we know it. In cinema, what we see is the final result of many changes. But even there, a cinema made a few decades ago, had that immutable feel which showed up in small imperfections. Big budget Hollywood films were perfect, but they lacked the poetry of an imperfect independent film.
With digital technologies entering in all forms of art, are we going to trade this vulnerability for absolute perfection? It is a great temptation to have an Undo button for everything. Wouldn't we want one for life itself? But as we embrace the Undo button for the creative process, something else will be lost. May be the added perfection is an adequate compensation for it, but I am not so sure. When the audience can no longer feel the immutability, will they feel the same identification with the artist?
Older Comments (9)
1. Jagriti Ruparel said on 5/4/13 - 09:27PM
It is comparing apples to oranges!! Two very different medium! Two different ways of thinking, & a very different thought process!!! I am with both of them!
2. Kunal Sen said on 5/4/13 - 11:26PM
I agree they are different, but my question is what is at the core of this difference. Of course the physical processes are different, but my claim is that current technologies are making a difference at an emotional level.
3. Sudhir Raikar said on 5/6/13 - 10:50AM
You Said it Kunal. Technology beyond doubt helps in the creative outcome, but takes away some of its thrill. But as you rightly say To do or Undo is not a simple 'black and white' question of our times, it's quite perplexing.
4. Kunal Sen said on 5/6/13 - 10:51AM
Thank you for a very good comment. You are right -- We have to accept the digital tools because they are o obviously useful, but We must remain aware that it comes with a price. Only time will tell what it is.
5. Irina said on 5/6/13 - 11:50AM
Very interesting and thought provoking article! :) Thank you very much! Here is my "comfort-zone" view of the subject... For me "Undo" button is a no-mess alternative to eraser or sand paper (which I can not do without). There is this difference between art and real life: In performing arts, the artist practices his performance hundreds of times and learns from his mistakes in order to be able to perform seamlessly in front of the audience. Therefore, he IS pressing the "Undo" button hundreds of times while practicing. In visual art, the artist makes hundreds sketches and by the time he starts the real thing, he's rehearsed his act enough not to mess it up. While working on my current digital painting I pressed the "Undo" button many times and saved a bunch of intermediate images, to me this was equal to making one hundred sketches. After a while I also tried drawing this image on a paper with pencil and did so easily at the same level of "perfection" (or rather "imperfection" :) I already reached with the digital painting. I didn't need the "Undo" button -- I already rehearsed the act enough up to this point. As for no-undo art described in your article, I'm not arguing it -- I just think that it requires a good deal of courage and might bring some crazy awesome unexpected result! Maybe at some point, thanks to your article, I will step out of my comfort zone and give it a try! :)
6. Irina said on 5/6/13 - 11:52AM
Great article Kunal!!! I submitted a pretty long comment, but it was rejected as spam and I didn't save it anywhere. I guess it wasn't meant to be posted :)
7. Kunal Sen said on 5/6/13 - 12:18PM
Thanks, Irina. I could resurrect your earlier post. I have to change my Blog platform, it has so many problems. I really liked your perspective that there are rehearsals in performing arts, and sketches are a form of rehearsal. Life is certainly different that way. In fact Life is only thing we do that we have never done before. Overall I agree with you. However, I still feel that the audience can sometimes feel the tension that the artist felt during the process, the tension of not being sure, the tension of making mistakes, and this is one of the many things that allows us to identify with the artist. Also, tools and medium has always influenced the emotional content of art, and with the emergence of digital tools, it is also likely to change the content.
8. Punit Dhandhania said on 5/7/13 - 04:04AM
Kunal, Very interesting and thought provoking. Your blog makes me wonder what makes a piece of art, painting or photograph or cinema or theatre or music or anything else, great. Naturally stories of how the artist has mastered and won over the possibility of his/her human failing or limitation, appeals to a number of people. But does that appeal make that piece of art greater than another one? We have seen so many handicapped people paint using their foot or mouth. Does this piece of art become greater than a Van Gogh? Similarly, does not having an "Undo" button make a piece of art greater than one which has one? So is Beethoven's 9th symphony great because he overcame a challenge and created this piece of art? Does heroism mean greater piece of art? Or is it something that is a form of universal beauty, source of happiness, harmony and, yes, perfection? Maybe an art that is "perfect", with or without a "undo" button, can appeal to many people but without other elements such as beauty, harmony and joy would it be art?
9. Kunal Sen said on 5/7/13 - 10:20AM
Punit, thanks for your comment. The level of challenges that an artist faced should definitely not be a measure of the quality of any art. It must be impressive in its own right. However, when everything else is the same, we tend to show a preference for the "heroic". My point is, the emotional state of an artist often shows through the creation, and part of this emotion is fed by the riskiness of the process. Reduce the risks, and it will show through the final product.