September 7, 2004

Pinsky’s “Pixel”

by Nick Montfort · , 2:17 am

Robert Pinsky’s recent poem “Pixel,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the picture element, is really worth a read, despite the inability of Wired to properly typeset poems online. (You can read this edition decently if your monitor has about 1600 pixels of horizontal resolution; otherwise, the “printer-friendly” page — you need to scroll down 1/3 of the way — is better.) After you get past the initial shock of the beginning of the poem (“Porn on the web: …”) you may be able to appreciate the project of it: to set up the digital arts as an inevitable extension of the past, to explain the different, complementary drives of artist and engineer to allow new and powerful sorts of expression; to connect even pornography with classical, traditional art.

Pinsky has taken on pornography before, in his “An Explanation of America,” Part One.II:

… as if to say:

“I want to see the calf with two heads suckle;
I want to see the image of a woman
In rapid sequences of transparencies
Projected on a bright flat surface, conveying
The full illusion and effect of motion
In vast, varying scale, with varying focus,
Swallow the image of her parter’s penis.

In “Pixel” he explains the web-pornographic as being a manifestation of an age-old artistic impulse, often seen in the early stages of a medium’s development. It isn’t some embarrassing and uniquely American occurrence. Tapestry and pixelated computer image melt together as the union of two of the gods is described:

Dyed rose, blue, green in a map of subtle shades,
Soft edges melting precisely to depict the gods

Venus and Mars in the high-res Bayeux hanging:
Sex & Violence and Woman & Man: banging

For all they’re worth in 10,000 little knots:

The “philosopher” of the poem, discussing the artist’s role and the engineer’s, is Rudolf Arnheim, author of Film as Art and one of the first to argue that film has an artistic dimension. By analogy to the arts of film and tapestry, Pinsky makes the poetic case that videogames are art, too, just as he argued that the experience of computing is truly material in “The Haunted Ruin.”

The publication of “Pixel” provides an appropriate opportunity to note the recent death of Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, whose poems have been translated into English by Pinsky (in collaboration with Milosz). Thanks to Megan Hickey, a student of Pinsky’s with me at Boston University, for pointing out “Pixel.”