David Ness
Mind / Matter

Studio Evening: The Eye of the Beholder

By David Ness
Wednesday, December 12, 2001

From the host (Dick Ranck):

I have a question which completely eludes me. Why is the language of art so basic, and the palette of words so diverse?
It seems that the relationship between what was seen by the eye and depicted by the hand was constant in ancient man, regardless of where he roamed. However, the same cannot be said of what was seen and spoken about. If a man drew an animal in one culture, a man in another would recognize it; assuming the animal was indigenous. However, the same cannot be said for the sounds used to depict the animal. What does this tell us about perception and depiction? And how does music fit in? 
I am asking these questions to understand my own perceptions; why I have chosen to so individualize my work after years of happy rendering. Perhaps I am drifting to the language center of my brain and applying the traits and mechanics of language to those of art.  It would explain a lot. Whatever, it's a minor crisis, but one I am hoping to resolve soon!

My remarks:

My background causes me to focus on created language, particularly the kind of language that we create---and give substance to---to deal with computers. The past fifty years have seen an incredible growth in our ability to capture, store, manipulate and present information. And this capability has given rise to a whole new language to talk about information (in 1955 when I programmed my first computer,  no one ever thought of a `gigabyte'), and to considerable iconography, and this deserves some study and some comment.

It might also be worthwhile, in the context of this question, to consider the most important schism in the computer business. This can sensibly be viewed either as a division into two important sub-cultures: Apple and non-Apple or into three component parts: Apple, Windows and Unix. One could suggest, I think without pushing things to any extreme, that Apple stands far at the iconographic/visual-world oriented pole, while Unix stands equally far at the explicit word/command-world oriented pole. Windows, certainly much more successful and influential than either of the extremes, stands somewhere in the middle, and is to many of us surely that very glass that we `see thru darkly'.

And there is a lot to be learned, I think, from looking at the differences between these abstracted environments as well as by looking at the cultures that they both represent and serve.

And some Questions

(1) I have the notion that the author of words has more control over me as a reader than a painter of images has over the way I see his/her painting. Is this likely?

(2) Apple's famous ad showing a 2yr old apparently successfully using an Apple was thought, at the time to communicate the message `So simple even a tot can do it!'. However, perhaps it was really saying `Appropriate for a 2yr old's view of the world!'

(3) It proves (IMO) to be incredibly hard to both document and teach computer programs which rely heavily on Iconic movement. I have had some of the most frustrating and boring hour long conversations with clients that consisted largely of me saying things like `Look for the little blue circular icon. (pause) See it? (pause) Ok, now hold down the right-hand button on your mouse and drag it over towards the little red box. (pause) No, I said right-hand button...' This doesn't sound like progress to me.

(4) There is some organizational theory that suggests that Centralized Organizations are effective when goals are clear and known, while Decentralized Organizations are more effective when goals are diffuse and not clear. Does the same apply to artistic communication if we factor out particular personal skills? i.e. when I am real clear about what I want to communicate I write words, but when I am less sure about the specific content, but may have even stronger feelings and intuitions, I choose other media: painting, music, ... although in my case there are skill limitations that may make this not a real possibility.

(5) Where would The Professions be if they had to rely on other than words to communicate. Can you conceive of a `law' described in pictures? What about the results of medical experimentation? How well do Classic Comics convey the `picture' of the books they purport to popularize?

(6) Twenty years ago I would have been tempted to think that a distinction between words and other forms of artful representation might have paralleled the digital / analogue distinction. Now I am not so tempted by this idea, particularly as we have so much digital art. Is there still anything here?

(7) The painter in ancient times generally had some notion of how the viewer would encounter his/her art. Copies were hard to come by, and printing hadn't advanced to the point where reproductions would have made much sense. These days, all of us have to deal (suffer) with the fact that the encounter with our art / product is largely beyond our control. My pages are looked at on screens that might range in size from a palmtop to a wall-sized HDTV. Artworks may appear on the roof of the Sistine Chapel and on Bill Gates' wall, or in some space-age glasses that surround the viewer's face. Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a fact (art-i-fact?) of modern life.


The event took place and was, at least from my standpoint, a substantial success. The discussion was as wide-ranging as might be expected from a group of artists, critics, economists, linguists and information theoreticians.

Perhaps this is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue. All present seemed to agree that it was both interesting and productive.


David Ness' summary of work can be found at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/dness

This Studio Evening is hosted by Richard Scott Ranck. Some of his work can be seen at


and at


This event took place at the artist's studio in Philadelphia on the evening of 12 December 2001.