Art and Tech, part 2: the uneasy relationship between artist and technology

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.)

Neil Postman (image courtesy Wikimedia)

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 it. 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 difference 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.

5 replies »

  1. “… Postman’s definition of technologies includes systems of defined behavior as well as machines …” If you make the definition so broad then you extend the use of technology right back to when cavemen began to paint and the Egyptians chose to “write like they painted” – in a schematic way that allowed for no perspective and front or back views of people or animals (as far as we know – if we had no remnants of mediaeval art other than stained church windows we might equally draw rather weird conclusions …). Hieronymus Bosch caused a stir not because he painted differently (not so much at least) but because he arranged stuff in ways unthought of before. Indeed the typewriter may have changed the way people wrote, but I presume it was the intermediate phase that changed how people always used to write: when the Grimm brothers wrote, paper was expensive and they are known, like many of their predecessors and contemporaries, to have been able to write without correcting much afterwards. Then paper and ink became ubiquitous and the fountain pen and pencil made everything easy and you could rewrite stuff at little cost. Then the typewriter may have changed it back to the original way of thinking: think first, then write without changing. I began writing with mechanical, then electric typewriters. And to this day younger people are amazed at how I write down things and hardly need to change a sentence while they often rearrange whole paragraphs etc. The next “revolution” that will truly leave incapacitating traces though will be then voice dictate coupled with automatic translation and we will see a totally different generation of “producers” that may actually begin to trust the machine to “optimize” their sentences. Because interlingual translation can just as easily be applied to same-language translation and you just set a few parameters to make you “sound like” e.g. Hemingway or Kafka or Obama etc.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Darragh.

      As I stated here and elsewhere, Postman has been criticized by those who sought to argue with his very broad definition of technology as well as by those who want to argue with his opposition to the immediate embracing of technology without some serious consideration of the consequences of making that embrace. You mention Bosch – but there are we talking about artistic vision or about his technology? It seems to me the former more than the latter, so I’m not sure of the connection there. But you certainly offer excellent examples with both the Brothers Grimm and your own experience based on the the influence of available technologies. Because I’m an inveterate reviser, my method evolved based on the technologies. I did much writing in my head, revised as I wrote with pen or pencil onto paper, then revised again in typing. For me word processing via computer has been a wonderful tool. (I’ve tried not to get into discussing “tool” use versus “technology” use, but it may be inescapable, though it gives openings for those who want to argue terminology and definition instead of the point – how technology and artists relate to each other and how that relationship affects art.)

      Your observations about the coming revolutions in “translators” of varied sorts anticipates my next essay, so I’ll save further comment on that. 🙂

      • If the question is tool vs technology, then no one has really addressed that quite as authoritatively as Pacey. In his model, technology has three dimensions: technical, cultural and organizational. Technical is the actual thing, cultural is how it is used, and organizational – think politics and policy governing how it is used.

        When most people use the term technology, they are thinking of the technical, the restricted use, and very few people really grasp how the other dimensions matter so much. He illustrates by asking us to consider the snowmobile, which we think of as one thing, but it’s really multiple things. For some northern tribes it’s used to hunt. In ski areas it’s a rescue vehicle. In other places it’s a motorcycle for winter. Same machine, but thanks to cultural dimensions it’s really multiple technologies.

    • The 20th century, Otherwise. When technology develops faster and has more Heisenbergian possibilities for art and artists than any other time in our history.