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PETER FRANK


The most significant development in art, currently and in the near future, is also the most significant development in life. The irony is that, as opposed to the usual pattern of artistic developments foreshadowing those in larger society, this singular moment in the technological history of humankind is manifesting far more immediately, profoundly and productively in larger society than it is in art. Perhaps this indicates a paradigm shift in the relationship of art and life. I’m talking, of course, about the digital revolution. The computer and all it has done to, with, and for us has certainly impacted the production and (perhaps more importantly) the conception of art.

Of late, the computer has become an ubiquitous tool in the artist’s studio. But for most artists it is first and foremost a secondary tool, an augmentation to the telephone and a substitution for the typewriter. A significant minority employ the computer as a primary tool; but to date cybernetic means have not amplified, much less replaced, the brush or the pencil. The computer has amplified and is threatening to replace the camera, the dark room, and, famously, the means of motion-picture production. Ironically, the most traditional media, the mark of the hand, and the oldest technologies, are least threatened by the newest.

Perhaps this isn’t so ironic. If paint on support, graphite or ink on paper, the molding and casting of ancient substances like bronze and plaster have survived this long, they can survive longer. The computer threatens or transforms the mechanical devices of the industrial revolution, but somehow the arts and crafts of earlier technologies fly below the cybernetic radar. Painting survived--indeed was liberated by--photography. Drawing survived--was even made more necessary by--printing. Printing itself has been rendered an art form by the computer--the physical qualities of letterpress and even linotype are now as aesthetically distinctive as those of the etching and the woodcut. Even the book is less threatened than liberated: its days as a codex for information may be numbered, but it increasingly takes on the rarity and staus of an art form.

And this is why art in the cybernetic age is still recognizable as art: a monitor with the surface and look of a painting is not a painting. An electronic pen isn’t a drawing, it’s somewhere between a drawing and an Etch-a-Sketch™. A computerized simulation of an object doesn’t occupy three dimensions--and neither does a holograph. And you can read all you want on a screen of any shape or heft, but it isn’t the turning of a page. As attenuated as it has become, and as crucially integrated with time-based media, visual art remains at core a discourse of material things; first and foremost a discourse of images and shapes. Nearly as foremost, it is a discourse of objects, no matter how ephemeral. If art’s identity lies in its pictoriality, and this seems a given, then its identity includes sensation, sensuousness, and palpability.

Nobody is afraid of the computer anymore, and fewer and fewer people disdain it. Artists, in fact, were among the first to explore its potential. Computer art has been with us since the earliest days of mainframes and IBM cards, and among the first prominent artists to explore the potential of the PC, back in the mid-1980s, were the figure painters David Hockney and Philip Pearlstein. The question with regard to the computer in art is no longer whether it has a role, but what its role will be in integrating art into life, and vice-versa.