The Death of Art Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

The murder of art and music by modern technologies is an oft-heard plaint these days.  Those accusations really started gaining steam with the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, when tedious lamentations about soulless machines replacing the typewriter seemed almost de rigueur.  But reports of the death of art have been greatly exaggerated.

A recent (but not tedious) AT article by Matt Patterson called "Art Death/Heart Death" compares twentieth-century composers unfavorably to their counterparts from earlier centuries, then really lays into today's artists and consumers of art:

People are simply not able to learn the skills necessary to make and appreciate great music. ... Our circumstances are changing. There are no longer the environmental pressures in place to produce great music, or any other form of art (save, perhaps, motion pictures). ... Television, computers, and video games have destroyed [the ability to read great literature]; it no longer exists in any quantitative capacity.

Mr. Patterson's assertions can be refuted in at least four basic ways.

First, the august pantheon of Bach-Mozart-Beethoven represents a minuscule percentage of composers who labored during those centuries.  The "environmental pressures" of those times did not produce only inspired works of genius.  Predictably, most of the music and visual arts produced during those times were, necessarily, average.  The vast majority of art and music has always fallen into a normal distribution -- the meat of a bell-shaped curve -- and is lost to history.  Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were statistical outliers, which is why we listen to their music today.  It is inconceivable that there will be no future statistical outliers.

The environmental pressures argument seems akin to the notion that great art and music are forged in the oven of the artist's suffering.  That has a romantic cachet, but not much to do with reality.  Great art and music are created by people expressing the full range of external and internal human experience, independent of prevailing technologies.  Many great artists, writers, and composers have lived quite free from crushing existential angst, spiritual torment, or material degradation.  We just tend to remember those who have not.

Second, the opposition between technology and art is a fume of ruminating intellectuals, not a big concern of artists themselves.  People disagree about the techniques William Blake used to print his poems and paintings, but he used an excellent press.  Mark Twain found humor in his relationship with that newfangled contraption called a typewriter.  Nevertheless, he delivered the first ever typewritten manuscript (Tom Sawyer) to a publisher.  Twain also claimed to be "the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in the house for practical purposes."  For decades in the backwoods of my home state of Oregon, art and technology have met in chainsaws, when men in overalls sculpt intricate tableaus from giant Douglas fir logs.  The first time I heard a Philip Glass composition for electronic instruments, I regretted that Bach wasn't around to hear it.

Third, while new technologies may seem to have aesthetically destructive effects, they do not have only destructive effects.  The observation that texting has shortened the average attention span and undermined the inclination to understand grammar doesn't require a crazy leap of faith to believe.  But disappointments with the status quo that begin with "why, when I was lad" are the inevitable detritus of advancing technology.  How many Mesopotamian youngsters were told by their elders that the current bestseller, Epic of Gilgamesh, was hack work because, unlike their ancient predecessors who used a thousand cuneiform pictographs, the current dumbed-down writers used about five hundred?

The new technologies (which include entire languages) that are publishing these words on your computer display have been invented mostly by young Americans with preternatural abilities to concentrate.  In fact, the complexity of high-tech invention requires concentration not unlike what meditation demands.  And the spontaneous "Aha!" moment has been the same for composers, writers, and visual artists throughout history.  As a poet and a programmer, I see merit in the recently coined axiom "code is poetry."  At the heart of a good poem or a good program you will find a mysterious marriage of creative vision and rigorous syntax.

Fourth, that rapidly changing technologies are jeopardizing the permanence and therefore significance of art is a legitimate concern.  But tradeoffs between durability and accessibility have been accelerating since the invention of movable type.  Paper made in this century does not last as long as paper from the fifteenth century, which did not last as long as papyrus, which did not have the staying power of cuneiform tablets, which did not have the longevity of chiseled stone.  But each of those advances brought literature to greater numbers of people and spurred literacy.  Today, the recent technologies that Mr. Patterson believes are destroying the musical and literary forces in mankind are also bringing great music, in exquisite fidelity, to billions of people centuries after it was composed.  To the extent that the evolution of forms and consciousness is a numbers game of mutational possibilities, in the long term, advancing technology would seem to be helpful to the future of art.

Bach published The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, about three hundred years after the invention of a beautiful machine called the clavichord.  Obviously, it is way too early to assert that the last several decades of technological advances destroyed the possibility of new great art and music -- especially in the United States.  Everybody knows that Americans have made (and continue to make) the greatest machines in the history of humanity.  And because the power to create machines is also the power to create art, I, for one, am staying tuned.