Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

I occasionally go and do something crazy, something completely unbecoming an engineer. Last semester I took an Creative Writing course with a most wonderful teacher. This semester I’m doing an independent study in art with an equally wonderful teacher. Last night I was up till about midnight getting the grip of Processing — a programming language and environment for creating stunning visuals. It’s a pretty sweet environment and I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible, but boy, was it hard.

All I did last night was recreate an project I’d done a few semesters ago with Lindenmeyer Systems. In some respects, our previous work was a bit misdirected and we should have been building on top of Processing all along. Last night I was reminded firsthand of the importance of using good tools suited for the task at hand. I didn’t write much in terms of code, but I did manage to build up a fair bit of functionality (a much better measure of progress I think). But it’s still not done and I suspect at least an hour or two more of steady work before I get to something that I can show off. This morning as I was trawling in the interwebs I came across this essay written by my creative writing professor and her quotation of “Ars longa, vita brevis” rang out as so true. The art is long and life is so short.

I’m not really an artist, though I like pretty things. I’m a hacker at heart. More important than the actual beauty of the object is the joy I feel in actually creating it. As  a coder, I guess I’m half decent by now. I’d call myself a really really advanced beginner (close to intermediate). But in terms of art, I’m pretty much a greenhorn. What’s more, the art that I’m doing is in code. I thought that would be fun and easy. It’s not easy and it remains to be seen if it’s fun. Though I love writing code and can concentrate better on writing code than on anything else, when it comes to art, I’m a bit lost. It’s been a while since I’ve done any drawing or painting, I prefer using my words to create images in people’s heads. Also without the use of hands and real physical paints and paper, it’s a bit harder to play around. Admittedly, it’s easier to tinker, redo and recreate with computerized tools but there is more of an upfront investment and the learning curve is significantly steeper (at least in the beginning).

In some ways, you could say that I’m painting entirely with mind. It’s liberating: I don’t have to worry about drawing a perfect circle or making sure that the sides of my squares are all the same length, the machine does it for me and I can work at a higher level. At the same time, I can’t just splash some paint on campus and see what it looks like. I have to look up an API reference instead of stroking away extra paint with a brush and I sometimes I have to get my hands dirty debugging (including dealing with Java’s broken type systems). If real artists did this all the time, we’d never progress beyond stick figures. That’s not to denigrate Processing, the people behind it or computational art. The gains in productivity and expression we get from tools like them far away my pain. Don’t mind me. I’m just bitching.

The art is long and life is short. It takes some 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything and it takes continued practice to keep up that level of expertise. And life is short. Sometimes I wish that I could sever all human contact and just sit and write code (or stories or whatever) and the next moment I realize that it’s stupid because it’s meaningless to live completely in isolation. There’s no point in my writing code or making art if no one uses and appreciates what I create. It’s rather ironic that it takes antisocial devotion to a task to create something that others can appreciate. If only our brains could really multitask, things would be so much easier.

Well, that’s enough bitching and moaning for one day. I’m going to get back to my code/art.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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