American Culture

Art and Tech Part 3: can we know the dancer from the dance…?

The 20th century offered artists – and everyone else – the greatest number of technological advances in human history. But these advances also changed human ecology – and artists and art – in startling ways….

For earlier essays in this series look here and here.)

RCA’s adverdog Nipper and the Victrola (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The turn of the 20th century saw humanity in the midst of an onslaught of technological change that has permanently altered how we communicate, travel, and entertain ourselves. The telephone made it possible to hear the voices of friends and family over remarkable distances and receive news, especially personal news, faster than ever before. The automobile and airplane made visiting those distant loved ones first possible, then feasible, ultimately expected. And the phonograph, motion picture camera/projector and later radio and television (remember, television’s blockbuster effect on home entertainment was delayed at least a decade by World War II) made home entertainment as simple as passively sitting and listening/watching. The culture became both easily mobile and easily sedentary in one fell swoop. Modern photography, already 75 years old by the beginning of the 20th century, had been appropriated for artistic purposes for at least 50 years. However, its documentary function far overshadowed its power as an art form for many decades.

The newer technological innovations of recording and film offered artists opportunities – but unlike other technological innovations such as I mentioned in the previous essay (industrially produced paint for artists, the use of the typewriter by authors, the harpsichord’s replacement by the piano in music), these technological innovations did not necessarily lend themselves to exploitation by artists. In truth, the technological changes that developed in the 20th century changed not simply how art was made but how art was conceived and executed and how art came to be viewed in ways that we have not fully considered. A look at the changes that occurred and what their possible meanings are for us culturally seems apropos. 

Artists, Technology, Art, Criticism

The 20th century’s explosion of technological development almost immediately led to arguments among artists, writers, and musicians about how art might be defined. The move away from pure pictorial representation, already well underway thanks to the work of the Impressionists who were, it could be argued, reacting as much to the invention of photography as to what they saw as the limitations of realism, expanded and extended into movements progressing from Expressionism to Fauvism to Cubism to Surrealism to what some scholars might call “the last gasp of art,” Abstract Expressionism. Given that photography, whether still or motion, could capture the human (really any) image more accurately than any artist, artists asked themselves a simple (if profound) question: what can one depict if not the form? Their answer, in one way or another, was often the emotion or the thought. Art became less about representation of people and events and more about depicting in painting or sculpture what the artist (and by extension the viewer) thought and felt about the people and events. This is complex stuff, to be sure, and paralleling as it does the rise of a new medical “technology” (to use that word in a broader sense than merely in reference to machinery), psychology, which purported to be able to analyze and “fix” (i.e., heal or cure) mind/emotional illnesses, such art requires that general viewers have more knowledge and approach art works with a more sophisticated mindset than previously required.

The Lute Player by Franz Hals (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Franz Hals’ painting of a lute player is one sort of viewer experience. The most cursory viewing can offer one some comprehension of the work. Further discussion will depend on the viewer’s interest, knowledge of artistic technique, or other motivations to investigate the work in more depth. But even a small child could describe what Hals has done in this work. This is art that can be “appreciated,” to use the old schoolhouse term, by novice or expert.




La Mandoliniste by Pablo Picasso (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Pablo Picasso’s painting of a similar subject is a very different viewer experience. One needs considerable explanation from someone knowledgeable about art history and artistic technique to begin to explore the work and derive some sort of comprehension of what the artist is aiming at. This is art that challenges any viewer – and baffles many, if not most. This is the idea of a mandolin player as Picasso experiences it rather than a “picture” of a mandolin player. The artist’s hope here is to capture an aspect of seeing the musician that photography cannot.


Similar reactions to technology occurred in music (dodecaphony) and literature (stream of consciousness). Their direct connection to, say recording music or the telling of stories via film may seem more tenuous, but it makes sense to consider that in the case of these other art forms the artists were trying to capture something that they believed the new technologies were unable to do.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Finally, there is the artist’s critique of technology’s effects on artists – and the ramifications of those effects upon conceptions of art. What leaps to mind, of course, is the work begun by Marcel Duchamp (which he called “anti-art”) and continued by dadaists. These artists exploited pieces of technology simply by proclaiming them art (see Duchamp’s famous “Fountain” – a urinal signed by the artist – at right) and argued that creating art might be a much less structured, rule-bound activity (perhaps they saw the practice of art as a “system” and hence, a technology to be exploited or resisted) than the culture had defined.

Thus 20th Century Modernism can be seen art’s reaction to the rise of technologies. What artists may not have considered thoroughly was how their new aesthetic might be received. These new technologies changed audiences just as they changed artists and art.

Artists, Audiences, Art, Entertainment

The new technologies of communication and travel were aimed, not at artists, of course, but at the much larger public. One could drive to a museum or art gallery, to a concert hall, to a book store or library to have new cultural experiences. But one could also drive to a nickelodeon or movie theater, to a dance hall, to a magazine/comic book stand for entertaining experiences. And, as one of my friends who takes a hard economic line on – well, all human endeavor – might put it, the audience was voting with its pocketbooks for the “art” it preferred. The argument over what art people ought to be interested in versus the “art” they were interested in was perhaps one of the great arguments of the 20th century. And it is a two- pronged argument, so it makes sense to look at both of its aspects.

The first is the classic “high” vs. “low” art dichotomy. Whether one went to the ballet or the burlesque, to “legitimate” theater or to vaudeville (supplanted by movies as the century moved along) was a cultural identifier – it enforced ideas of class in what was supposed to be a classless society. The mediator of this dichotomy was school – which taught students about “high” art and generally ignored “low” art except to excoriate it for its “corrupting” effects on youth. This dichotomy thus involves another “technology” – universal public education – in its power struggle. In case you’re wondering, “high” art lost. Its identification with school, once a benefit, eventually became a liability. “High” art was “school” art – forced on the young. “Low” art had the support of the rest of the world. It was everywhere but school, coming from radios, record players, and movie screens.

This points to the second prong of that argument I mentioned above.

“Low” art – pop music in one form or another, distributed widely thanks to recording technology and radio, and motion pictures, which became narrative driven very quickly after their invention, became wildly popular with the record buying/movie ticket purchasing public. Simply said, “low” art used technology much more successfully (for multiple reasons) to attract audiences.

Radio and later television reinforced the power of technology to appeal to and influence the public. Radio programs from the 1920’s through the 1960’s offered versions of popular movies and also played music for large portions of the broadcast day, that . Television’s role in validating pop music and films as “the art of the people” was even more powerful.

It simply became a struggle between levels of exposure. The majority of people who grew up in the 20th century were exposed to “high” art in limited quantities, “low” art in vast quantities. Add to that the challenging nature of the high art produced during the century and it is not difficult to see why the public would feel more comfortable with a work such as Gone With the Wind in either its literary or cinematic forms.

“High” art’s response to this was ultimately chaotic. Abstract expressionism was replaced by pop art which took as its subject matter advertising, comic strips, and celebrity. Post modern literature spent much of its time and energy mocking itself and its readers. And modern “serious” music offered readers – silence. But for all this effort at becoming provocative as a way to become “popular,” “high” art continued to lose audience and become ever more marginalized.

In the next and final installment in this series we will look at the end of the 20th century and the arrival of the “ultimate technology” for connecting artist and audience, the Internet, and whether its oft extolled promise as an avenue for art has been a boon or bane for art of every kind.


14 replies »

  1. For years, I’ve pondered the question of what is art. It (mildly) irritates me when actors or players in a symphony are described as artists. Under my definition, (most) visual artists, writers, composers, conductors, choreographers, costume designers, stand up comedians, fashionistas, even some architects, etc, are artists. Most musicians, actors, ballet dancers, etc, etc are not. They are mainly craftsmen, in that we admire them for their ability to execute proficiently.The key differentiator is not technical proficiency, but creative quotient, specifically originality.

    That’s not a perfect definition, because obviously craft taken to a high enough level becomes art, and you can be as creative as you like, without a certain technical proficiency your creativity will never be recognized or appreciated.

    However, I’ve never convinced sold anyone on that definition and your post helps me understand why. It’s because in the early days of art, back when representation was hard to come by, craftsmen like Michaelangelo insisted on being treated as artists. (Supposedly, before Mike, the only people treated as artists in Florence were poets. Drawers and sculptors were members of guilds, like plumbers. They were just guys hired to memorialize images or decorate palaces.)

    In short, way back when, “what is art” was answered first by flamboyant craftsmen like Michaelangelo, and of course they got it wrong. Now, finally, we’re coming back to a more genuine definition. Expression of emotion isn’t perfect. I’d prefer ability to provoke thought, like the Urinal example or Picasso’s found art pieces, but it’s closer than being able to draw a straight line or move one’s fingers in a certain sequence over and over.

    • I need to hear more about your criteria. I draw a line between artists and performers for instance, but none of this is perfect. A guitarist is a craftsman and performer. The songwriter and lyricist is an artist? For me it comes down to who is doing the creating. But as I say, my definition is anything but locked in.

  2. Your defining of “what is art” seems to me a reflection of how you were educated, Otherwise. You are clearly reflecting certain 20th century concepts of art and artists. That makes sense given the time you grew up in and were educated in.

    Any definition that, it seems to me, raises writing your name on something and proclaiming it art while diminishing the hard won skills of one like, say Liszt, who was both bravura musician and superb composer makes me distinctly uneasy. I agree with you that mere technical skill is less than creative originality (though that term seems to be to be so subjective that we might never find a solid definition). But there is interpretive genius in the piano playing of a Rubinstein or the dancing of a Baryshnikov. So this whole thing gets squishy really fast.

    And where it gets potentially explosive is discussing whether someone who can create a computer program that composes music is an artist. The relationship between math and music is long established and inarguable, But is creating an algorithm that “composes” the equivalent of composing? My gut reaction is “NO” – but my critical sense tells me “not so fast – this needs more thought.”

    • Yep, it’s a thin and weak line I realize, thus my cop out that “craft can rise to art.” That basically says only creativity is art, unless you’re really, really, really aesthetically good–which would let in those damn silly actors. I’m not sure your algorithm example is exactly possible, but I get it.

      But your post really made me think about the whole democratization of art thing. Tech has certainly broadened the universe of would-be artists. 200 years ago, Sammy wouldn’t be an artist unless he learned how to draw. Now with photography, he can execute his vision. Nor would you have as many students as you do in your creative writing program if they had to compose in their head and write it out in longhand. 80,000 words in legible longhand is hard slogging. And of course 3d printing will likely do the same for sculpting. Etc, etc, etc. Just like cheap paint and rise of the liesure class made entire generations of English landscape painters, so has tech brought in millions into the fold. And as did movie technology, we will see entire new genres created.

  3. A wonderfully contentious piece, Jim! Thanks for this development in the series. Of course you already know I have a soft spot for Duchamp, so you’ll probably be unsurprised that I loved your execution of the John Cage reference as well.

    Thinking of Duchamp in the context of your article and Otherwise’s comment got me to realizing for the first time that while I think I “get” his work, I had never bothered to look at the artistic context for the piece. The Wiki article pointed me to the year 1916, and a search on art in 1916 yielded another Wiki page with links to various works. If the majority of the pieces/artists linked were any indication, I think I see why he thumbed his nose at the establishment with Fountain the way he did. Of course, I could be mistaken out of sheer ignorance, so welcome correction.

    Let’s see. We’ve got some god-awful portraiture by Modigliani, a piece by Malevich that nearly reminds me of Mondrian but not so pleasing,, a Matisse that hurts my eyes,, more god-awful portraiture (Busoni),_1916_(Roberto_Biccioni).jpg, more god-awful portraiture perhaps more suitable for magazine illustration in Fortune (Cannan), an exquisite portrait/depiction of human form by Godward that nonetheless strikes me as more about virtuosity than vision (, Bartlett’s sculpture on the House of Representatives east front (exquisite craftsmanship over artistry), a monument in Montreal by Laliberte (ditto), a stunning mosaic by Brangwyn (ditto)

    Then there’s what I think of as “the good stuff,” artist as provocateur in a style that puts me in mind of Dali, De Chirico, Metzinger’s take on cubism, Manigault’s vertiginous, even psychedelic, war critique, Levinson’s anti-war piece that puts me in mind of Picasso’s Guernica minus the pure genius, Lehmbruck’s touching presumably anti-war sculpture, Gertler’s dazzling Merry-Go-Round (again assuming commentary on the war here), and what appears to be nothing so much as a large bronze dick by Brancusi, which he claimed was actually a depiction of Marie Bonaparte

    My gut is that Duchamp was reacting to the sorts of work in my graf of links to the execrable, but I hesitate to think he would have approved the next graf either , well, except maybe Brancusi’s big bronze phallus/bust. These all strike me still as high-art, though of a more accessible sort by virtue of mixing message with captivating and sympathetic images. In that light, I think you’re correct about Modernism’s reaction to technology (especially in the anti-war context of Duchamp’s time, though not limited to that early period), but perhaps with a huge dose of Otherwise’s approach, a disdain for proficiency over originality and/or intent.

    I’d love to side with high art, but I understand its marginalization in a low art world. When it tries, it tries hard, and comes across to me as pretentious to an alienating degree. On the other hand, as you’ve discussed the democritization of art (lit in particular, IIRC), I’m unsure that everyone and his/her sibling having the great equalizer of computer graphics at their disposal has done much but elevate mediocrity to a loud, dull roar that makes it more difficult for talent to break out of its silos. Makes me wonder what Duchamp would sign today were he around.

      • Bad decisions, incomplete education, and a big mouth 😉 Apparently there’s not much of a job market for my special collection of flaws. At times I find myself enjoying and preferring the slow, dull rural life, then I second-guess myself by wondering if I’m just rationalizing it.

    • “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” – Plato
      I do find it interesting that all the comparisons you use are paintings or ‘actual’ sculpture.

      • That was the best I could do off the cuff with a quick Google search. The hazard of not having a fine arts background (or even a completed art appreciation class) mixed with an unusual groups of peers and cultural influences is that I fall onto the weird edge of the “I don’t know art but I know what I like” crowd.

        • I don’t have a fine arts background, either, Frank. Everything I’ve learned about art has been through personal experimentation, books, museum visits, books, talking with other artists, and, did I mention ?, books. 🙂 I read a great deal about different artists (often their journals and letters) and books about art. There are several of my paintings that I wouldn’t know how to categorize if it weren’t for Jim because I didn’t take any art appreciation classes either.
          I also just know what I like but what I like tends to lean towards less representational and much less ‘modern’ art. I should probably been born a hundred years or so before I was.

    • Fun comments, Frank. I think you may be talking about comparing apples to apples in a way, though. For instance, I love Modigliani – I detest Duchamp. I love Ives – I detest Cage. Chacun a son gout, as the Frenchies say, to all that. But I think Duchamp was amazing in that he fired the first salvo in what is now a century long battle about art (and I mean “art” in the broadest sense).

      I warn myself, though. I may be copping to that approach that many have taken vis a vis art that may not look like art at first glance. “Culturally significant” are the two “damn with faint praise” words most often used. Gotta think about all this some more. Cool…

      • Art is a field where, if I’m going to be wrong, I’m prone to be wayyyyyyy wrong for lack of solid grounding in it. That and it’s entirely possible I missed the point as soon as I had my “ooh, shiny!” moment when Duchamp was mentioned.

        I am kicking myself for missing a more obvious angle and departure possibly more in keeping with your theme, and that’s in the art of the print. Printmaking exploded as a field in response to improved technologies, plus it meets the industrialization of art where advances in advertising are concerned.

        • Frank, prints did explode to the point that the bottom dropped out of the market. This mainly occurred when artists started making second, even third, runs of what were supposed to limited edition prints. I personally know of one North Carolina artist that committed suicide when that happened because he had been doing less and less original work and selling more and more prints.

          We are seeing some of the same issues with the print-to-canvas in all-purpose print shops (shops that print banners, signs, T-shirts, etc.). Enter the infamous Giclée. There’s even the print-a-photo to canvas option offered by the same shops.

          I still take the approach of the “sniff test”. Just because it’s an image on canvas, at least to me, does not a piece of art make.

  4. Change the orientation of a urinal and call it a fountain….sign a urinal and call it art. Is it a fountain because we call it one? Is it art because it is labeled that way?
    Perhaps we’ve lost something along the way?
    “The love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
    “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;” – William Shakespeare, ‘Romeo and Juliet’

    Does it pass the smell test? If we call it something else does that change what it really is?

    Just as a point of comparison….