The Robot and The Master

In following some of the reactions to Fr.Silouan Justiniano’s great article on how mechanical reproduction affects the general spiritual effect of the icon, I was surprised to read some of the comments as he was putting up different sections.  I felt fr. Silouan had been quite balanced in not demonizing mechanical reproduction but explaining why it nonetheless affects the way we see icons and interact with them, that it is a spiritual degrading in the strictest sense of the word degrading, that is a gradual lessening of the sacred.  I was a bit shocked to see negative reactions for something that seems so obvious to those of us who have now placed their lives in the service of God for the renewal of sacred art.

I wanted to offer up two videos therefore, as an icon carver — two videos that show the difference between an icon made by hands, and an icon “not made by hands”, though not in the sacred sense of the Mandylion, but rather in the sense of being fabricated by a mindless, soulless robot.  The contrast is much starker when we see a carving being made with the assurance of a master, the tools turning to follow the features, the attention to the smallest corner. It is almost liturgical,  as though his hands are caressing the wood to bring out the holy face. Compare this to the regular grid-like movement of the robotic arm following an AutoCAD pattern in a computer.  Just like fr.Silouan, I am not saying the mechanical icon is not at all an icon, but to deny the spiritual distinction between the two seems to me impossible.

First, a video of a Russian icon carver.

And now the science fiction version of the same:

6 comments for “The Robot and The Master

  1. September 23, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Yes, Jonathan, I was shocked by the virulent reaction to an article I wrote in April of 2012 “Much cheaper than real: confronting the new iconoclasm” http://hexaemeron.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/much-cheaper-than-real-2/. I finally had to cut off the discussion when accusations got out of hand. I was so pleased when Fr. Silouan took up the subject in a series of articles that profoundly articulate the basis for handmade sacred objects using noble materials. Fr. Siluoan has presented the case with such grace and without any of the snarkiness of my attempt. I am thankful for his depth of thought on this matter, which is so troubling to those of us who, as you say Jonathan, “have now placed their lives in the service of God for the renewal of sacred art.”

  2. September 23, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Great vid. Marcuse et al. (and Bob Dylan with his flesh coloured “Christs” that glowed in the dark none the less) were right to rave about this, though perhaps they went about it in the wrong way. Who’s to say? One dimensional man seems about as far from God’s pre-eternal idea of man as the Easter bunny might be to Pascha (hey, it’s 4am in the morning here). A denial of the life giving Agape-Spirit (true beauty) out of narrow self interest (ugliness).

  3. September 24, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    These videos really drive home the point. In one of the videos advertising the robot carver it says, “Now you can save on costs, on efforts, on time and enjoy the pleasure of carving…” But, of course, you only watch a machine carve. It would be like having a machine eat your food.
    Obviously the image works as image, regardless of how the image is made. The theology of the Council stands on the image (hypostasis) rather than on its material (ousia). But I think these articles are making an important point about something that is essential in our humanity. When we become so removed from all of the objects in our lives something is lost, something is diminished. An image is also the work and materials that make it up.
    Of course, the fathers said, “Icons do with colors what Scripture does with words.” We do not fault the use of the printing press, though the fullness found in a hand-produced edition would somehow be superior.
    In a world of many millions, robots (and printing presses) will remain, I think. But the heart cries out for more and is grateful when it is found.

    • September 25, 2013 at 12:06 am

      Thank you for your comment Fr. Stephen. One of the things that has been making this issue difficult to communicate is what you bring up as a lack of appropriate theological and canonical reference. The reason this is happening is that the problem which arises out of mechanical production of icons for church and veneration is not the same problem as the one dealt with in the 7th ecumenical council, in St-John of Damascus and others. In those contexts, as well as in the later councils which address icons, the questions have been what should be represented and why what we represent is possible/important theologically because of Christ. It seems that the problem of mechanical reproduction of iconography is rather one of the most screaming symptoms of technocracy and modern quantification and is contained in the problem of the garments of skin which I have been discussing over and over on this blog. All the question of the sacred arts, especially in this materialist world calls for a deeper understanding of the garments in biblical, patristic and iconographic guises. This problem was dealt with extensively in the “Enoch” traditions, which though having been cast aside for the whole “angel/human” hybridity problem, deserve new attention on the question of the relation between the flood and excessive technical skills linked also to sorcery. This subject is of pressing importance to our age. Interestingly enough, I think it was St-Gregory of Nazianzus who said the giants caused the flood by their “logorrhea”. Picture if you will 10,000 identical printed copies of the Sinai Pantocrator spilling out of a box unto the ground.

      • Fr. Silouan Justiniano
        September 29, 2013 at 10:22 pm

        Thank you Jonathan, the videos really do drive home the point.
        I think what you did here is an idea that can be extended to the realm of catechism in local parishes. That is, by showing an example of a hand painted icon next to a surrogate, parishioners can be educated to discern their seemingly obvious different qualities. Most people really can’t tell the aesthetic difference.
        Recently a brother monastic told me that all I needed to do, in order to drive home the point that I was trying to make in the article, was just to display an actual icon (of high quality) next to its photograph, and nothing further needed to be said. I think he has a point. What makes his observation even more important is that he is not the “artistic type,” and that’s exactly the majority of parishioners. Most people suffer as if from an amnesia to the nuances of a hand painted icon. Taking reproduction saturation for granted, simulacra has blunted our capability to even know what qualities to look for. People need to be shown obvious examples. Showing the clear differences to parishioners as a basic catechism might be of great help in helping them regain their awareness and hone their aesthetic sensibilities. This would further help to create an environment that would encourage the revival of authentic liturgical craftsmanship. Thanks again for all your work.

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