American Culture

Art and Tech Pt. 1: Known Knowns and Known Unknowns…

We live these days in a weird era where art and tech are linked in ways which I don’t believe we understand very well and don’t think about enough. Maybe we are in some transition to a culture in which tech is believed to be art and art is believed to be -I don’t know – tech…? Whatever the artist says it is…? Obsolete…?

This started out, as sometimes things do, with a conversation:

Claude Monet, technology freak (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Lea, my wife, and I were coming home from one of her art exhibition openings last night and somehow we got on the subject of Claude Monet.  The art opening was part of a series of events in which artists, writers, and craftsmen and women had simultaneously occurring book fest, art exhibition opening, and crafts fair.  This is the sort of event that arts groups hold more and more often in these same days of this our life. Artists hoped that book lovers would stop by the art exhibition, writers that art lovers would stop by the book fest, crafts people – well, people still buy crafts, kinda sorta (more than they buy fine art and books, at least), so the crafts people were likely simply being helpful.

I don’t know how well the whole series of events went off (I didn’t even go to the crafts fair because I – I don’t know – well yes I do: at least half the tables at the “book fest” were selling – crafts – yeah, I know). I hope that the artist and writer friends I ran into at the two events I attended made some sales. But at one point last evening Lea looked at me and noted, “I think everyone at this exhibit is an artist.”

Yeah. I know. This is all too common these days.

And yes, I’m rambling, but I’ll get to something in a minute. Bear with me. 

So, to that conversation Lea and I were having on the way home. At the book fest she had talked with a person who visits in schools and promotes student engagement in visual art. This person talked with Lea about the work in paint “greening” being done by the folks at Gamblin. They are finding ways of making artists’ paints that retain their vibrancy even as they remove the metals and other chemicals that make those paints toxic to artists who use them. She was pretty excited by this, as was I – and then she mentioned Monet.

It seems Monet was taken by the development of new forms of blue paint – and I noted that Monet’s painting was thus changed by technology. Lea argued that the development of new types of paint was more about science than about technology. What then ensued, of course, was a bit of bantering about the differences between tool dominated cultures and technology dominated ones, about what the difference between basic and applied scientific research, about how art is being eviscerated by technocrats.

Well, that last one was more in my head than in the conversation.

What’s been happening at an accelerating pace over the last 35 years or so (but especially over the last couple of decades) is that multiple forms of technology – and I use Postman’s broad definition of technology here, so I include the imposition of systems over human behavior in my consideration (i.e., bureaucracies, governments, business organizations, perhaps even political or economic systems) – have been having impacts on art unimaginable a few decades ago.

These impacts have affected the four main areas of any artist’s life. Whether one is a visual artist (painter, sculptor, photographer, et. al.); literary artist (poet, novelist, essayist, et. al.); or musical artist (composer, performer, et. al.), one’s ability to (1) make art; (2) reach audiences; (3) make money; (4) control one’s ownership of one’s work has been profoundly changed. While there has been a great deal of trumpeting of the liberating and democratizing effects of technologies during this period (particularly the most profound and wide reaching of these, the Internet) to aid artists (specifically with #2 and #3), the reality is that not artists but audiences – and certainly tech companies – have benefitted most both aesthetically and economically from the rise of these technologies far more than artists. Audiences have resisted paying for content they seem to see as free. Tech companies have simply taken artists’ work for their own, calling it content and refusing to pay for its use even when they themselves made money from it. So not only have artists suffered noticeably where #3 is concerned, they have also struggled with #4.

The sporadic efforts of our other reigning technologies (government, particularly) to counteract/mitigate/regulate the effects of what we might call the “super technology” of the web has been a failure for reasons that are easily understood. Especially since the financial triumph of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other giants of Internet technology, getting a government already corrupted by its close associations with corporate lobbyists to act against such giant companies has been nigh impossible. And expecting these super entities of Internet use to regulate themselves is – well, laughable. Remember that the motto of the largest of these near monopolists was “Don’t be evil.” Evidently there was a second half to that motto: “Unless it makes money.”

This is the current state of affairs. In Part 2 we will look at how artists have been able to use technology to make art – and how that use has changed/is changing definitions of art.

And whether art, in any form, can survive. Or if artists, like everyone, are merely to be sharecroppers in Google’s fields, as Cory Doctorow suggests.


16 replies »

  1. Pooh.

    This argument is wrong on so many levels it would take me ten posts to get there, so I’ll just go with a summary.


    • Wow. What insight.

      (Ow, ow, let me get my tongue out of my cheek.)

      Maybe you better write those 10 pieces, Otherwise. “Pooh” doesn’t say much other than that this piece, which isn’t an argument, it’s an expository piece (and I don’t see where I’m making any claim that one is right and one is wrong – this is inquiry) does not please the reader.

      To which I say – with great gravitas – Pooh….

  2. Hmmmm.

    I have a number of problems with this post, both in content and in tone.

    The biggest one, I suppose, is the idea of artists on a pedestal, the implicit assertion that artists are separate (and by inference) better than the rest of us, and that they are somehow under siege by technologists, specifically because technologists dont value art.

    I think pretty much every piece of that sentence is wrong.

    First of all, I believe art should be on a pedestal, but not artists, and the only art that deserves to go on a pedestal is that which has withstood the test of time. By definition, that means the only art that we can really label “art” is stuff done a generation or so ago. Anything done currently is just “art pending.”

    Secondly, there is a pervasive belief in our culture that the world is divided into two types of people–analytical/mathematical/technical and artistic/creative. An “artist” is allowed to do any art he or she chooses–many actors also write or paint or play music, often badly, but it’s their right because they’re artists. A non-artist is supposed to stick to plumbing or growing food so artists can sit back and do their art.

    It’s nonsense, it’s always been nonsense, and it’s a harmful rubric both because it forces talented people to essentially choose how they contribute but also because it allows fools a place to hide. “Oh, I’m more an artistic type” should not be a valid excuse to spout gibberish or be late all the time, just as “I’m a techie” should not be an excuse for an unwillingness to deal with emotions. This post seems to take that dichotomy as its jumping off point.

    Finally, I’m not at all sure any artists should be paid. I absolutely sure not all artists should be paid. As a general rule, people should be paid for things other people want. It goes back to our ancestors around the fire–give the story teller a scrap of meat from the hunt to tell a story. If I want to hear someone sing, I should pay her. If I want a picture on my wall, I should pay an artist. If I want to read a book, I should pay an author. To the extent an artist does things other people are willing to pay him or her for, they should be paid. However, most artists (myself included) want to be paid for things we want to do. We want to paint what we paint or write what we write and get paid for it.

    There are two problems with that. First of all, it violates the laws of economics. If no one wants it, there’s no reason for money to change hands (even through the indirect method of taxation and grants.) Second, it violates the laws of common sense. Making art is fun, it’s a privilege. It doesn’t make sense that you should get paid for something you’d do for free without getting paid. Taken to reducto ad absurdum, envisage a world in which no one works and everyone sits around creating his or her version of “art.” (Come to think of it, that’s not so absurd–it’s basically the British middle class today.)

    Now artist-types don’t like that argument, and immediately fall back on some version of only “real artists” should be paid. I won’t go down that rat hole–it’s in the same boat as only “good teachers” should be paid more. Suffice to say there’s no valid way to sort out real artists from eager amateurs, art politburo’s not withstanding.

    Just as a side note, in defense of technologists, many of them also believe that information and technoolgoy should be free as well, so at least they’re consistent.

    I could go on and on–this post pretty much captures everything I don’t beleive in, but enough is enough.

    • Hmm…

      I have a number of problems with this response, mainly in content. but if I run out of stuff to yammer about, I’ll pick on tone. 😉

      1) The economic arguments here come straight from the techie Randian talking points memos – let’s simply dismiss those out of hand as self-serving to those who take content WITHOUT paying for it. Those technologists who believe information and tech should be free have certainly monetized each and every aspect of what they claim should be free at every opportunity. So pooh to that…

      2) The argument about whether this or that artist should be paid is spurious on the face of it, elitist underneath. I’m not at all against elitism, but I am opposed to the spurious. If they can write their six part saga of cave story tellers and how they earned their meat and people want to read their tripe, I’m okay with that. I have to be. That’s the system at work – isn’t it? We know too well, you and I, that some writers write wonderfully but write “outside the silos” that make typecasting their writing complicated and so have difficulty finding homes for their work. While many, too many, write badly (or worse, competently but without flair, oomph, whatever one might call the indefinable quality that makes one, in another art form, walk past a Timberlake original to look at a Monet print, for example) but market brilliantly and achieve in some cases breathtaking success. Is art only commerce.

      3) That you want to so completely separate the artist from the art is also dubious – this insistence on separating product from producer is illustrative of what’s wrong with our economic system and our culture, I believe. I’m not really interested here in dividing the culture into “artists and non-artists” as you try to suggest. But given that you raised the point, that also raises the question of deciding who gets to be an artist and who doesn’t. What you engage in there is a form of abstraction – the sort one sees all the time in corporate discussions of “assets, resources,” etc. when they’re talking about people who have been competent and loyal workers but are dispensed with in the name of profit. The people who make art are artists. As I said in the opening of this piece, making art involves adapting new technologies and has effects on the art made – as it did with my example, Claude Monet.

      4) Artists are in a weird relationship with tech at this point in history because more than how technology affects the making of art is affecting artists. We need discussions and inquiries into how tech benefits/misleads/harms artists – and by extension art. That is why this will be a multi-parter.

      5) The tech companies’ behavior towards content creators (who might be called artists) has been scurrilous. Drawing attention to that is nothing new – and it won’t stop them, impede their behavior, or in any way affect their bottom lines.

      6) Who says making art is only for fun, only a privilege? Milton Friedman? Pooh. Given the nonsense he spouts on every other aspect of economic behavior, double pooh. Not everything in life is economic. Artists do work – they try to sell it. How much more simple economics can we get? A change in the system – such as a new technology – has profound effects – but usually on only one of those 4 areas I mention, – making art, finding audience, selling art, ownership. What sets this period we are in apart from others is that all 4 areas are being affected at once – perhaps for the first time.

      One more point which I haven’t gotten to. Tech is changing our definition of what art is – that has happened before and will probably happen again. But it’s always important to note such watershed moments.

      Stay with me. We’re a ways from all this unraveling. And remember, it’s meant to be more an expository inquiry than an argument for either side. In part 2, for example, I’m going to bang on artists some. And let me be clear – by artists I mean all creatives whether visual artists, writers, musicians. Methinks there is probably an argument to have about whether those who do craft work are artists. But again, that’s just me being elitist.

    • Enough is enough, indeed.

      I just paused in working on a commissioned portrait because I was tired and afraid of “muddying it up”. That’s work – the fun comes in with the finished product to which you can be proud to sign your name.

      “First of all, I believe art should be on a pedestal, but not artists, and the only art that deserves to go on a pedestal is that which has withstood the test of time. By definition, that means the only art that we can really label “art” is stuff done a generation or so ago. Anything done currently is just “art pending.”’

      I’ve read Jim’s piece twice and I didn’t see any mention of putting artists or art on a pedestal. Most artists are not interested, at least those I’ve been around in recent years, in being put on a pedestal and the ‘test of time’ argument is exactly why dead artists’ work often sells better than current work in the art market.

      “Finally, I’m not at all sure any artists should be paid. I absolutely [sic] sure not all artists should be paid.”

      I want to be able to put in my 14 hours a day of work (painting, framing my work myself, pulling together the paperwork required for every exhibit entry, and keeping track of sales, taxes, and expenses) and get some economic benefit. I don’t care about being rich from my work but being able to at least cover the cost of supplies would be nice.

      “Secondly, there is a pervasive belief in our culture that the world is divided into two types of people–analytical/mathematical/technical and artistic/creative. An ‘artist’ is allowed to do any art he or she chooses–many actors also write or paint or play music, often badly, but it’s their right because they’re artists. A non-artist is supposed to stick to plumbing or growing food so artists can sit back and do their art.

      “It’s nonsense, it’s always been nonsense, and it’s a harmful rubric both because it forces talented people to essentially choose how they contribute but also because it allows fools a place to hide. ‘Oh, I’m more an artistic type’ should not be a valid excuse to spout gibberish or be late all the time, just as ‘I’m a techie’ should not be an excuse for an unwillingness to deal with emotions. This post seems to take that dichotomy as its jumping off point.”

      As for tone, these paragraphs have an undertone of disdain for artists that I find untenable. I have grown my own food, I have remodeled houses, and I have worked in corporate jobs (retail, hotel, financial services). The idea that being an artist is being a-fool-in-hiding (to paraphrase you) is pretty harsh .

      As for the division of artistic/creative versus analytic/mathematical/technical I can only say from my personal experience it is possible to have both. I graduated magna cum laude with a BS in Accounting and worked most of my life in the securities industry – a great deal of that work being project management. I became a person who was sought out to go into units that were a mess and put them back on track. That required analysis – what are the problems, what is causing the problems (e.g. lack of skill, lack of training, limited resources, technology limitations,etc.) and come up with solutions to correct the problems. Sometimes that involved simple mathematical solutions such as teaching staff how to back into interest rates (required to pay shareholders in a system) from a Federal Reserve feed that gave total shares and total dollar payment. I spent two years working as a business technical analyst assisting in the development of a GUI front-end technology to replace an outdated in-house technology (still on CRT’s). When system conversion occurred, and my team was well-prepared when it took the rest 18 months to get back on track, I was chosen to determine, at a department-wide level, how to improve processes and implement them. By the way, some of the most creative people I’ve met are systems programmers. And artists do have to use technical skills that involve math – like geometry involved in perspective.

      Artists may see the world differently – light and shadows, tones and hues, relationships of shapes – but that doesn’t mean that what we do is any less work than customer service, plumbing, or settling stock and bond trades. One type of work is any less valuable or “worthy” than another in my opinion.

  3. And I suspect you’d find, were you to study it rigorously, that new technologies have made it more possible for more artists to make money by finding audiences, e.g., by publishing on Amazon. I’d guess there are far more people being paid for writing and painting today than fifty years ago.

    The data series don’t go back far enough, but if you look ten years ago (2003) there were 9,690 people in the US making their living as fine artists (27000-1013,) and they had an average income of $44K. Now (2013,) there are 11980 people making their living as fine artists and they make $51K. That doesn’t sound like evisceration to me. It sounds like growth.

    The number of writers and authors hasn’t changed during that time period, but average wages have gone up from $50K per year to $69K

    • I looked deeply into this a few months ago and found, in part, “The number of solo/independent artists in the United States has increased over 39% in the first decade of the 21st century; if you look closely at the Bureau of Labor Statistics information, the landscape of the world of the artist is not as positive.

      According to the BLS, the “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation” industry – which are not equivalent categories – has over 1,750,000 workers employed. But included in that figure are jobs like Athletes and Sports Competitors; Coaches and Scouts; Umpires, Referees, and Other Sports Officials; Radio and Television Announcers; Reporters and Correspondents; Public Relations Specialists. When it comes to “Independent Artists, Writers and Performers” there are close to 50,000 workers. However this still includes occupations like Entertainers and Performers, Sports and Related Workers, Athletes, Coaches, Umpires, and Related Workers, and Broadcast and Sound Engineering Technicians and Radio Operators. The actual number of independent Fine Artists, Including Painters, Sculptors, and Illustrators is 4,070 workers making an average $32,500 year.” (if you want to see more details….

      Stated statistics can be deceiving without a deep dive into the data.

  4. Jim

    As you know, I like you. But I don’t like this argument.

    I get frustrated with Scrogues whenever we get to economics, you all think that by labeling an argument “Randian” or “corporate,” you throw up your arms like “Rocky” and dance around the ring.

    The truth is that Rand and Friedman are right much of the time. The problem isn’t that markets don’t work–the problem is they do, and we don’t like the dislocations that result, e.g., wage disparity and unemployment. So we decide to intervene. Every politician believes in economic intervention, it’s only a matter of degree. Some intervene to keep defense contractors whole. Some intervene to keep jobs in Detroit. Rand was right that the Soviet Union intervened too much. She went too far in the other direction and it’s not completely her fault that her writing was adopted as the official voice of sociopathy.

    1) No, my principles don’t come from Rand, but I do have a degree from University of Chicago, so I do come with a similar frame

    2) Hopefully, I fall into the bucket of wonderful writers who cant sell thier work. And my answer to that is those of us in that bucket either need to learn to write tripe or we need to find another way to pay the mortgage. The funcamental problem with any argument that begins “…deserves to be paid…” is it requires someone to pay them, and the question is “Who, pray tell?” It certainly makes sense to me that someone should be paid by someone who values what they do, which is what I argued. But let’s take the case of the brilliant writer who can’t sell a word. Who exactly should pay him? If a publisher pays him more than he earns, by definition that’s coming out of another writer’s pocket. If the government gives him a stipend, that means it’s coming out of taxes, which is of course our pocket. And, again, who exactly decides who gets paid? It’s a nice argument, “Artists should be paid,” but there’s just no way to do it.

    3) No, you’re not thinking clearly here. I’m not engaging in abstraction at all. Exactly the opposite. I’m engaging in rigor, or as Sam calls it, critical thinking.

    6) I dont mean to argue all art is fun, but I mean that if you don’t earn a living at it and do it anyway, then it’s a hobby, a pleasant past time. That’s the definition of a hobby, something you do even though you don’t get paid for it. I’m not trying to denigrate art, just to suggest you either do it for money or you don’t. If you do, then you have to produce what the market wants or you won’t get any money. If you do it despite not making any money, then you must enjoy it or why would you do it. I’m not trying to make an argument about how the world should work, just stating empirical reality.

    And part of my downfall as an artist is I will not sit at card tables beside people who write tripe or who sell birdhouses made out of used catherters. I’m about as elitist as an artist can get. The only difference is I’ve come to terms with not getting paid.

    • This is another instance of a discussion that we have been having for a long time, Otherwise. And it may be the ideal opportunity to shed some light on the problem we have, because your comments here are an almost archetypal statement of the position that needs critiquing. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I’d like to base the discussion on what I’m actually SAYING instead of a position that you attribute to me that I don’t believe at all, and that I have told you on multiple occasions I don’t believe.

      Let’s start with this. You think that I (and Jim, and Denny, and others) believe that markets don’t work, and that this is our problem. You’re wrong. NOBODY is saying that markets don’t work. On the contrary – MARKETS WORK REALLY WELL. To the best of my recollection, no one has ever said, in this space, that markets don’t work.

      The thing we’re saying – and this is the point you have refused to engage repeatedly – is that markets work in ways that are not always good for society. It’s important to uncouple this one. X working and X being good are different things. Feudalism worked. Soviet Communism worked. Divine Right monarchies work. That is, they are systems designed to serve a particular purpose, and they serve(d) those purposes well.

      A productive debate doesn’t begin and end with the question of whether a system works. It has to examine the deeper question: works at what? Is the thing it works at a desirable thing?

      It’s like with people. The other day I read that Obama’s new Defense nominee has a reputation for getting things done. A lot of folks would have seen that and instantly concluded great – we need to get things done. I didn’t. My radar went up – good at getting what kinds of things done? Dick Cheney was good at getting things done. Donald Rumsfeld got things done. Reagan got things done. Haldeman and Erlichman got things done. The best example in history of a guy who got things done was probably Himmler.

      No, market types aren’t Himmler. The point is that “markets work” is a statement that is a) true, b) beside the point, and c) illustrative of the fact that you have not understood the argument that people like Jim and I are actually making. You’re waging a lively argument over a point that is not at issue.

      This happens because you seem to take markets as an article of faith, as a first principle, a dogma. The issues we’re raising aren’t interrogated for what they are. You say markets work. We say markets work in ways that are bad. You reply that we don’t understand that markets work.

      So once and for all, let’s be clear – nobody is arguing that markets don’t work. Nobody.

      You go on to put your finger, very appropriately, on things I think matter – to wit, the fallout of markets working. And no, I don’t like those things. Markets, left to themselves, very efficiently destroy a lot of lives. They must be regulated, and the question becomes in what way?

      Let’s examine one of the cornerstones of markets: efficiency. We’ll start by noting that literally NEVER does one hear that word used in a pejorative way. Efficiency is ALWAYS seen as good. But it isn’t always.

      Consider a hypothetical case of a corporation implementing new technologies or processes to improve efficiency. Now, one upshot might be that the company is able to do a LOT more with its resources, improving revenues and enhancing the lives of its workers, creating new jobs, bolstering the community, etc. This is all very good and I’d regard it as a triumph of markets and efficiency.

      There’s also the other scenario, where this new efficiency allows the company to lay off dozens, hundreds, even thousands of workers and destroy families and communities. There’s not much in America these days that’s more efficient than Walmart, and the research on the damage they have done to the culture goes on forever.

      In the end, you’re having a different argument than I am. I have repeatedly acknowledged that you’re right about your argument, and it’s frustrating when that point isn’t acknowledged, and worse, when you then rebound with some remark suggesting that I don’t really understand markets. I get what amounts to a pat on the head and bless your heart and sent on my way.

      Meanwhile, you ignore the point that is being made in counter. Ignoring that point is not the same thing as refuting it, and it doesn’t mean that the tactic wasn’t noticed.

      Yes, I care about art and education. Yes, I wish I made more money at my artistic endeavors. But none of that is the issue. The real issue, and the one I’d like you to address, is this: what kind of society do we want? Are we happy with our degree of wealth inequality? Are we okay with policies that allow us to annihilate communities so that a guy with a billion dollars can have two billion dollars?

      You’re a talented consultant, so you know how this works. When you’re brought into a company, the first thing you do is figure out what you want to accomplish. Once you know what the goal is, then you figure out the means.

      Same thing with political economy. Step one: what kind of society do you want? Once you know that, THEN you decide on the best system to accomplish it. You don’t pick the system first – that’s cart before horse, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

      I believe that markets are very good for accomplishing a lot of what America wants to accomplish, and I am not agitating for some kind of socialist poetocracy. I ain’t that stupid. But I do believe that the Randian/Friedmanesque excesses of what we have now are very efficiently, very effectively, working to deliver a society that we do not want.

  5. Otherwise wrote: “And part of my downfall as an artist is I will not sit at card tables beside people who write tripe or who sell birdhouses made out of used catheters.”

    Sorry I missed you at the book fest Friday night. Didn’t know you were there til I saw this. 😉

    Look, again, what I am going to do in this series is look at the relationship between technology – in a broad use of the word – and art at the present time. I am less interested in making an argument than in looking at what is going on – though I reserve the right to criticize anything going on that seems to me questionable in terms of artists rights to make a living.

    Your income figures for “working writers” take into account that Patterson makes $30 million a year and that someone like you or I makes – well, less than that, so average incomes can be misleading. Patterson makes an interesting example because his methodology is well known and lends itself to some consideration of whether or not he is an artist. He is sort of “writer as corporation” in a sense, isn’t he? And by the Postman definition, that makes him an adopter of a technology – sort of a technocratic approach to art.

    I’m thinking perfectly clearly about what I want to discuss here which is this new dynamic of tech affecting all parts of artists’ careers. You’re thinking I am going to go in another direction, I believe and do my usual ivory tower ranting. I’m really more interested in the inquiry here than in the argument. To tell the truth, we don’t may not have all that much to argue about once you see other parts of the series.