The Cutting Edge or Standing at the Border?

The term The Cutting Edge has bandied around the creating business for decades. What does it mean? The cutting edge may mean sharp. At the edge, one has gone as far as possible. There is no more. It is the definitive photograph in its genre, for example. The cutting edge is the flag bearer for the unique until it is replaced.

Or is the cutting edge a military term like avant garde. Is it about cutting someone else with a sharp sword? Is it about dueling? Is it about competition? Is it about cutting yourself? For some the cutting edge may inaccurately be identified by trends. The first person to discover HDR may have created a cutting edge image. Today HDR has become trendy. Trends will always breed mediocrity.

The cutting edge may also be measured by time. Creators know that the answers to creative problems are infinite. The answer is right as far as you’ve gone. Therefore the edge may have been extended, if the photographer had only a few more resources; more money, more time, more to synthesize.

Creators know that creating is a synthesizing process. The more one has to synthesize, the better one may be at coming up with an innovation. Creators believe in vacuum-cleaning the universe for stimuli. We put things together that have never been put together before to create something new.


I am rethinking where the edge is located. And I am seeing that it is not at the perimeter, but rather at the borders where things juxtapose or synthesize. In The Story of B by Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael) writes:

…Borders are always tricky things, B Said at last. Feral children fascinate because they stand at the border of the animal world. Gorillas and Dolphins fascinate because they stand at the border of the human world. Even though they are lonely arbitrary consequences of the fact we use a decimal system, the borders between centuries and millenniums fascinate. Shakespeare’s fools fascinate because they live at the border of sanity and madness. The heroes of tragedy fascinate because they walk on the borders between triumph and defeat. The border between pre-human and human, between childhood and adulthood, between generations, between nations and peoples, between social and political paradigms — all of these are intensely fascinating… .

Where are the borders between art and science? Back in the sixties, I belonged to a cutting edge group called E.A.T. which is an acronym for Experiments in Art and Technology. E.A.T.’s sole purpose was to put artists and scientists together to collaborate. They were not particularly interested in the results. The process was the whole thing. Physicists, astrophysicists, astronomers, mechanical engineers, and others met with artists at Max’s Kansas City. Each spoke a different language. The artists’ language came from the right side of the brain. The scientists language often came from the left. These combined energies created innovations as scientists and artists danced on the borders of the two lobes.

Maybe the term to describe innovative work should be changed to borderline. Some of the most interesting artists have been borderline personalities; Kafka, Van Gogh, Janis Joplin, Bosch, Hemmingway, Kerouac, to name a few. Each was a master of the border dance.

Ansel Adams’ work sits at the borders between eroticism and naturalism. Picasso’s work often sits at the borders between adult mastery and childhood abandonment. Dali’s work sits on the borders of the familiar and the strange. Outsider art may sit at the borders of humor and hell or between Peter Pan and Dosteyevsky. Georgia O’Keefe’s oeuvre includes skyscrapers and mesas.

When we stand at the borders and synthesize, we are always doing something new. None of us have the same things to synthesize nor the same experiences.

However juxtaposition does not necessarily make something edgy. A photograph of a pen on a yellow pad is a juxtaposition. It is a familiar concept and not particularly interesting even it was cross processed or lit with magenta gels. I recall a picture of a ball-point pen resting on a stick of butter. In those days, Papermate was demonstrating that its pen could write over butter. Corny. Perhaps. Cutting edge? Nope. Not quite. It’s not enough to have a good concept. It requires an innovative execution too. Does this mean photo tricks? Perhaps, but not necessarily. If this photograph was made by Irving Penn, it would have been lit in what has become a classical way. In fact, we wouldn’t necessarily even be conscious of the execution. It would just be.

Some consultants are telling creators to reach outside themselves for things to synthesize. They may show dozens of photographs and suggest that you synthesize or even imitate what you see. Advertising art directors may narrow their synthesization fields by looking at their competitors’ ads rather than their consumers’ hearts. They are operating out of their left thinking brains and are discouraged from turning into their own bodies for source. We think with our heads and we feel with our bodies.

Or can one say that the creating cutting edge is at the borderline where the left and right brains merge or the thinking brain and feeling body come together? Think about it. Or should I say feel about it?

The cutting edge is often about dichotomy or paradox. It is not about this OR that. It is about this AND that And… It is about placing together seemingly disparate elements like feathers and steel. It is not about delicacy. It is not about strength. It is about delicacy AND brutality. I can think of dozens of images I have seen in the past month that are delicate. They are beautiful pictures, but they are not cutting edge. Pictures about brutality may be shocking, but not necessarily cutting edge. We are more likely to be at the edge when we walk the borderline between the two.

Photographers are often very left brained; at least those who came into the business through the technology. Often they are taken with the how rather than the what or why. They want answers or magic pills. They ask their heroes what f-stop they used rather than what was in their hearts when they made their masterpieces. They want answers to be given in black or white. Yet they have fallen back in love with black and white photography. We call this medium black AND white; not black OR white. Black AND white photography is the ultimate photographic dichotomy.

The word AND is a gift to creators in the 21st Century as it was during the Renaissance. We are experiencing a rebirth of the Renaissance person who synthesizes all the parts of themselves; all their interests. It is possible to be this AND that in the 00’s and beyond. This was not likely during the Days of OR — back in the 1980’s when creators were told they needed to specialize and categorize.

In what ways has digital technology freed the photographer as photography freed the painter?

Creators intuitively know that great ideas happen when they bring two or more things together. When we are feeling blocks, we often go for a walk or page through magazines. We get off-line, so to speak. We get closer to that place where the dream weaver gives us juxtapositions every night. We may even use visualization or meditation to vacuum clean the universe for symbols. The day dreamer is often off in the stratosphere where he or she can discover new borders.


I facilitated a panel discussion in New York in June 1999. I asked the panel where they thought the cutting edge was. An art buyer said that she believes the cutting edge is in the darkness — the unknown. If the artist ventures into that darkness he or she approaches the edge. This takes true courage.

This is from the collected writings of Robert Motherwell

The emergence of abstract art is one sign that there are still men ( and women) able to assert feeling in the world. Men who know how to respect and follow their inner feelings, no matter how irrational or absurd they may first appear. From their perspective, it is the social world that tends to appear irrational and absurd…

… if a painting does not make human contact, it is nothing. But the audience is also responsible. I adore the Old French lady because among my works she chooses those that specifically move her. Through pictures, our passions touch. Pictures are vehicles of passion, of all kinds and orders, not pretty luxuries like sports cars. In our society to give and receive passion is limited. For this reason, the act of painting is a deep human necessity, not the production of a handmade commodity. I respect a collector who returned one of my “abstract” pictures to the gallery, saying it was too tragic in feeling for her to be able to look at it every day. But somewhere there is a man with tragic sense of life who loves that same picture, and I think he will find one day a way to have it. These are real human contacts, and I love painting that can be a vehicle for human intercourse. In this solitary and apathetic society, the rituals are so often obsolete and corrupt, out of accord with what we really know and feel….

Creating is causing what you love or what matters to you to come into being. When we go inside the heart, we rediscover our loves. I believe we are here to share our hearts. I believe we are here to give what we have to others. What we have is in our hearts AND our brains.

2 Comments on The Cutting Edge or Standing at the Border?

  1. Edie Gleason // February 14, 2009 at 7:55 am //

    Well, I hope Wendy told you that I LOVED LIncoln. Also, I took the time to read part of your blog and found it fascinating. I especially liked the Daniel Quinn quote.
    I hope we get to meet soon, always fun to know ‘the other half’ .

  2. I love the idea of the cutting edge being in the darkness . . . in the unknown, because this is where anxiety and nervousness often dwell. I think one real force behind creativity is the potential for mystery and unpredictability that lies within these feelings.

    I just posted a blog entry about the potential in the unknown last week. Check it out here:

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