Process vs. Product
This is a story from years ago. It came up as I was catching up with a screenwriter/producer friend over coffee in Santa Monica, a week or so ago. As it involves an important concept to me - one that is relevant to just about everything I do - I thought I'd relate it again:
Back when I was in the early stages of my art degree, one of my studio classes was a drawing workshop led by Professor Walker. Usually a session involved three or four hours of drawing in charcoal or pencil or ink, often with models. From time to time there was a lecture before we started working, and on one occasion we arrived in the studio to find an array of varied images tacked on the wall – ranging from student works to recognizable drawings by well-known masters. The professor announced that we'd be having a discussion before we started drawing that day, and the topic was a simple question: "Look at all these images," he said, "and I want you to tell me which ones are art."
Now this being a studio class, most of us assumed we'd be having a technical discussion, weighing the effectiveness of one technique or medium over another or judging the relative rendering ability of a particular artist and so on, and the discussion progressed largely in this manner for some time as we went around the room, each of us adding his or her thoughts.
Finally came the fairly inevitable question, and a student replies to the professor, "OK, well, you're the instructor … what's the right answer? I mean, which of these do you think is 'art?'"
Professor Walker pauses for a moment, glances back at the images on the wall, then turns to the class.
"None of this is art," he says. "These are artifacts. Evidence of the artistic process, but not art."
Art and artifact – not the same thing. This was something like a moment of Zen enlightenment for me: it instantly made so much sense, yet it is directly opposed to the view we have in our overwhelmingly materialistic society. We – artists and audiences alike – have a strong tendency to think of "art" as something tangible, something physical - something we can buy or sell or hang on our wall or show to somebody else and say "this is mine" - something that has some permanence to it, something that will last …
But it won't last, of course – nothing (no thing) will. Entropy will eventually prevail, and all the artifacts – the paint and canvas, the orchestral scores, the film and videotape, all the ones and zeros, everything you and I have labored to create, along with the works of Bach and the Beatles and everything locked in climate controlled vaults in the Louvre – it will all be reduced to nothingness at some stage of the heat death of the universe … maybe we're talking about the lifetime of a compact disc or DVD or archived data tapes (supposedly 100 years or so), maybe the amount of time before our civilization collapses and our cities are reduced to ruin (which may indeed take less time at the rate we're going, but that's another topic) … in any case, it all goes away, sooner or later.
Now, this can be a rather depressing thought, especially to those of us who spend countless hours attempting to create things, things that are real and lasting … longing for the moment when something is "done" and we can, perhaps, burn it to a CD or upload an mp3 and go have a drink, no longer worrying about a hard drive crash or stolen laptop destroying all our efforts …
On the other hand, if we think of things in terms of process – art, not artifact – we realize that while it can be quite satisfying to have that "finished product" – to press the CDs, or screen the film – it doesn't really matter: the "art" is already there … one could say it has already happened but to use the past tense seems incorrect: there is a timelessness about that moment of creation, that event, that spark, the nexus that is formed connecting the artist with the world, with the past, present, and future and the web of everything (a moment locked in phase or harmony with the Tao, if you will) … this is real and inviolable and cannot be taken away.
True, the artifact has some value, in that it can provide an opportunity, a channel or medium for an audience to somehow connect with the experience of the artist, with the power and sublimity and timelessness of the process. This is perhaps why we feel the need to lock things up in museums for safekeeping – despite the fact that this creates an environment where it becomes easy to miss the point.
Now, what about a scenario where the process, the creation, and the experience of the creation by the audience are all happening simultaneously? This is what happens in an interactive media installation, and, of course, in a live performance context … add a bit of feedback from the audience and the lines of artist, art, and audience become blurred … and the process, transience notwithstanding, becomes even more robust, more powerful, more meaningful …