As technologies have been developed and then evolved, artists have exploited them in the creation of art. But is it possible to reach a point where technology exploits artists – and through them art?
(For previous essays in this series, look here.)
The work of the late Neil Postman, especially in the camps of those who sing the praises of our current era of rapid technological innovation and implementation, is treated with, if noted at all, skepticism bordering on disdain. Reactions to his 1993 classic Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology even went so far to to accuse him being a Neo-Luddite.
But Postman raises important questions about society’s relationship to technology and asks that hard question for which none of his critics (this may explain the dismissiveness of some) seem willing to offer an answer: Do we control technology – or does technology control us?
Such a difficult – and profound – question seems important for art and artists for a number of reasons.
My reference in the first essay in this series to how Claude Monet’s work was changed by the introduction of industrially produced artists’ paints can serve as a starting point for this particular discussion. Because of pre-mixed, packaged paint (two technological innovations there), Monet was more easily able to work “en pleine air” (paint scenes outside directly rather than in the studio from sketches), a change in his work habit that contributed to his discovery of new techniques for working in order to deal with the elements and their effect on his art (changing natural light, reactions of the paint to weather conditions, etc.). The changes that occurred in his work as a result of his response to and exploitation of tech innovation had profound effects for the history of visual art.
Postman, however, reminds us that technology’s effects are two way. By this he means that while we may exploit technology, as Monet did, and use it to our (and the culture’s) benefit, all the while the technology is changing us in ways that we may/may not recognize and understand. For instance, in the case of Monet, while packaged paints gave him greater freedom and flexibility in managing his “pleine air” painting, one must wonder if pre-mixed paints changed his artistic vision and made him begin to see the world around him in terms of the paints he had readily available to him because of their technological development – in other words one can ask, did Monet always paint what he saw or did he, at some point, begin to paint what his pre-mixed, packaged paint influenced him to see?
The same relationships work across other fields of artistic endeavor. Let’s look at a contemporary of Monet, the American writer Mark Twain. Twain began writing about the time of the invention of the typewriter. In fact, Twain, ever the booster of technology, bought a typewriter in 1875 and tried to write a book (one of his better known works) with the new technology. He gave it up, however, and wrote to the Remington Company that he did so because the technology made him use too many swear words. If one knows anything about the writing process and the technological limitation of the typewriter for most of its effectual life (the near impossibility – at the least unsettling messiness – of changing text once typed), one knows that the recursive nature of writing for a writer as serious as Twain would make working with pencil or pen much easier than typing. One must wonder then how the effect of working with the typewriter – with the difficulties it caused when one wanted to revise – affected the work of authors who embraced the technology. Could, for instance, Hemingway’s iconic – and laconic – style be his own creation? Or is it the reflection of his use of the typewriter coupled with another sort of technology, “newspaper writing”? (Remember, as I mentioned in the first essay, Postman’s definition of technologies includes systems of defined behavior as well as machines.) Short, simple words type more easily than long, difficult ones, after all – and read more easily, too – which would reflect the linguistic preferences of a system like newspaper journalism. So is it possible that “the Hemingway style” is a result of the effects of the technologies he adopted?
It is easy enough to see how this might extend into a field like music. The change from an instrument like the harpsichord which creates sound by plucking strings to one like the piano which creates sound via the used of hammered strings might explain the different between the crispness (and lower volume) of works by Bach and the thunderous, overlapping sounds of Beethoven who came along after the piano’s technology had matured. Bach’s compositions reflect the technology available to him – as do Beethoven’s. The transition from acoustic to electrically amplified instruments is of recent enough occurrence to be familiar and has had effects easily considered.
All this should be enough to suggest that there is a deep if sometimes unclear relationship between artists and technology and that this relationship has some profound implications for art. In the next installment we will look at the contemporary period and how these relationships have become more complicated.