Once upon a time, in the not so distant past, I considered myself a professional artist. I worked for a computer game company, drawing highly pixelated versions of Vanna White for one PC version of Wheel of Fortune. I worked as a computer graphic illustrator for an agency a few years before that, working on schematic maps and charts for annual reports of some fairly large companies. Thus I've always had a certain basic sensitivity to the needs and problems of artists, though of late my artwork tends more toward science fiction/fantasy than Fortune 500.
Artists, contrary to some popular perceptions, are seldom lazy people. A good artist can spend 50-100 hours working on a piece of work, making seemingly minute changes to a piece of work or spending hours doing nothing but stippling (putting dots of ink onto a page) or other very repetitive tasks. The difficulty for most artists comes from the fact that they become extraordinarily focused on what they are doing to the exclusion of everything else, which means that many of the mundane tasks that most people take for granted simply don't happen except in those rare intervals where the artist can surface. This can be taken by outsiders as being indicative that artists are typically very reserved (they generally are, except among themselves) and occasionally aloof.
In some respects, I could replace the mind-numbing (or soothing, depending upon temperament) process of meticulously creating a drawing with the act of writing quality algorithms, and the description of artist becomes one of programmer, or more properly, the aesthetic programmer.
There are a number of programmers who are more interested in the result than the process - these are programming engineers, who often tend to deviate very little from the established procedures for performing some action, and who as a consequence find the creative aspects of both art and programming subtly unsettling.
The other kind of programmer, the aesthetic-programmer, may not be the best programmers for putting together a human resources database system, but they are the ones that ultimately end up driving most of the new innovations in the field. I believe that this is because what they are seeking is that elusive quality called elegance.
Elegance is a difficult concept to explain, even to other programmers, because it is in effect a measure of the aesthetic qualities of a piece of code. Certain scientists understand this quality instinctively - high energy physicists for instance, who tend to operate on an extremely abstract level, and I think that one cannot be a mathematician without a desire to seek this elusive property. Einstein understood this with his elegant statement E = mc2, and his more elegant though much less well known Gmn = 8pTmn.
For an artist, elegance can be thought of as the perfect balance of color, composition, lighting, symbolism and realism. For a poet or writer, elegance is prose or poetry that has the right number of words, for the composer the right number of notes. Even for a master, elegance is elusive, a state that can only be achieved infrequently, but what gets created in the process often ends up setting the standards for what we consider the foundations of both art and science.
So where does SVG fit into all of this? Or put another way, where's the
There's never really been anything like it, to be perfectly honest. Flash often comes to mind as the point of comparison, but in reality, Flash lacks the capabilities for abstraction that are intrinsic to SVG. Don't get me wrong on this - Flash is a very powerful tool for creating impressive looking graphic animations. The difference between Flash and SVG, however, is that Flash is a self-contained world; SVG on the other hand is beginning to shape up into an application that entwines itself within other specifications.
This will become more obvious when SVG moves more into the native space of browsers and operating systems, rather than being a plug-in. The significance of the Mozilla SVG effort, even at its current nascent stage, is that you can create interactive and animated graphics inline to other markup such as XHTML or XUL. This means, among other things, that the graphics on a page are immediately accessible as part of the DOM, are integrated into the whole fabric of a web page both programmatically and visually.
This DOM interaction has a lot of import. With Flash, it takes a certain amount of skill to write interfaces into the rest of the browser, and those interfaces are perforce very limited; in general, it is easier there to put most if not all of the interactive capability for the "page" in the Flash, bypassing the web page completely. Beyond such issues as text search or retrieving of meta-data for search engines, this process means that Flash ends up creating its own "browser" environment that can render a site useless to someone without the Flash plug-in (ask anyone on a typical Linux machine until recently what that means).
Native SVG support, which is on-going, changes that dynamic. Graphics can be changed at multiple levels of abstraction, and can produce a W3C consistent notion of the concept of level of detail (LOD) - initially a 3D concept where distant objects are rendered at the lowest possible resolution until a certain threshhold distance is reached, at which point a higher polygon mesh and higher res textures are used to render the object more realistically. LOD in a 2D sense means that information is only provided once the attention is focused on a particular area in a graphic, and hidden once that area is no longer the focus.
Graphic libraries can be easily created and integrated with SVG - not static graphics but dynamic ones generated from live data streams. Mapmakers have already discovered this use of SVG, but so far artists generally haven't. The distinction between graphic and multimedia presentation blurs as a consequence of this one facet of the language, as does the distinction between presentation and application. An SVG illustration, embedded within a web page (or a PDF), could read the story around it, could change from visit to visit, could customize itself to its audience. Moreover, it could leap out of its apparent visual boundaries and become an inhabitant upon the page itself, participating not only in the telling of the story, but in the reader's interaction with it.
Lest someone bring up to me the woeful tales of Bob and Clippy, the autonomous agents of Microsoft fame reviled pretty much universally, I'd content that the problem of such agents lay less in their concept and more in their focus. An agent is an extension of the reader, not of the system. As such, an agent is more like a pet, a playful kitten perhaps, than a majordomo - it will play in the corner of the screen, chase after screens, perhaps piddle on the desktop, but what it won't do is set expectations on the user by "waiting" on them. It's that elegance thing again - effective design means understanding the psychological driving factors of the people who use the technology, means putting in the extra effort to imbue agents with a sense of awareness.
The reason I'm focusing on agents here is precisely because all intelligent graphics ultimately are agents of one sort or another. They interact with the user, provide some sense of awareness with their surroundings, and can have memory. Sometimes they can be abstractions of living beings, but these are simply the most ostentatious of such graphics; one of the failures of Bob was the inability to recognize the universality of agents, concentrating upon the "reality" of the agent rather than upon the notion of intelligent graphics.
The key to elegance is to understand that everything has its place, its modality of expression, and the most elegant solutions are those in which the medium is utilized to its best effect. An SVG artist is creating intelligent graphics, autonomous, semi-aware agents, and the best artists in that medium will create art like no other, for it will be art that speaks to you, perhaps quite literally ... and if that's not the quintessence of elegance, I don't know what is.
-- Kurt Cagle