Putting a Value on Value

I saw a commercial for some Art Institute, you know, the one with “Pete the Pirate” and the other “Draw Me” pictures, and I noticed that they upgraded the illustrative work they show as student examples. Now, I’m not saying that the work they showed is “bad”, it’s just unimaginative. Because, if the truth be told, every one of those drawings was copied directly from a photograph. And that’s why I felt the need to jot this down, because it’s something I’ve been meaning to put into writing for years.

I once had a friend with whom I worked for several years. He was, and still is, an illustrator of immense talent. He admired my work, as well, but probably not for the same reasons I admired his. You see, he can take a photograph and draw it fairly verbatim. Yes, there are always going to be things that don’t look quite right, but he was, as I called him, “The Human Xerox Machine.” Charles Sheeler would be proud of the meticulous nature of his work. He had, however, one inescapable flaw: he couldn’t draw without the photographs. He could not put pencil to paper if he did not have a reference and he didn’t use the photos as a reference, he copied them straight out. But, technically, he was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, I had my “photo-realist” period when I was in high school, but because of the restrictive nature of doing that sort of work, I quickly fell toward the “realism” aspect rather than worry so much about the exactness of the work when compared to the source. And I preferred not to copy the source but to use it properly as a reference: using a portion of the picture to make decisions about body position or ratios or light and shadow effects. What you saw in my drawings was not the source material.  Later, in college, it was taught that once photography came out, the need for portrait painting was greatly reduced.  I’ll go one step further: the need for exacting realism in artwork became highly questionable.  Why have a portrait drawn or painted if you already have a photograph of the subject?

And this brings me to my point: why has such a value been placed on an ability to do nothing so much as reinvent the wheel? Never mind the copyright issues that have arisen in the past from the unlicensed use of photographs, where is the originality, the creativity? Forget Gen-X or Gen-Y, we are living in the Napster Generation: why even attempt to do something original when you can glom off of somebody else? The music of the times (rap and hip-hop) is predominantly comprised of samples from other people’s work and a re-editing of it is supposed to be regarded as “creative”. The selling of term papers online was (and perhaps still is) big business. Linking articles is somehow supposed to replace actually knowing something about a subject and making an informed argument. And, of course, downloading music for free, where Napster got it’s start, is treated as the Divine Right of Internet Surfers – how dare anyone try to financially support themselves when we have music to steal! There is no greater example of moral and artistic relativism than what is on full display everyday on the Internet: copy, paste, it’s yours.

We live in a time where quicker somehow translates to better (keep your minds out of the bedroom!) and people can’t be bothered to read a book, or watch a political television show where something beyond soundbites is presented, or even learn how to make their online prattling proofread and grammatically correct. The value of doing good work has been diminished because we have placed a greater value on “just getting by”.

Officially, I’m at the tail-end of the Baby Boomer Generation, but I think I more correctly fit into something called the “Television Generation”: our expectations and value systems have been altered by television – not the content of television, but by the process of television. We see problems on a weekly basis solved within a half-hour or hour format. We see disasters covered by every channel on an overblown, unnecessary round-the-clock basis. We see more and more and more commercials – sometimes even entire time blocks devoted to “infomercials” – to pay for programming and the overwhelming majority of it is bad, amateurish, schlocky, how-did-they-a-budget-for-this garbage. I have worked around television people and corporate people and they run around as if their heads were on fire because if this isn’t ready or that isn’t finished then there’s going to be hell to pay. And they don’t realize that they are already in hell and they won’t allow themselves to come up for air because that’s the culture that television (the beast that must be fed) has engendered. And look at what they produce: crap. There is so little of television viewing that has any real value it’s discouraging.

So now we live in the Napster Generation, where nothing of value has real value and it’s a race to mediocrity. Why create something of your own when you can build off the success of others?  Why build something when someone in a foreign land can do it cheaper?  Why create an original work of art when it’s so much easier to just copy a photograph?  It’ll still impress the hell out of somebody.

I am one who believes that what we do affects everything in some way, by some measure.  This country is undergoing an upheaval like never before because the world is changing and no one can see where we are headed.  And rather than embrace this change and determine what that change will be, we seem to be complacent, willing to settle for whatever happens.  The industries that our fathers and grandfathers knew are fading and what will replace them is uncertain.  And we seem as unprepared to meet this future as a blacksmith living in a town of automobiles.

The institutions we have historically depended upon to guide us are failing us.  Our banks and financial institutions can hardly be trusted.  Our politicians can identify plenty of problems, but have no courage to enact any solutions.  And we, as a people, don’t care enough to truly educate ourselves about our world, how it works, how to solve problems; somebody will do that for us, won’t they?  Who?

The old saying goes, “There are no shortcuts in life”. We have to reaffirm for ourselves that there is value to being educated, to being original, to doing more than simply getting by.  We have to do more than simply sit and be entertained.  We have to do the hard work and determine our place in the world.  There is no one else who will do it for us.  It will take creativity, originality, and imagination, but it is work that must be done.  There are no photographs to copy; there are no shortcuts in life.  It seems this is a lesson that we need to embrace more now than ever before.

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