Wednesday, November 25, 2015


These days we are blessed with many new and wonderful tools that enhance our expressive powers. We can employ digital high def 3D animation to create persuasive flying dragons or pink worlds with green skies.  We can animate huge armies of marching trolls that would've been virtually impossible to draw by hand.

Where Dr. Seuss once penned an ink line to suggest a field of flowers, today his field is projected on a movie screen in high rez with colorful flowers that sway in the breeze:

Similarly, animators have given new life to the simple drawings of Charles Schulz... adding what the studios call "a richness of technique."

In some ways these new tools unleash our imaginations; they free us from practical constraints that imprisoned previous generations.  But as G.K. Chesterton warned, "You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes."
It's easier to persuade viewers that they're seeing miracles when you depict miraculous subjects using miraculous tools. But the best artists, and the ones who are truly blessed, are the ones who can recognize the miracles in everyday life. There are miracles in the blades of grass at our feet, and we don't need digital tools to present them.

The great illustrator Richard Thompson lives in a small, ordinary suburban town but through his eyes it becomes a world of mystery.  He finds enchantment in the commonplace things that you and I ignore every day.  I've previously written about one of my favorite pieces, his Neighborhood of Mystery:

We've all seen plastic shopping bags lying in the gutter or caught in a bush somewhere. We do our best to ignore them. But here’s what Thompson thinks about:

Or, you walk by your neighbor’s house where they’ve left their garbage at the curb.  You've trained your mind not to think about it, but Thompson's mind recognizes the potential:

Now that we can animate pixie wings and magic dust so persuasively, we no longer have to work hard to see enchantment. We've certainly stopped looking for it in places like a pile of garbage left at the curb. But so often, what we find depends on what we're looking for.
In Thompson's neighborhood, construction workers mark up the street just like they do in your neighborhood.  When did you ever pause to consider the possible ramifications?

Thompson's Neighborhood of Mystery represents a world of mystery and it all begins with his imagination. I admire the way he keeps his eyes open and finds enchantment in the ordinary.
Another wonderful example is Thompson's series on local restaurants that have violated health  ordinances.  One day Thompson saw a notice in the town newspaper that a diner had been closed by the Board of Health.  This spurred a years-long acid trip in which Thompson mused about the kinds of restaurants that might be shut down and the reasons why:

These may seem like humble little jokes because there are no Thunder Gods fighting alien lizards to a Dolby soundtrack.  The drawings make no use of the wonderful tools described above.  But Thompson's fantasies gain strength and relevance and even truth from the fact that they are rooted in a human nature that we can all recognize.  They represent a different kind of miracle than the type found in fabricated digital universes.


chris bennett said...

I certainly share this view David.
Fantasy art seeks to make extraordinary things seem everyday, and it was inevitable that special effects technologies are being used to do just this. For example; an elf effortlessly dispatching fifty orcs is now an everyday occurrence on computer screens throughout the world - indeed, whenever I'm watching a movie and this sort of stuff is served up, more often than not I close my eyes and think about something else.
The art that holds my interest, and I believe to be the worthwhile purpose of Art in general, realises the extraordinariness of the everyday.

Frank Furlong said...

I greatly appreciate what wonders CGI can show but, to me, art is still a personal thing. A person and their imagination. And I( stand in awe of these pieces.

kev ferrara said...

We surely notice the world according to our natures. The light, sweet gags of Richard Thompson fall out of his relaxed sensibility; an honest humbleness coupled with a quiet mischief. He’s strangely old-fashioned in the way he expresses the urban life; he still seems to find the old trolley town in his concrete, iron and asphalt streets. I think a pastoral, folky sense of life is lodged within him. It is not his ambition, he simply finds it wherever he looks.

Howard Pyle taught his students to seek out the “majesty of simple things.” Which is a more Romantic mode, maybe more ambitious in its remit. Thompson tweaks his world gently. With the brandywine sensibility, even the most mundane activities can be transformed into a dazzling, musical thing, yet without losing its soulfulness. This magical Walter Everett always comes to my mind when I ponder the power of visual poesis, the transformative impact of a driven imagination.

Harvey Dunn, no doubt paraphrasing Pyle, advised his students to seek within themselves for “appreciations”, brief moments of time where they experienced and felt deeply some aspect of life or the beauty of nature - the glint of sunlight off a single dew wet leaf, a ten mile square cloud suddenly pausing overhead, a gathering of commuters huddling as one mass under umbrellas on a rainy streetcorner - and to bring the essence of that remembrance into their pictures. The computer modelers generate worlds out of maps, models, physics formulas, and other schema, and then try to find a life -- or life itself -- in these builds. It’s one more eccentricity of the internet culture, the quixotic quest for real experience in virtual environments, for real friends on virtual networks, and for real love alone in a room.

Who would believe such impossibilities are possible? I propose that it is people who have come to feel disconnected from the real and living avenues of life. Surely one of the causes of the cgi problem is that computers, in general, increasingly take people out of experience, and art programs in particular are a step still farther into slack-jawed wide-eyed screen-glowing oblivion. Art programs requiring epochs of the artist’s life and constant obedience (Stay! Sit still! Stare!) to master. The demands of medium bound the computer artist and programmer into a tiny cage of experience, quite literally, encouraging, in the process, a host of isolations. Vitality, in such circumstances, is a dim memory. True appreciation can only come from real experiences. And good art requires appreciation in order to live.

In other words, the caged bird will only sing if it once knew how to fly.

Aleš said...

Kev, that's also a general problem of today's technology driven world. Schools praise their allegiance to progress (an end goal on its own which we're not allowed to judge while questionable stuff is distributed under the banner of novelty) by offering knowledge to students through computers, internet allows us to appear as an ideal self, people build interpersonal skills and relationships through telephone distance, TV and radio inform us about everything but we never physically participate anything. It seems we live in virtual reality outside the internet too, consuming unauthenticable appearances everywhere we turn for information. Technology advertises itself as a neutral set of tools, but in reality it became an environment we live in, it changed our thoughts, feelings, ideas and concepts and the way we collect experiential information since the dawn of humankind.
Artists who draw in traditional mediums suffer from the same problems a lot of the time because their way of thinking/experiencing is also influenced by technology. And If operating with mere appearances of reality lowers our qualitative abilities of comprehension how will we teach people to process complex informations needed to create/perceive great art? Human's need for tools is what probably fundamentally defines us so we can't escape path of progress and we shouldn't, but I have no idea how to spread this awareness on a larger scale. Technology is consuming us like doughnuts.

john cuneo said...

What a joy to revisit those Thompson drawings. And marvel at the way the drawings and words so hilariously compliment each other. Such a seamlessly skewed and inspired sensibility emanating from head and hand.

Chris James said...

Egads! The 2d Peanuts features from the 70s had much more tasteful use of color than that still you posted. (Also, did they not notice how selective Schulz was in his imagery? That frame suggests not. All of the Hollywood pyrotechnics in the world cannot beat the drawings.) I don't know what that first still is from, but it's committing retinal crimes against humanity. I find an abundance of these CG animated features to be chock full of garish, discordant color. The tools may be great, but they are nothing without artists with taste at the controls.

Those Thompson drawings, combined with the prose, bring me back to my elementary school days and the many books I read from the school's library. The warm whimsy and magical embellishment of everyday settings and events feels very familiar. As a bonus, looking at these is a great creative and observational exercise, as you try to create your own small, fictional vignettes based on the things around you.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett--- I agree. For many years, those fantasy movies with elves and orcs were impressive-- the costumes and effects were quite dazzling. Each new movie tried to escalate the special effects to a more extreme level, and we began to appreciate the limitations on the contributions by that type of art. The movies got longer, the explosions got louder, and the effects seemed to become more shallow and tiresome. By the last Avengers movie, which was a marathon of special effects, I was just eager for the last lightning bolt to be hurled so that we could return to some semblance of plot and meaning.

Frank Furlow-- Yes, the ratio of imagination to execution in these pieces by Thompson seem to me to be about ten times the ratio in the cgi movies.

Kev Ferrara-- I don't know how carefully Howard Pyle intended the term "majesty" when he urged students to seek the “majesty of simple things,” but majesty-- although a fine characteristic-- is different from profundity or truth or larger lessons that we also might find in simple things. Thompson was clearly not looking for "majesty" but for something more irreverent and humorous. I don't disagree with your characterization of Thompson work as "light" and "sweet" yet I find more human truth in Thompson's gags than in Pyle's "majestic" reactions. Certainly I think Thompson's humor is more anarchistic than Pyle's inventions; I previously highlighted a character Thompson invented for a strip about the worst attractions at a county fair ( When I read about "Squinto, the wandering astigmatic stilt walker and his flaming yoyos," I became convinced that Thompson must be on some new kind of mind expanding hallucinogenic drug, and wondered where I might procure some.

I agree with you about the caged bird. Nicely put.

David Apatoff said...

Ales-- Among the problems that afflict "artists who draw in traditional mediums" surely must be the fact that their digital native audiences have become accustomed to pictures that move and talk and glow. How long will they continue to be amused by simple drawings, the kind where the picture stands still and your brain moves?

John Cuneo-- Given your own fine and funny drawing, it's not surprising to me that you "get" Thompson's work. It's a pleasure to have you weigh in here.

Chris James-- why be "selective" when you have multiple frames per second to fill and are under constant pressure to throw in more and more elements to impress an audience with attention deficits? The frames move by so quickly, no one will be studying each individual image the way they'd study a Michelangelo drawing. (Artists who draw for computer games are quite frank that their images are presented for quick, binary action, not for lingering thoughtfulness.) So why not make that sky purple and the clouds pink and Snoopy's dog house fire engine red and throw in the Eiffel tower and by the way here is a golden spire and let's make the city below glow with shadows ?

That first still is from the animated version of Dr. Seuss' book, "The Lorax." Sometimes these pictures look so tarted up, you'd think they painted them with rouge and mascara.

kev ferrara said...

I think it is just as true to say there are exalted aspects to the mundane as to say there are humble, humorous, or quirky ones. It all comes down to the sensitivity, tenor and range of our perceptions.

I don't think Dunn meant that the mundane was kingly or royal or something like that with the use of "majestic." I think he meant that in the simple things of life, there is much to revere, and worthy to elevate through poetry.

Certainly it is easier to see a correspondence between our everyday lives and art made from the same. I think this is what makes Jewish comedic instincts universal; when the archons don't seem to notice we exist, the anarchic seems a sensible choice.

But truths that echo down through the centuries are no less true than the more easily relatable ones that come at us in comedic modes. I would argue, actually, that the timeless truths are more pure in their truth-quality necessarily, than the everyday ones. Because they must hold regardless of the accessories and institutions invented, used, and discarded from epoch to epoch. Kite and bicycle jokes don't track in Ancient Sumeria.

Among the problems that afflict "artists who draw in traditional mediums" surely must be the fact that their digital native audiences have become accustomed to pictures that move and talk and glow. How long will they continue to be amused by simple drawings, the kind where the picture stands still and your brain moves?

Well said, sadly.

Aleš said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aleš said...

David wrote: Among the problems that afflict "artists who draw in traditional mediums" surely must be the fact that their digital native audiences have become accustomed to pictures that move and talk and glow. How long will they continue to be amused by simple drawings, the kind where the picture stands still and your brain moves?

As long as people like you will be willing to spread valuable knowledge. I think your blog is one of the best places and you attract some great minds that comment around here. Moving and talking pictures are here to stay and develop further, the problem I think is that we don't learn to understand how technology influences and changes us. Sometimes you begin/end your sentences by saying something like "well I'm old fashioned" which means that you predict that your view might be perceived as reactionary by the audience. And some do perceive it like that because the idea of novelty has that conclusion embedded inside of it nowadays, we are not supposed to judge it. New technology is a selfevident product of inevitable progress and the progress for its own sake is our highest value. Who dares to think twice about impacts/usefulness of technology even inside the privacy of their own mind when any critical thought about it is automatically linked to reactionary, unprogressive view. Which means that we refuse to take control over our own life, we don't think about human nature. Look at endless internet debates about traditional vs. contemporary art and tools, that same blind faith prevents many to approach dilemmas about what is human. Gunther Anders, Stoll, Galimberti, etc. expressed critical views about these topics, but these philosophical tools among many others don't seem to be distributed through art school systems, forums, general audiences.

I don't think it's impossible to embrace our need for progress and retain our human self, it's just that we need education to maintain the awareness about our best interests. I know that according to stats people run through museums spending 3-5 seconds looking at paintings and that higher saturation and sensationalism seems to be the only thing that can attract our attention in this fast paced world ... well, I don't have answers to your questions David, but my naive confidence comes from my personal experience too, I know how growing up with computer games influences your perceptions, how it is to be stupid, how it feels to be dissolved in the comfort of a lack of thought, how hard it can be to try and change that etc., but that lack of awareness isn't necessarily definite/final, at some point underneath it all there appears to be an unsatisfied need for things to make larger sense. Many people feel that. That probably makes us perceptible for something more and that's where you come in. Kev once said something like that he sees as a personal mission to expose the lies of today's gatekeepers and I find it admirable when knowledgeable people have a sense of higher obligation.

David Apatoff said...

Ales-- Thanks for the very kind (in fact, overly kind) remarks. I learned the lesson you describe about people running through museums recently when I curated an exhibition with about 50 traditional pieces and two screens running animated clips from Wall-E and Ice Age. As you can imagine, the crowds all gathered around the screens and stayed there.

There's a nice quote from the great philosopher Santayana: "Miracles are so called because they excite wonder. In unphilosophical minds any rare or unexpected thing excites wonder, while in philosophical minds the familiar excites wonder also."

Chris James said...

Ales has given a lot of food for thought

It's funny to me to talk about "our" technology or "our" progress, because it is really "their" technology, "their" progress. We commoners only eat at the table they set. The path of progress is not a collective human decision, it is a decision made by few for the many. They knew we would consume what they put before us. They always know. I disagree that we shouldn't (try to) escape the path of progress. To me, this assumes that progress or "humans' need for tools" have inherent positive value; progress for progress' sake. Maybe we need to escape sometimes, or better yet, "Nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure."

A funny word, progress. Nebulous. Interesting comment: "New technology is a self evident product of inevitable progress." Of the form of progress that has been chosen, maybe one of many possible paths. This reminds me of discussions on alien life forms. It is always taken as granted that if they were equal or superior in intelligence, that they would be a space-faring race interested in making contact with other races. The assumption that they would be like us, with the same interests, curiosities, and dreams. But maybe this alien race uses their advanced abilities to build inward, building vast cities under the surface of their world. Maybe they build little at all and have achieved perfect equilibrium with the natural world.

I don't know where I'm going with this, or what it has to do with art. I just react (negatively) to the idea of "we" or a collective. I don't see it, not when so many people are isolated, marginalized, and ignored by the people around them, and I myself am not interested or invested in half the crap others feel is important. I do quite enjoy using computers for some things, and tinkering, but sometimes I wish to take an axe to the thing and move into the mountains. My quality of life has gotten WORSE since I bought a computer 14 years ago. Progress?

Aleš said...

"The path of progress is not a collective human decision"

The view that humans need their tools, that we are "sentenced" to technological progress comes from an idea that we don't have animal body adaptations and instincts for various situations in the environment. So it is when we perform intelligent adaptation to our environment that we create conditions for sustaining ourselves (Gehlen) and it was when we shaped the first tool to access a fruit that we began to walk the path of technological progress. But, if Greeks meditated on nature to extract her laws, modern science in 17 century inverted the procedure, they decided to put forth a hypothesis about nature, tested it in an experiment and considered it a natural law if the experiment was successful. Nature became a domain of calculable objects and so Descartes wrote that we rendered ourselves the masters and possessors of nature. Truth wasn't a selfmanifestation of very being anymore but a mathematical determinability of objects. Scientific view of nature was directed by technical intention.

"They knew we would consume what they put before us."

Well, Hegel predicted that our greatest treasures would become tools/machines that could generate new goods and that quantitative growth would bring us qualitative change. If technology is a necessary condition in order to reach whatever goal we desire, then it becomes more than just means, rather it becomes the highest goal that we must reach in order to pursue all other goals and if we need technology to reach even righteous goals like communism or capitalism then surely everybody wants it, which inevitably has consequences on anthropological level (Severino). That impacts the role of politics which ceases to exist as a space where things are being decided but rather represented, or role of ethics, where technical science's primary goal becomes an enlargement of its own strength (Anders gives an example of continuing nuclear researches even tho we can destroy the planet a thousand times over). And as Galimberti asks himself, who can control the scientific technical complex when specializations reach a level, where there are supposedly physics magazines in US now where one physicist is using simplified explanations in order to explain his work to another physicist.

Richard said...

Great! Thanks David, needed a pick me up.

Tom said...

Well all I have to say is Snoopy should be on the course, tracking and heading as his dog house!

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stefan marjoram said...

Thanks for alerting me to Thompson's work. The ice cream flavour 'thingy' and the '3 guys and a microwave' are jolly funny. Off to find some more...