Monday, September 12, 2022

DO AI ARTISTS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?

 Sigmund Freud claimed there have been three great shocks to the human ego:

  1. The discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe but is instead a tiny, vulnerable planet adrift in a cold and inhospitable universe.
  2. The discovery that humans descended from "a hairy, tailed quadruped" rather than being the divinely appointed progeny of Adam and Eve.   
  3. The discovery that humans are not sublimely rational creatures, but are instead controlled to a disturbing degree by our unconscious and the spasms of our residual lizard brains
Each of these three great shocks diminished our concept of humanity.  They also challenged us to re-define our species in a manner consistent with the new reality (reality defined as "that which, when you don't believe in it, doesn't go away.") 

To put it mildly, humanity has not responded well to these challenges.  Angry disbelievers wage violent rearguard wars.  In 1925 the famous Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee convicted a teacher for the crime of teaching evolution.  The judge refused to permit scientists to testify at the trial, ruling that scientific evidence would "shed no light."  It took more than 40 years before the US Supreme Court overturned that prohibition.  Nearly 100 years later, law and science remain no match for the resilience of disbelief:

Tennessee farmer O.W. Wooden: "Trying to tell you people come from monkeys
and all that stuff.  Couldn't be right!  Monkeys to me, like a chicken, you know?"

Today's question is whether it is time to add a fourth great shock to Freud's list: has artificial intelligence advanced to the stage where it is time to rethink our unique human ability to create art? 

Machine art has been rumbling like distant thunder for a long time.  Photography, moving pictures, reproduction technology and Photoshop have all transformed our historical concept of art.  They've reduced the difficulty (and therefore the mystery and value) of human skill.  They've significantly altered some of the fundamental goals of art, putting an emphasis on concept rather than execution, substituting curation of images for creation of images (using a whole new vocabulary such as "appropriation art," "re-contextualization," "sampling" and "augmentation.").  "Photo-illustration" has swallowed up whole categories of work that was once profitable for artists.  Digital art, which can be infinitely reproduced in perfect copies, has attempted to restore uniqueness and authenticity with the artifice of NFTs.  

None of these changes to traditional art would have occurred if traditional art wasn't forced to redefine itself in reaction to the boarding house reach of machine art.

Now artificial intelligence is rattling our door. 

In the past year, affordable off-the-shelf AI software (such as MidJourney and DALL-E2 ) has empowered adolescents with no discernible talent to create images using words alone.  If you know how to spell your illustration assignment, you can receive an offering of customized solutions within seconds.  As one self-styled "AI artist" exulted: "I felt so liberated bc drawing is the one creative thing I can't do AT ALL but I have a lot of hyper specific art ideas...." 


You can hear the "Yipeee!" echoing all across the internet. 

Discussions about the significance of AI art now abound, including in the comment section of my last blog post.  Predictably, a lot of the traffic on social media is precipitous as well as factually, legally and economically misinformed.  Still it's not too early to grapple with the question: have we finally arrived at Freud's 4th great shock?  If we attempt to deny it, are we any different from O.W. Wooden?  And perhaps most importantly, if the 4th shock is indeed here, how can we define our creative species in a manner consistent with the new reality?

There is no single answer because art is not a single discipline.  The shock waves from AI art will affect multiple artistic categories (economic, legal, educational, professional, and yes, creative) differently.

I think it's a mistake to take too much comfort from the fact that people with taste are still able to distinguish AI art from high quality human art.  Any serious ontological analysis must take into consideration the growth trajectory of AI, and search for qualitative barriers that AI won't be able to cross in the future.  

Pixar's ungainly CGI experiment, Tin Toy , came out in 1988. A mere seven years later Toy Story was released as a persuasive, full length CGI feature. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

RALPH EGGLESTON (1965-2022)


This week the brilliant Ralph Eggleston, one of the joyful pioneers of modern animation, passed away before his time.

Eggleston was the art director for Toy Story, the first full-length computer animated film, as well as for The Incredibles and other films.  He was also the Production Designer for one of my favorite animated films, the ingenious, poignant and lovely Wall-E.  In his "color script" below, you can see Eggleston plan the movement of color and mood in the changing scenes of Wall-E:










Talking with Ralph helped me understand the importance of time and motion in this significant new art form.  He wrote me:
In doing my artwork, the element of time is foremost in my thoughts... I approach visuals with the idea of burning into the audiences's retina as much information as is needed as clearly and quickly as I can so they can focus on the characters and the emotional content of the story they are being told.
He was a wonderful creative force who did important work of lasting quality.  I'm sorry to be deprived of all that Ralph had the potential to achieve in the years ahead, but I'm grateful for all the gifts he left us.




Monday, August 22, 2022

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part 21


 

When illustrator Mead Schaeffer was a teenager, he fell in love with a girl in his art class, Elizabeth Wilson Sawyers. He nicknamed her "Toby" because she posed for illustrations for the book, Toby Tyler.

When Schaeffer turned 20, he quit art school (giving up his full scholarship) to marry Toby and start work.  The couple moved into a 6th floor walk up in New York City where they formed a team.  

Work was sparse and times became hard.   Then Schaeffer landed his first big break-- illustrating the book Moby Dick-- for the publisher Dodd, Mead.  

Years later on Christmas day he confided to his children that he nabbed that first project by snooping around the desk of the art director and discovering that the assignment was about to go to N.C. Wyeth.  Schaeffer intercepted the project by volunteering to paint the first 6 illustrations for free.  "If any of the staff did not like the work... all bets would be off and...they would owe me nothing." The startled art director agreed to the test and handed Schaeffer the manuscript.  Schaeffer wrote about bringing that first manuscript home to his wife:  


Toby became his model, consulted on the art, advised on his layouts, took reference photos and became the business manager for the team. Schaeffer began keeping a scrapbook of his work, and devoted the very first page to a large photograph of Toby. 


Over a long career, Toby modeled for many of his illustrations.



The couple traveled all over the world together on illustration assignments.  When Schaeffer was commissioned to illustrate Les Miserables, he and Toby sailed to France to "follow in the footsteps" of the characters.  Here is the beginning of their trip:


Schaeffer wrote, "I got permission to go into the sewers of Paris and looked up old records.  We returned home with costumes, books on Paris in 1848 and sketches. We returned home with wonderful experiences but very broke."

Schaeffer thought it was important to visit the sites of his paintings, walk the streets and breathe the air.  He and Toby traveled to the south seas to illustrate the book Typee.  They traveled to Europe.  And for a series of covers for The Saturday Evening Post they traveled all around the United States. 


Here are Toby and Schaeffer embarking on another illustration trip in later years:


Traveling in those days was not without its perils.  The couple sailed to Asia on the Orient Overseas line, and received this certificate when crossing the international date line.  


The couple flew back to the US, but their ship got caught in a typhoon on the return trip and sank with all aboard. 

Toby passed away in 1973.  Shortly after that, Schaeffer retired.  He hand lettered an inscription about her and taped it into his scrapbooks:
 
               

Compare Schaeffer's lettering on that last inscription with his lettering earlier in his career: 


By the 1970s, his classical, stately design and colors had been replaced by neon colors applied in an offbeat script on trendy paper.  Apparently Schaeffer was trying to keep up with the times, even though he said, 

The art of illustration has gone to hell, that's for sure.... I lived in the golden age.  Now the photographer is more important than the illustrator.  I'm not knocking photography but in my day you had to learn to draw better than they could take pictures. 

For the graphologists in the audience, Schaeffer's lettering in his final years looks more feeble and uncertain.  His outlines falter.  But it seems the feelings he expressed remained undiminished. 


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

MEAD SCHAEFFER: AN ARTIST'S SCRAPBOOK

In 2020 I wrote a biography of golden age illustrator Mead Schaeffer published by the fine folks at The Illustrated Press.  

As part of that process,  Schaeffer's daughter loaned me his personal scrapbooks.  He proudly hand lettered large, heavy volumes where he preserved clippings of every published work, along with personal correspondence, notes and memorabilia.

Volume I, the first of a series

The scrapbooks contained dozens of strong illustrations where glue stains and wrinkles prevented us from reproducing them in the book.   













In addition, the scrapbooks contained old photos from the life of an illustrator in that golden age.  Below is a photo of a small party with next door neighbor and good friend, the young Norman Rockwell (standing in the doorway).  Schaeffer is on the sofa at the far right.


In an era before internet research, illustrators traded hand drawn letters sharing historical information such as  clothing and furniture styles.  Here is a note  from illustrator Norman Price with needed information about French costumes: 


Of course, much of the research for illustrators in those days was done with field trips, sometimes to remote and exotic locations.  During World War II Schaeffer received clearance from the Department of Defense to accompany military ships and planes for a series of covers for The Saturday Evening Post.

A tattered souvenir of an adventure on a Navy ship 

Here are Schaeffer and Rockwell on a roadtrip checking out a site for a painting:



Unused preliminary sketches and reference photos also made their way into Schaeffer's scrapbooks:



There are also plenty of reference photos of Schaeffer posing for his own illustrations:



Schaeffer also glued in his correspondence with the authors of the fiction he illustrated.



Today an illustrator's scrapbook is more likely to consist of digital files on a laptop.  Jpegs don't yellow with time or stain with rubber cement, but then again they lack the heavenly smell of thick, aging paper. 

So much of Schaeffer's life wouldn't fit in the 224 pages of the Schaeffer book, I'm pleased to share a little more of it on this blog.




Saturday, August 06, 2022

WHAT ART CAN DO, part 1

Maxfield Parrish's landscape of a still winter night gives us a feeling of tranquility. 


As you look at this picture, you're on a planet spinning at 1,040 miles per hour, or .3 miles per second.  (That's at the equator.  You can calculate your own personal speed by multiplying the cosine of your latitude by 1,040).  The earth spinning beneath your feet is at the same time hurtling around the sun at 18.5 miles per second.  In addition, your entire solar system is cartwheeling around the milky way at 140 miles per second.  Even at that incomprehensible speed, it will take 250 million years for you to complete a single rotation around the galaxy.

Pitted against these facts about your situation, this tiny picture nevertheless controls your psychological outlook.  It outweighs the cosmos and gives you a feeling of calm.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

PAUL COKER JR. (1929 -2022)

This week the great Paul Coker Jr. passed away at age 93.  Over a long career working for diverse clients such as Rankin/Bass, Hallmark cards and MAD magazine, Coker created handsome, well designed drawings of quiet quality while his peers were screaming for attention. 

Coker never drew naked barbarian chicks or musclebound heroes in spandex, but if you want to see what genuine strength looks like, study his work.




Coker's monsters for MAD's "horrifying cliche" series were better drawn than thousands of "serious" monsters drawn by other artists for comics and monster magazines.




I've previously written about how I admire Coker's linework:


In an era of micron pens, Coker reminded us what ink is for.

 

For his long career of quality and integrity-- scarce commodities today-- Paul Coker Jr. deserves our recognition and respect.   


Thank you, Mr.Coker.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

CLAES OLDENBURG (1929-2022)

Many of the most famous fine artists of the 20th century aspired to be commercial artists.  Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem deKooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Ad Reinhardt and yes, Claes Oldenburg (who passed away yesterday at the age of 93) all tried to make it as commercial artists but many lacked the skill or talent.  

Unlike several of his famous peers, Oldenburg really knew how to draw.

Ironing board monument for the lower east side of New York
  

His drawings are what I'd like to celebrate with you today.  

As a young boy in Chicago, Oldenburg was thrilled by his mother's clipping of images from American magazines.  After studying art at Yale, he found work drawing boll weevils for pesticide ads.  He eventually moved from illustration to pop art, and then became internationally famous for his monumental sculptures and proposed public works.  He proposed giant sculptures of unlikely subjects such as ironing boards, smoke, lipstick, and slices of pie.  But I agree with art professor David Pagel who observed that "More often than not, [Oldenburg's] preposterous proposals were primarily great excuses to make great drawings." 

For example, I love this drawing of immense dancers around a pile of other dancers:

Despite their bulk, the dancers are light on their feet.  They remind me of the prancing hippos in Fantasia:





I salute any artist who can draw landscapes this well from the shoulder:





At another time, Oldenburg did a series of drawings where he identified little snatches of design and brought them to our attention by isolating them within wide margins. 


Man carrying a large parcel


legs

His drawings were bold, creative, smart and funny.  In the late '50s he experimented with healthy doses of  whimsy and irrationality:


moon bop


ya bla with car

Even with these child-like drawings he never lost his great sense of design. 

I have mixed feelings about some of Oldenburg's later works and sculptures but his excellent drawings are a fine legacy.