Art and technology

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.

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One Response to Art and technology

  1. geoff says:

    i would like to think that even the most ardent of thomas kinkade admirers would rather own an original vs. a print.

    i also think you should worry less about the postmodern discussion about signs and signifiers within the context of their medium that this article suggests and be more worried about who would own the rights to the digital art ‘prints’,39020651,39118834,00.htm

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