Saturday, April 26, 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

One of the most interesting things about humans is our bipolar relationship with perfection. On the one hand, we value and admire the concept immensely. The highest expression of that being God and mirrors. God is perfect. Mirrors are perfectly flat. We love the traits of perfection; flatness, roundness, smoothness, eternal un-changed-ness.  Over the past 200 years we have elevated our ability to produce completely uniform regularity (perfection) in physical forms to the level of a science. Modern machinery can produce edges and surfaces which are straight and smooth to within fractions of the wavelength of light (microns), in other words, at the boundaries of our perception.

This is pretty cool stuff. It enables us to peer billions of light years out into space or see the borders of atoms. We can produce small quantities of materials which are essentially pure at the molecular level. We can produce machinery which can carry us to the moon and the deepest ocean trenches. It raises man almost to the level of gods - sort of.

Our definition of God is the embodiment of perfection. God is all knowing, all powerful and capable of anything.  We point to the earth and sky as inspiring examples of God's handiwork.

There are some mental gymnastics going on here.  On close inspection, very little of God's creation appears to actually be perfect.  Much less than the six sigma limits we set up as standards for ourselves. The deeper you go, the more chaotic the whole thing seems to be.

This sort of standards schizophrenia plays out in a number of ways, some of which directly affect us as designers. One of these is the difference between artists and engineers.  Here's one example:

Radar - Matt Kahn

A casual glance at this and you might think; Interesting, it does kind of look like an image of an old school radar display, with the sweeping line. At the very least, the artist had to draw hundreds of lines. (The actual count is near 1000.)  But on closer inspection, there is much more going on in this collaboration of straightness.

Every group begins with a single, straight, radial line. I know this not only because I've looked at the image closely, but because I asked the artist about it when I bought the print and had him sign it.  What he told me was that the first line was drawn with the aid of a straight edge, but every line after it was drawn unaided; freehand.

If I were to set out to create a piece like Radar today, I'd fire up Pixelmator, create a circle with a radial gradient fill, create 24 equal pie wedge segment masks, drop in a series of parallel lines behind each one and have something that a a dozen feet might pass for a decent copy of Kahn's work, but there would be two very important elements missing; First, there is a subtle irregularity in the straight line segments which he drew that can only be achieved manually.  Second, mine would be a mechanical reproduction.  If it was drawn with a pen plotter on top of a giclee print of the circle with a radial gradient, it might look like this:

Homage - Kahn

I'm not sure how Matt would have reacted to this. I suspect he would not have approved.  The mastery in his work is the ability to draw those lines freehand.

While I learned a lot about the limitations of Pixelmator drawing this, and got a stiff neck in the process, it's not the same as Kahn.   There is an obvious falseness to it which is given away by the precision of the line and shading, and that is very much at the heart of the matter.

Isn't it interesting that we value the natural beauty of God's great creative chaos and at the same time feel that there is a certain falseness in our own ability to create perfection. Our machines have taken the soul out of our art.

In his latest book; Creativty Inc., Ed Catmull's  says that Disney and Einstein were his boyhood idols.   Walt was all about inventing the new, both artistically and technologically, and Einstein was a master at explaining that which already was.  Catmull goes on to say that Disney's magic was in explaining the relationship between technology and art and imbuing it with so much emotion that Ed wanted to climb thru the TV screen and become part of Walt's world.

If everything in God's created universe is underpinned by imperfection and chaos, and man is striving to create perfectly ordered perfection, maybe we have things a little backwards. Perhaps Shakespeare was right;

"The fault... is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

For another perspective on the persuit of perfection, take a look at the posting at: Reflections on Walt

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