Thursday, January 11, 2007


At the earliest red dawn of humanity, our ancestors slowly learned to use stone tools. For more than 2 million years they used stones in the same way: to bash or chop. It was a brutish existence that left no traces of art or culture behind.

Then, during the upper paleolithic period (35,000 to 12,000 years ago) stone technology took a great leap forward. Our ancestors learned how to select certain rocks that could be shaped into blades-- longer and lighter with more cutting surface. Using these stones, they developed tool making techniques that gave them ten times the cutting edge from the same sized stone.

This transformed their world. They could now use sharpened rocks for spear points and projectiles. They could cut with greater precision and for the first time make use of antler, ivory and bone. Hunting became easier. Conceptual thinking became more important to survival. The first signs of symbolic thought emerged. It was in this environment that the very first art began to appear, painted on cave walls and etched in bone. More artistic progress was made in those 25,000 years than in the preceding 2 million years combined.

Since those fragile beginnings, art continued to flourish in tandem with technology.

For example, Beethoven was able to revolutionize music partially because the invention of the piano gave him greater range and expressive capability than previous composers who grew up using the harpsichord.

And illustration art only became a phenomenon in the late 19th century when printing and photographic technology improved enough to reproduce artwork vividly and accurately for mass produced books and magazines. Without half tone engraving, there would have been no golden age of illustration.

It is useful to remember this long history in an era when technology sometimes seems dehumanizing and oppressive. Technology may push aside traditional art forms such as drawing and painting in favor of strange new art forms that screech and light up and move. But even the most sentimental among us (and I may qualify for that category myself) need to remain open minded as we assess the impact of technology on art.

The reason for my long, boring digression is that I want to chat in the next few installments about the nature of computers and digital art. I would love to engage in a dialogue with you dear readers about the future of art, and to be educated by you as I invariably am.

Are you ready?


Anonymous said...

Yes, sir. pcp

Brian Minder said...

Art is product of the mind. An imaginative mind. The same imaginative mind that created the tools, or technology.

That's a pretty cool drawing there, DA!. I'd love to go to France and see it sometime. Another interesting post.

insomniac said...

So true, art and technology have always gone hand in hand. Personally I don't find tech dehumanizing but enabling. Lack of tech is more dehumanizing in my opinion.

Love your blog. Waiting for the next installment...

stefan said...

Boring? Not at all - yours is one of my favourite blogs - thanks for putting so much effort into it.

Occasionally I think that when I'm trying to draw something I may sometimes get into a state of mind very close to that of the very first cave painters. One where you're simply looking and mark-making - and everything else is forgotten. There aren't many opportunities for that to happen in todays world. I don't know if it makes me feel closer to my ancestors but I like it.

John said...

Good assessment. Technology does not hinder art, but empowers it. It only opens new opportunities. Although old media may be pushed aside, those media themselves pushed aside others (e.g. cave paintings with dyes from animal blood).

David Apatoff said...

Brian and Stefan, I stood 12 inches away from this drawing in a dark cave at Altamira. It was one of the most religious experiences of my life. I hope you have a chance to see it.

SpaceJack said...

Great new topic, I look forward to it.

I think saying that art is a byproduct of technology is a little extreme. There was likely art before technology - spoken word, performances, finger-drawing in the sand, things like that. A friend of mine once said that technology drives creativity, and I tend to agree.

That said, I don't think that technology necessarily makes artforms (like traditional media illustration) obsolete. That will be my position for the upcoming articles...:)

E Colquhoun said...

One could say that it is the same creative mind that invents the new technology and then figures a way to use to "sing".

I would love to see the Altamira caves, and Lascaux and Chauvet.

Always thought provoking!

Natalie said...

I have often felt resistance in the art community of taking that next leap to infuse the technical advances of art with traditional methods. Really, just before reading your post, I was trying to google and see if there is anyone that using some of the same techniques that I have developed and it feels like searching for outside life so to speak. I know there's gotta be others out there, but there is nothing out there on the web with the combination of search terms I was using so, yes, I am looking forward to your future posts on this topic. :)

L. A. Stern said...

Excellent topic. I think the asendence of digital technology has "democratized" the production of the visual. That is, it has allowed many more people who might not have been able to master traditional media to present their visual ideas to the world -- for good and for bad ;) I think this brings up the question of "art" vs. visual competency. Even among traditional arts, their were artists who were technically proficient but weren't necessarily able to translate that profieciency into exciting visual ideas... and vis a versa; there have always been artists who are may not be technically adept, but have mind boggling ideas. The digital age allows more people to use visual language.... the question is: what do they say with that lanugage. In many ways the democratization of art vis a vis the digital medium also means that the role of art in society becomes less the specialized domain of "artists" and may move back into the role it had among early homo sapien culture; a function of human expression and not simply a product for the market place.... maybe ;)

K. F. Peters said...

Digital technology makes things more efficient but not necessarily better. Digital art tends to look the same because the artists are using the same software, pushing the same buttons as everyone else. There's not much room to develop an individual style.

I was recently in a comic book store and lamented seeing everything Photoshoped to death. I did like Alex Ross's stuff but he works traditionally.

I see a backlash to digital media coming, maybe not so much in illustration (let's face it as newspaper and periodical circulation continues to dwindle so does much of the demand for illustration), but in animation with the publication of the book Cartoon Modern that will expose generations to the animation of the fifties. And in fine art there are finally artists who embrace realism, such as Jacob Collins and Graydon Parrish.

L. A. Stern said...


while I do agree that much digital illustration ends up looking the same (and I personally prefer working in traditional media) there are also some truly amazing digital artists. Check out society of digital artists ( or more specifically artist like steve james ( digitally, or dex mission who combines both ( As it stands today, digital technology attempts to mimick traditional media, and as any artist knows,an important part of the artistic process is experimentation and discovery with the medium itself. Digital media will have to move beyond functioning as an analog to traditional media for it to expand the visual realm... but I do think there is much more ahead in this area. I haven't made the jump yet, but I think it will be fruitful to keep an open mind



Anonymous said...

I’m sure there will always be those artists who prefer the act of mark making on card/canvas to creating pictures in pixels or vectors on a computer screen. It is the ideas and the vision that will ‘last’. Poor illustration will still remain torpid, empty and meritless regardless of how many photoshop filters a person uses.

David Apatoff said...

l.a. and k.f, you have hit upon one of the things that interests me very much about digital images. Technology bestows automatic competence on almost everyone who can afford the software. People can now achieve effects with the push of a button that previous generations of artists labored long and hard to achieve by hand. Sometimes the effects surpass what could be done by hand. And with the unlimited ability to correct flaws or test a variety of colors and approaches, technology does a lot to level the playing field in visual arts (just as photography enables any amateur to make realistic images that formerly required patience and practice, or just as sound engineers can transform a weak singer into a great singer). This may seem a little unfair to artists who paid their dues with traditional media, but at the same time, I think we have to judge art by the end result, not the path (or the shortcuts) the artist took to reach that result.

chris miller said...

An alternative explanation for the "very first art" may be found here:

"A statistical analysis of DNA patterns suggested that new mutations in each of the two brain-related genes had spread quickly through some human populations. Evidently, these mutations were advantageous among those populations — just as the genetic variant promoting milk digestion was advantageous to early Europeans.

Dr. Bruce Lahn favors the idea that the advantage conferred by the mutations was a bigger and smarter brain. He found ways to suggest that in his papers. One mutation, which according to his estimates arose some 40,000 years ago, coincided with the first art found in caves, the paper observed. The other mutation, present mostly in people from the Middle East and Europe, and estimated to be 5,800 years old, coincided with the “development of cities and written language.”

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Chris-- this is actually a field I know a little bit about because I work in biotechnology and genomics.

Dr. Lahn does present an interesting case, although I note that he is also quite controversial and there are a number of groups who don't like the racial implications of some of his theories. The problem is (and I think Lahn would agree with this) he cannot link the "brain related genes" he postulates to any particular increase in intelligence or artistic capability. This is partly because neuroscientists can't identify any fundamental brain processes (such as the quality or quantity of neurons, or the ability to form synapses, or the speed of neuronal transmissions) that are responsible for increased intelligence. As we map the human genome we learn that no single gene (such as CHRM2 or CTSD) accounts for more than a tiny percentage of the difference in intelligence. If Lahn could prove his two genes turned the tide of humanity, it would be news indeed.

The coolest discussion I've read about the evolution of the human mind was not from a geneticist but from Arthur Koestler, who observed how unique it is that evolution endowed homo sapiens with a brain that we only use a part of: "It is entirely unprecedented that nature should endow a species with a luxury organ far exceeding its actual and immediate needs.... Evolution is supposed to cater to adaptive demands." It is pretty spooky stuff. I don't know what caused the great transformation 35,000 years ago -- Lahn might have the answer, but it is equally possible that Stanley Kubrick showed the answer in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.