Virtue, Virtuality and Art

Following on from yesterdays post about my rejection of digital images and/or prints as valid expressions of an artists thoughts and feelings, I thought I should see what thinkers and philosophers have said.

By coincidence I am (slowly) reading some early notes and essays of Ezra Pound and discovered a page on his notes on the need for “virtue” in any work of art – it seems this does not translate well from the Ancient Greek: ἀρετή “arete” and the meaning in English is confused, but in essence, my understanding of Pounds’ thesis is that only a work where the artist is able to directly be involved in the work – to be “in touch” physically in some way with the work presented, can the essence, the spirit the “virtue” of that work be relayed to the person viewing or hearing it.

In other words, the copy of a painting or sculpture has no “virtue” – poetry or music which is copied has no “virtue” (of course a piece of music can be played as the composer intended or even interpreted by another artist, but if the structure is rearranged or the words interpreted (or translated) – the “virtue” of the original artist is lost.

An artist can of course take the creation of another person and add their expression of it – then this becomes a different piece of work – perhaps better, often not.

I am considering here only digital recording and reproduction – it is the same for any digital recording – music, images or now three dimensional recording.

As soon as the artist has created a composition and then recorded it digitally as a piece of computerised binary code, the artist has lost contact with the expression they were after – there is no “virtue” in the work.

No manner of further digital tweaking or manipulation can revitalise this “virtual” entity – it looks, sounds or feels similar – but it is dead.

Not necessarily worthless – a good copy can be useful, a mnemonic for the original or a way of encouraging the audience to seek the real piece of art but there is no way I can see how a digital print of a digital image ever has any virtue or value above the cost of the ink and paper – the artist cannot show me the virtue they saw of the moment(s) in a virtual presentation.

As I write this, I am thinking that it should be possible to use the latest digital recording equipment to interpret an idea, a scene or a person and use what tools the equipment has to “capture” this and present this to a viewer – I suppose, if the manipulator has skill and, more importantly, talent this could be called digital art – or simply – art. But the “virtue” as described by Pound, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca and many other Wikipedia contributors, is lost – it can only be dead as no life was ever given to it and it can be endlessly, exactly cloned by anyone with access to a computer.

There is no digital art, is there ?

The Value of an image

Stating the ‘value’ of anything is simply a way of placing its desirability in relation to other, similar, items or to establish its usefulness in relation to a situation (a lifebelt to a drowning person for example is very valuable).

If photography is used to show images which cause a reaction which helps in any way – the image of a naked, burnt child in Vietnam, a Mother bathing her child in Japan who was crippled by mercury pollution, a Spanish soldier falling dead – these images are photographs which were made to be seen in a magazine and can be seen on a screen or on a wall or in a magazine and have a high value, they do something.

But to put a price on an image which is a digital presentation on a screen, or a printed version of this is, for me, ridiculous.

I have just put some prints into an exhibition locally – a little gallery asked me to let them show a few of my new photographs, so I printed some (on paper and glass) on a theme – there are five other photographers showing. Most used digital equipment, edited this with software and get them printed. They then ask hundreds of euro for these ‘prints’ – how can this ‘value’ be determined – by pressing a button hundreds, thousands of similar prints can be created, to me this is obscene.

I could not give any value to my prints, made in my darkroom. I was happy to show my ideas and what I am doing, but it is over 35 years since I had my last exhibition (where I sold stuff) and I am returning from a twilight zone into the light again after all these years.

A digital recorder (phone, table, camera etc) can record an important event and can be used to manipulate light to show a pleasing or a disturbing image, in this case the ‘camera’ operator should be rewarded by society for their perception – but as a digital image is only a lump of binary code, intrinsically it is almost worthless.

A crafted piece of paper, or glass, tin – whatever – with an image which shares a feeling or message is unique – the artist has touched it and put life into it and is sharing this – it can have true value – I hasten to add “in my opinion

I have stopped looking at any digital images if possible (it isn’t of course) and refuse to digitalise anything I make, so I doubt you will ever see my recent work unless you go to a gallery which is showing it, or, better still, come and stay with us and sit with us looking at prints and plates.

There is so much dross, overwhealming all media and so many people are using awful apps to make more rubbish (hipstamatic, ghost image camera etc) – it is sad – after many years I now refuse to use or own a telephone and limit my keyboard time (or try to) to an hour a day – slowly I am getting free

Sing in the Light to make a Harmony of Darkness

The more I practise wet-plate (collodion) photography, the more I realise how much has been lost from our culture due to the “convenience” of digital technology.

I have been thinking hard to put into words the reasons I prefer the restrictions and errors, the dust spots and chemical mistakes I have to accept with traditional photography. Why do I avoid the simple manipulations I could use with photoshop to “enhance” an image, decline to scan an image and print with expensive and time consuming chemistry, when for a fraction of the cost and the time I could shoot, modify and print digitally, with high quality inks, to a very high standard – generally cleaner and sharper than is possible with a mechanical camera, on an emulsion of chemistry on plastic or glass (or tin) and printed onto paper (or glass etc) coated with more expensive and fickle chemistry. Or not even make a print – simply send a digital image through the Internet to be seen instantly on any computer screen.

Well, the truth is I do this – here is a tintype I took this week…

5x4 tintype - 18 seconds f4 (ish)

5×4 tintype – 18 seconds f4 (ish)

This was a quick portrait I did of another photographer, it is to be used for the publicity material for an upcoming exhibition If you are reading this then you are seeing a hand-held snap I took of the tintype which was on our dining-room table, lit by a convenient table lamp – I took it with a 4/3 digital camera, so I am happy to use this equipment, there is no other way I would have been able to simply show it on this page (or Facebook or anywhere else).

But you are not looking at the original – you can have no idea of what the original represents. OK, it looks much the same – but it isn’t.

It occurred to me that the difference is, to me, the same as going to a live concert compared to hearing the same sounds on a digital (or even vinyl) player. Live music will probably have crappy acoustics in the venue, musicians will make mistakes and it may be uncomfortable and will certainly be more expensive than listening at home – but which is preferable – for me I would much prefer to hear something I loved at a live performance than to hear it from any recording. Live music has “soul”.

Possibly the most famous, probably the most important and certainly the oldest poetry we know is Homers’ Odyssey and Iliad (or Iliad and Odyssey, whichever way round you prefer) – This was made to be performed live – but – importantly, it was sung, not narrated or quoted, it was sung. It says so at the beginning of the Iliad.

Thanks to the need for companies to continue to make big returns for their shareholders, we are caught in a vortex of consumer evolution which is accelerating the redundancy of “goods” (or should some of this be called “bads”) so the marketing departments can use their skills to create in us a “need” to upgrade our possessions. For sure, but using technological innovation, many things can be made easier to use to get a result. Any digital camera today is much much cheaper to make due to the use of electronics and plastics and it can record and enhance an image very simply and at minimal cost (of the image) – but by not giving the user the need to understand what the hell is happening, the image taken has no need of any form or structure.

The image provided by a digital camera is a convenience and usually a compromise and will come from the programmed enhancements of the computers in the camera, not from the skills and training of the user.

In skilled and artistic hands the digital camera can be used as a tool to make images – David Hockney created with Polaroids, fax machines and now uses an iPad to paint with, he explores and embraces all tools which “enable” him. For me, he is a wonderful artist. So I am not saying that digital technology is in itself bad, but I am saying that a great deal has been lost by replacing the disciplines of traditional photographic procedures and processes with the simplicity of automatic “smart” cameras is a loss. It is a loss of perception and has enabled a tidal-wave of unconsidered images to engulf us.

I want to “sing” my pictures – to do this I have to learn my craft – I also want to make good images, to do this I have to learn to be a poet, a good poet.