Arts bloggers love to get all techno-utopian about the way in which advances
in technology, especially the internet, are wonderful for the arts. I’m far
from convinced: I think technology can cut both ways.
Take recorded music, for example. The advance from LPs to CDs was
an advance: you could put more music on a disc, you could store it a lot more
easily, you didn’t have to worry about warps and pops and scratches, etc etc.
What’s more, for the vast majority of the population, there was a large increase
in sound quality as well.
Then, however, we moved from CDs to MP3s. An entire generation is growing up
which listens to its music downloaded from the internet, in formats which are
generally much worse than CD-quality. What’s more, because it’s stored on a
computer it’s normally played on a computer as well, through nasty computer
speakers rather than through a reasonably good stereo system.
Even people who still buy CDs on a regular basis, like me, often simply rip
them onto their computers and then play them, either on their computer or through
their stereo, from iTunes or the like. It’s a lot more convenient, but there’s
no doubt you lose sound quality. And if you’re working on the computer at the
same time as playing music, you’ll end up with your stereo making weird pinging
and clicking noises occasionally, which is definitely suboptimal.
Standards, then, when it comes to music at least, are certainly on the decline.
For every audiophile upgrading from CD to SACD,
there are thousands of regular people who are downgrading just as far by moving
from CD to MP3. Just look at the enormous success of the iPod, which comes with
rather nasty little white earbuds as standard. The vast majority of consumers
don’t seem to mind in the slightest.
What goes for music, it would seem, goes for art, too. Check out the article
today by gadget reviewer David Pogue in the New York Times, on something called
the Roku HD1000. This is a box, basically, which will "play" your
digital photographs on your high-definition TV set. Pogue raves that "photos
look spectacular, crisp and clear on a high-def set," and then moves on
to the Classics Art Pack, which "cycles through 50 famous paintings by
Monet, Manet and about 30 other dead guys whose copyrights have expired."
Soon, Pogue has been transported to seemingly another planet entirely:
Hate to say it, but the vivid, glowing pixels of a TV do better justice to
the color and texture of these masterpieces than dried paint.
Even better than the real thing, as Bono might say.
Suddenly, I have visions of technology billionaires founding a national franchise
of art museums to be built in towns and small cities – hell, even big
cities, for all I know – around the world. Kitted out with HD plasma screens,
they’ll be able to show whatever masterpieces they want: a Rembrandt retrospective
one week, Van Gogh the next. The largest permanent collection in the world –
all easily accessible to people thousands of miles from Vienna or Paris or New
The David Pogues of this world would love it: no inconvenient travel! No annoying
crowds! And, to top it all off, pictures which glow!!!
It’s easy to get sarcastic about this sort of thing, but we’re talking a high-profile
New York Times journalist here, judging paintings by how vivid their, um, pixels
are. There are surely lots of Thomas Kinkade lovers out there who might share
Pogue’s enthusiasms, but they don’t normally get staff jobs on 43rd Street,
and if they do, they generally know better than to start parading their lowbrow
prejudices in front of the entire planet.
In the case of technology, however, there seems to be a general idea that technology
is, ever and always, good. You know those dioramas you see in Chinese takeaways,
where a rotating light is placed behind the river so it looks like it’s flowing?
Well, you can get that in high-tech form now, and rather than laughing at it,
Pogue embraces it wholeheartedly.
In the Nature pack, some of the photos have somehow been animated: brooks
flow, flowers blow, clouds drift across the sunset sky. Only a handful of
photos in each set are alive like this, but leaving even one of them "playing"
on your wall all day is so majestic, powerful and calming, it will probably
add two years to your life.
Trust me, that isn’t sarcasm: Pogue’s really into this kind of thing, and the
Times seems more than happy for him to wax rhapsodic about it. Here’s my theory:
when art and technology intersect, all joined-up thinking generally goes straight
out the window. Look at the way Terry Teachout extols the virtues of satellite
radio, blind to the virtues
of its old-school cousin. Look at the "internet biennial" at the Whitney
Museum in 2000, where curators desperately competed with each other to get excited
about Websites As Art.
As technology progresses, there’s always a strong temptation not to appear
Luddite, and therefore to give every new technology the benefit of the doubt.
But it’s equally important, I think, for art lovers to occasionally stand up
and say the emperor has no clothes. In this case, that’s easy: I doubt many
museum professionals want glowing pictures on their wall instead of paintings.
But when it’s someone more important than David Pogue, it’s harder. Remember
when fax machines were new and special, and David Hockney started faxing
his work to art galleries around the world? As I recall, the critics were pretty
soft on him.