There was a famous book in the 1960’s by Marshall McLuhan called The Medium is the Message. The point of the book was to explore how the medium used shapes the message. The medium discussed was not medium as we use to refer to materials used in painting but rather in a broader sense: radio vs. magazine, TV vs. newspapers, movies vs. TV, et cetera.
Recently, I have realized that the medium that most of us choose to write with tends to dictate the way in which we express ourselves. In my opinion, the creation of the ballpoint pen has limited much of our expressive power. How uninteresting is the ballpoint pen when you consider what can be done with the old fashioned ink pen, quill pen, or fountain pen? We are talking about the expressiveness of the line. It was the invention of line that truly enabled humans to make art from the very beginning. As George Grosz once said to me when correcting a drawing, “Line does not exist in nature, it is an invention of man.”
That really surprised me. Such a simple but engaging statement made me think of drawing in a completely new way. It made me realize that drawing is not the art of copying something perfectly. It made me realize that the only time one copies a line is when someone else had made it first. I instantly knew why certain drawings left me cold and others didn’t.
It made me rethink another simple but astonishing statement he made to me when correcting another drawing. He said, “Think with your hand.” And with those two simple concepts, I realized that I had never really known what drawing was before. Those two statements opened up a new world. The mystery of drawing was now a little less of a mystery. Was I going to be a good student, or a good artist? That is a very difficult proposition to give a young, aspiring art student, especially when I posed the question to myself. So from the time I met George Grosz, I realized what a LINE was, and how profound its very existence is.
But like so many simple and profound things, Man seems to have found a way to mess it up. Maybe not intentionally, but the result is a kind of dumbing down of much of the sheer magic of how one expresses themselves. My interest is in the line itself.
Many other inventions that were made in advancement of one kind or another but again turned into a dumbing down. Stickball is another seemingly strange victim. This game was a city sport that came as a result of a lack of outdoor space, such as ball fields that once existed but were cleared away for a condominium site or parking lot, all in the name of progress. The healthy act of using a stick and Spaldeen ball to get a game together took kids out of the house where so much more was learned than how to hit that tiny ball: interaction with other kids, talking, exchanging ideas, getting some exercise in a natural manner, all those extra benefits have been lost to the incessant use of a computer now. They probably have a virtual stick ball game online now that keeps you indoors while you sit and you never have to actually touch a stick.
But back to the pen — the ballpoint pen is clearly the medium to write a note, to sign a check or to make a list of to-dos. It was hailed as one of the great inventions of man when it first came out. Prior to that, the most indelible manner of writing was the fountain pen. Almost everyone at that time had a Waterman or Schaffer fountain pen, Schaffer being the upscale version, along with Parker, as I remember.
Consider also stone lithography. It is a dying art form as a result of the flat bed press, the invention of the velox dot. Silk screen reproduction is falling victim to Giclée reproductions, a continuous tone process that eliminated the dot. First banned as a legitimate Art form, now “accepted” by museums, mainly because of our so-called super star “Artists” like Jeff Koons who don’t have the technical ability to make anything with their own hands.
Technology often leads us into complacency. Look at television, a kind of virtual reality that is like a drug. Artists are susceptible, maybe even more so than most, because the technology has so often been related to communication. The printing press, radio, television, cell phones, et cetera.
My last thought on the pen is a story about astronauts. NASA became concerned with writing while in outer space after realizing that the fountain pens would not work without gravity. Over 7 million dollars was spent to develop a pen that could write in outer space, a ballpoint pen, a triumph of technology. Faced with the same problem, the Russian space program found a different solution. They used a pencil.