Friday, August 24, 2007

Technique, Art, and Quality

Having just written about quality and art, I wanted to expand the thoughts to the importance of good form in the creation of good art, eventually closing the arc in my next posting.

I start with an analogy of an important concept found in the work of Jean Piaget, who believed that knowledge was built on top of mental structures and that mental structures were built on top of knowledge, thus supporting a continuous cycle of learning. For the purposes of this entry, I offer this parallel thought:

Art builds on top of technique and technique builds on top of Art

Whereas the inspiration for great art is drawn from Quality, the amount of inspiration reaching the target medium is limited by the artist's technique. Whether the artist is a graphical designer penning the next logo for FedEx or Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, pure thought must be channeled through hands and tools.

The process of channeling inspiration into craft requires concentration and fluidity of action, with conscious thought being too structured and slow to allow the free flow of Quality into reality. Forced to think through his actions, an artist will continuously interrupt that free flow at every twist of a pencil or keystroke.

...a thorough understanding of its craft allows an artist to recognize additional facets of its primordial inspiration.
I have heard many times about the importance of practice in achieving greatness, but somehow selected this Fortune Magazine article, titled "Secrets of Greatness - What it takes to be great" as an index to that school of thought. The article highlights the importance of practice and hard work in achieving greatness of execution, but deprived from the freedom to dive into the philosophical pit by the pragmatic nature of his audience, the excellent Geoffrey Colvin did not introduce the subject of Quality as the differentiator between high-performers.

A great Artist relies on intense practice of his technique and dedicates time to observe its effect on others. That intense practice exposes the limitations of an artist's technique, a critical aspect to eliminate imperfections in the resulting work.

A thorough understanding of its craft allows an artist to recognize additional facets of its primordial inspiration. When the wood splinters at a too narrow cut or the metal cracks at a sharper bend, the medium can teach the artist indirectly through its reactions. In his next creation, the artist will know to avoid those shapes or, more commonly, research and attempt new materials.

Over time, the repeated iterations of discovering new techniques and materials create repeated iterations of more unusual results that closely resemble the artists intent. Absent their knowledge of the artists toil and the time it took him to arrive at combinations of materials that are far from the obvious first choice, the onlookers will not only observe genius in form, but also genius in technique.

It is that oneness between the artist and his craft that makes it possible for his work to transfer the combined force of his original inspiration and of his continuous practice through time and distance.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

On Quality and Art

A while ago, a good friend let me borrow his copy of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

Through steady reasoning, weaving philosophical references from all corners of the globe with simple lessons about motorcycle maintenance, Robert Pirsig creates a masterpiece around the topic of quality. Page after page, he redefines Quality - with a capital "Q" - as the absolute source of our knowledge; a connecting bridge between the unending potential of our future and the realization of that potential in the present. This is the kind of definition that cannot be found in a dictionary.

Now, onto art, starting with...a dictionary definition:
the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

These dull words make me wish that Mr. Pirsig had also written about art, but maybe he already has.

...a sufficiently inspiring work of art is indistinguishable from absolute Quality.
Good art challenges the observer to interact with it. A good artist is able to create a finite piece of work that causes unexpected feelings on observers. As the observers become aware of those feelings, surprise takes root to support a wave of new feelings, causing a chain reaction of conscious thought and ultimately a final stage of wonder.

How do they do it? Without a blueprint or recipe, out of the thin air of their imagination, they impart their intelligence and inspiration onto ordinary materials. Hours, days, centuries later, without exception, that intelligence and inspiration remain alive, ready to amaze anyone who gazes or listens to them.

Whenever a work of art touches someone, it needs characteristics that are lost in the observers; otherwise it will fail to cause new sensations and emotions. However, human beings are so complex that finding something amiss amongst millions would be virtually impossible to men. In many cultures, those who hover above men are known as Gods.

So, are great artists Gods? Certainly not, but at some point in time, they established a transcendental connection with a greater source of inspiration not available to average men. They were able to convey that fleeting moment into hand craft using rudimentary tools and their earthbound skill and senses.

That source of greater inspiration is Mr. Pirsig's Quality: the source of our knowledge. A true artist is able to channel that undiluted knowledge and transform it into art. Even as some impurity makes it into the final work in the form of imperfect craft and imperfect materials, the quality in the final work is still indistinguishable from its primordial source.

To paraphrase Arthur Clarke's 3rd law: a sufficiently inspiring work of art is indistinguishable from absolute Quality.

Maybe most of us cannot touch millions with our work or create timeless sculpture, but that is only one way of expressing art.

Art - now with a capital A - is the representation of Quality, and is available to all of us. All that it takes is that we sit quietly now and then, letting our imperfect thoughts to fade away while Quality asserts itself. If you capture as much of that moment in craft, words, or actions, and the result manages to inspire as much as one person around you, you will have become an artist.

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