In Japan, a miyadaiku (a carpenter trained in the ancient art of Japanese temple carpentry) attains special status from the Emperor if the temple he builds stands for more than a thousand years. “Such temples,” said one of the last miyadaiku, the late Tsunekazu Nishioka, “stand not because of the magnificence of their design, but because the miyadaiku goes to the mountain, and selects trees from the south face of the mountain to be used for the south face of the temple, trees from the west face of the mountain for the west face of the temple, and so on for the other two sides.” Because the building materials are carefully selected in order to respect the laws of nature, the temple can coexist in harmony with nature. Both the extrinsic and intrinsic qualities of the temple radiate its overall strength and beauty.
Whether we accept the specifics of the miyadaiku’s explanation or not, the metaphor of harmony between the materials and the work of art is a powerful one. Indeed, although this story might seem quaint and old-fashioned, we can use it to explain the situation in the most high-tech of contemporary fields: computer art.
With a very few exceptions, all of today’s computer art represents a collaboration between an artist and an engineer. The artist has the conception, but it is the engineer who understands the materials-the hardware and software-needed to realize this conception. This is very far from the harmony envisioned by the miyadaiku between conception and realization, materials and design. In fact, in today’s computer art, the artist assumes the role of the creative genius while the engineer settles for the subordinate role of manual laborer. Although such collaborations can produce respectable artwork, they rarely lead to works of real power and inspiration. What is more, the situation is getting worse because relentless progress in information technology has widened the gap between artist and engineer: The artist has little understanding of the computer as a medium, and the engineer (who has no artistic training) is not allowed to unlock his creative potential in using the medium he has mastered.
How can we heal this split and unleash the deep creative power that is inherent in the new medium? I think the answer lies in re-engineering our teaching so that the same person can be a fully formed computer artist-both conceptualizer and engineer in one person. Not that I think this will be an easy process. Actually, today it is still a very difficult process, and one that can only be accomplished after significant trial and error, as my own career demonstrates.
Being proficient at both art and mathematics, I found it difficult to choose a major when I arrived as an undergraduate at MIT in 1984. However, as the dutiful son of a practical-minded father, who told me I would never make a living drawing “pretty pictures,” I naturally chose the very practical and employable discipline of electrical engineering and computer science. I continued to pursue design as a hobby, and I would often venture into the various technology/art venues on campus seeking an undergraduate research fellowship that would combine my interests. However, the majority offered not an opportunity to achieve mastery in the arts, but instead a chance to fill the need of many artists for fluent technologists who would help develop incremental improvements in their efforts. My true salvation was the Rotch Library on campus, which houses a rich collection of examples of graphic arts, where I could delve into generations of “real” artists and see a depth to their craft that I could not find on campus.
I persevered in my “practical” study of engineering until I had earned my master’s degree. At that point, my father startled me by declaring that I was now a man and was free to pursue my own interests. Liberated by his permission, I immediately left for Japan to study graphic arts in the traditional way.
In 1990 I entered the Institute of Art and Design at Tsukuba University. Tsukuba was a Bauhaus-influenced arts and design school with very few computers (there was only one Macintosh on hand), and I was suddenly free from the daily e-mail grind. The absence of high technology was very calming, as was the traditional atmosphere. I experienced a sense of gratitude for being able to think with my hands in harmony with my mind. I had been taught to honor tradition from an early age, and so the didactic ways of art school suited me very well; I was pleased to steep myself in the graphic traditions of the Japanese masters in such arts as typography, fine printing and sculpture.