Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Iconography and Graphic Design...

We are an increasingly multi-media culture.  We are also an increasingly "connected" culture, in terms of communication and information availability, although increasingly disconnected in terms of many other things -- one wonders if this latter is a direct result of the former?   But I digress...

The Church as a whole, has jumped on the bandwagon, as evidenced by the fact that pretty much every church I know of has a website and/or FaceBook page. Even the monasteries are participating; e.g. one of the forums to which I contribute recently got a new member -- a monk residing at Simonas Petras on the Holy Mountain! (I didn't know the Holy Mountain gets internet, let alone had any interest in it. But again, I digress...)

However, even though we might be arriving at the party, I'm not sure we understand the party, and I'm doubly unsure that we've given it the deep, careful inspection it needs.

The Orthodox Church has a carefully developed, long-standing tradition of iconography.  It includes a theology and methodology for each and every component of the task and output.  True, there is room in it for a great variety of style and presentation, but the underlying principles are clear, and were thought through long ago.

What I have not seen (yet1) is a careful, prayerful application of the spirit and thought underlying that ancient tradition to the contemporary condition.  That is, has anyone looked at how these things might be applied to (or rather, expanded into) the digital and print worlds?

As far as I know, the last time any development of this sort took place was in the application of these principles to Western Renaissance and enlightenment painting methods, and to neon lighting, the results of which can be seen in, respectively, the "Russian-style" icons, and some of the lighting of Russian churches built in the States in the 20's and 30's, when neon was still a novelty.2

But both of these media are still in the hand-produced, physical realm.  Since that time, we have seen the rapid development of new media and media types that represent a complete sea change, particularly audio recording, photographs, and moving pictures (both theater and television), etc.  This innovation has coincided with the technological advancement of content delivery methods, which expand both the distance and quantity of distribution to previously unheard-of (and largely unimagined) scope, including radio, television, telephones and faxes.

All of these various technologies have congealed into the massive beast we call "the internet".  Whether this is the end of the line, or just the precursor to something even more, I do not know.  However, there is no doubt that the capabilities of the internet, with all its peripherals (Xbox, computers, smartphones, etc.) are the culmination of the previous things, including and massively expanding each of them, manifesting an easy synergy which is far more than the sum of its parts.

These things have happened quite rapidly, and the Orthodox Church, for the most part, has either completely eschewed them, or has embraced them wholeheartedly, including the techniques for producing content for them, and the assumptions underlying their development and use in general.

My point here is not so much a statement, viz., "This is not good!" or "This is perfectly fine."  Rather, I am asking a question: "Is this good?  Have given the requisite thought and prayerful consideration to our use of these new technologies?  If not, where do we start?"

Like any mere technology, the internet, I think3, is neither inherently good nor inherently evil; it contains both in large quantities (although I'm pretty sure the percentages skew heavily toward the "evil" side -- or, at best, toward the "useless").  But if we are to "baptize" the internet, to make proper use of it for the Kingdom of God, we have to examine it carefully, including not just its outward forms, but also its underlying assumptions, and those of each of its parts.

This is a massive undertaking, no doubt.  However, I think this is a vitally important question, and we should not shrink from it simply because of the difficulty of the task.

I'm convinced that this is a critical question because 1) we do have an Orthodox Theology of iconography, and that Theology IS part of the tradition of the Church, and, 2) these modern developments are themselves comprised largely of iconography, even to the point where the universal User Interface, in all but the most basic of its iterations, is shot through with elements that are actually called "icons".

Furthermore, we are called to be "in the world, but not of the world."  This means that we do not shrink away from it, but rather, as did our Savior, enter into and redeem it by, as Paul says, "using [it], and not abusing it."  We should view it as being crucified to ourselves, and ourselves to it.  But what does this crucifiction look like?  What form does it take?  How is it manifested in this modern technology?

The world has a fully developed, carefully directed, specifically formed iconography (we call it "Graphic Design", and "User Interface Development", etc.).  An great example of the world's perfection of this art is the Apple design ethos.

In addition, the Orthodox Church definitely has an active and growing presence in this new, digital world.  My question is: what have we, so far, allowed to guide and underlie the shape of that presence?  Have we even thought about it?

What does an updated4 Orthodox Iconography look like, to the glory of God and the edification of the Church?  Maybe it looks like what we're already doing now; maybe it doesn't.  But either way, we need to give it a look.

I have no answers in this post.  I'm just scratching my head, and trying to start a conversation that I hope will be given some serious prayer and reflection, and perhaps even discussion, both informal and formal, by the Church at large. :)

I am particularly interested in the thoughts and feelings on this matter of the Church's tonsured iconographers, but also of those who have been tasked with maintaining their community's interaction(s) with these new media.

Perhaps these things have already been hammered out, and I'm just late to this particular party.  But if not, may the Lord (continue to) direct our steps in all things, that we may in all things be pleasing to Him.

---- NOTES:

I'm not saying it doesn't exist. I'm saying I haven't seen it yet. If you have, please point me to what you've seen. Thanks! :)

2I personally think that the inclusion of neon signage in the Church, at least in the way I've seen it done so far, is gaudy at best.  I think it smacks very much of "we didn't actually think this through all the way".  But this is just my opinion; regardless, though, I do think the lack of universal acceptance so far does tend emphasize my point regarding the even newer media discussed.

3Yes, I realize that this paragraph is itself based on (or rather, expressing) some un-addressed assumptions. However, I think that on these, the horse has already left the barn a long time ago.

4Not changed! Rather, applied to the modern media situation.

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