The Internet and Art

Monkeys-typing-Shakespeare

Every year the New York Times movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis write a series of memos directed to the media barons whose financial choices affect the creative output the two critics review for a living. Buried among longer memos about hiring more female directors and making fewer super hero sequels was this pithy memo from Scott.

To: The Internet

Cc: Everyone who writes about “the Internet”

From: A.O.S.

Subject: Stop confusing quantity with quality. Stop hyping the revolutionary potential of “data,” “innovation” and other empty abstractions. Stop trying to fix things that weren’t broken and breaking things that you can’t fix. Just stop.

[This message has no content.]

For someone like myself, running the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, the recognition of the basic truth of Scott’s critique is painful. But technologists need to confront the reality that putting the value of “disruption” above all others, they are currently destroying the artistic soul of modern culture with no real plan on how to rebuild what they have broken.

Consider the music business. Revenues to artists worldwide have fallen by over 50% since Napster was introduced in 2000. Even though it is now possible to access any song on any device anywhere in the world, as I wrote last week,

Spotify had gross revenues of over $600 million last year, but an artist would have to have more than 4 million plays per month to make the minimum wage of $1,160 per month.

The response of the tech community to this crisis is to suggest to musicians that they “get a real job”, by which I assume they mean writing code for some me too social sharing app that further destroys the music business.

As broadband speeds increase around the world this creative destruction tsunami is about to wreak havoc on the film and TV business. There are already far too many TV channels pouring out a torrent of junky reality shows and now we have Yahoo, AOL, You Tube, Amazon, Netflix, Crackle and probably hundreds of other OTT players throwing more crap against the virtual wall to see what sticks. As Scott says, “stop confusing quantity with quality.” In the course of human history, a limited number of people in any given generation could be considered real artists. Walk through the Prado and count the number of Spanish artists working in 1620 that stood the test of time. Valazquez, El Greco and maybe a couple of others. That’s it. You can count the number of great Rhythm and Blues artists of the 1940’s and 1950’s on two hands. By the Infinite Monkey Theory, that their typing would eventually yield Shakespeare, one would imagine that the 100 hours of video uploaded to You Tube per hour (876,000 hours per year!) over the last 9 years would have yielded us a Kubrick, Scorsese or Welles. If it has, no one has brought that filmmaker to my attention.

Now I know that no one in Silicon Valley is going to yield to Scott’s injunction to “just stop”, but I do think it is incumbent on Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and the other Tech billionaires to consider how they are destroying the artistic patrimony of our country. Last weekend I got a freebie to see Avicii, the Swedish DJ who makes more money off the live music business than almost any musician living, by remixing the work of other artists and knowing how to bring a room full of buzzed kids to a fever pitch through the largest bass speakers in the world. Was it art? Will we care about it in 20 years? Will anyone even know it existed in 200 years? The answer to all of the above is no.

But I believe that in 200 years some young guitar player will still be listening to Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording of “Crossroad Blues” and marveling at the raw power of both his voice and his guitar playing in the same way that a 15 year old Eric Clapton was moved to take up the blues life. We are currently in a state of cultural amnesia because the trivial firehose of the now that pours out of our smartphones leaves neither time nor guidance to consider the cultural banquet our forefathers have created. When was the last time you looked at one of Chaplin’s silent films or even Casablanca or Singin’ in the Rain? Writing about Gabriel Garcia Marquez a few weeks ago, I quoted this line, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” 

It may be that in twenty years, if the folks at Oxford are right, and fifty percent of the current jobs have been computerized, everyone will have the time to be an artist because there won’t be any other meaningful employment for anyone but bankers and teachers (Irony alert). I assume by then there will have to be some sort of guaranteed income to keep folks from attacking the gated communities of the 1%. But I still doubt that anymore than a few folks in any generation will pass the historical “who cares” test. I can hear now the accusations of elitism. Who am I to say what is good and what is bad? You don’t have to take my word for it, because time always sorts the great from the merely popular. Remember Milli Vanilli?

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7 Responses to The Internet and Art

  1. len says:

    How (not why) do we remember Robert Johnson at all? I recently read a fascinating article about the collecting of the pre-war race recordings explaining that had a few committed zealots not gone on collecting research binges, we’d have few of those recordings. Many of the “race” artists have disappeared from history altogether.

    So perhaps the question is becoming who “sorts” the fresh material? Right now, the only difference is it is zealots AND databases doing link counting. While the latter is the very definition of “web popular” if not “viral”, the job of the former is made easier.

    What does the web add? Collaboration at a distance and that is a powerful and novel change if added into access. It may be that self-selecting monkeys can produce greater art than has ever been possible. New instruments (say 3D printing), new media (say real-time 3D graphics) and new ways of collaborating may be more powerful than the lone solo picker trying to outdo Bob Dylan because it’s easy to beat him on the instrument (not a great guitar player) without recognizing it was not his musicianship as a player or singer but his eye to times and his heart for responding to them that made him stand out. He is “great” not because of musicality but because you love him.

    Second-rate is a curator’s way of saying “not worth the time or money”. And in a given time for given audience, that can be right. On the other hand, race records and their effect on Dylan or Clapton are the throwaway media that communicated the legacy of Johnson, a man that had not zealots become fascinated, would already be another forgotten monkey at the keys because in his time and for the money made, he was almost worthless.

    Values are not immutable. Popularity and greatness are not the same thing but unless someone wants greatness, only the first meets the curator’s financial goals. Greatness emerges from love not simply of kind, but individuals. In this, the Internet has changed only opportunity, not kind and the greatness of an individual is still in the eyes of lovers.

    • Jon Taplin says:

      Len-I would argue that the curator can help the great artist who was not popular become one of of those who last. John Hammond rescued Robert Johnson’s recordings from the dustbin of history. Van Gogh killed himself because no one would buy his art. Today his paintings sell for $100 million a piece.

  2. len says:

    Yes, if they are exposed to it and can locate it later they can. Here is where the ‘net has power but is it itself, a fair curator or is curating a fair practice? In other words, greatness is defined by the web as “inbound links” and distinguishing its judgment by that metric from the judgments of individuals who are themselves curated by the same kind and increasingly the same means of reference becomes more difficult.

    Curating is orchestrating memory and can be a kind of propagandist’s trade until correlated to the links made by others unless the distinction of credible reputable expertise is added and even here, what standards shall be applied?

    We cannot escape the dilemma of the Little Prince. “How shall I tame you?”

  3. Alex Bowles says:

    So recently I had occasion to research architecture firms doing residential work. The three that appealed the most had their own distinct styles, but were all operating in the same vein, which had been defined–in part–by the mid-Century work of Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra, and the Usonian designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. But this now-classic aesthetic wasn’t the product of architects alone. It had also been shaped by architectural photographers like Julius Shulman, Pedro Guerrero, and Ezra Stoller.

    At the time they were doing their seminal work, magazine print was largely black and white, meaning the impression most people had of these buildings was twice removed from the source. The gaps formed by the absence of space and color left a lot of room for creative interpretation, which the photographers filled with their own suggestive responses to the modernist ideal. As a result, pictures from this period were making original contributions to the underlying aesthetic being developed and expressed by the architecture being photographed. Through shots characterized by precise compositions, sharp contrasts, hard edges, and clean surfaces their work could frequently get closer to the aesthetic ideals expressed by their subjects that the subjects could get themselves. And unlike the houses, which were seen in person by very few, these photos were appearing in well-financed, high-volume, and very mainstream outlets. As vectors for modernism itself, these images were far more effective than the subjects that inspired them. Scrutinized by millions, they had become cultural reference points in their own right.

    Attuned to the simultaneously timeless and forward looking quality of appropriately photographed modern structures, the ad-driven world of graphic arts and illustration—which ran right by its side—responded in ways that drove the aesthetic deep into the visual culture. New Fords were framed by the car ports of Eichlers. Idealized consumers reclined in chairs by Eames. The geometry of oblique rooflines found its way into the panels of color separating blocks of text from the white of the page. In the world being revisited by Mad Men, architects had become the creative’s creatives. By 1960, the American Institute of Architects realized how intrinsic photography had become to the culturally redefining value that architecture was attaining. To honor the symbiosis, they had started awarding AIA gold medals to photographers.

    This broader cultural current–and not just the iconic buildings at its source–is what informed the contemporary architects I was considering. But for all the influence and accolades, what I couldn’t help noticing is that the relation today’s buildings have with photography is nothing like the one that existed in post-war era. As it turned out, the moment that the AIA formally recognized the merit of architectural photography marked its zenith as an artistic force in its own right. Its influence—dependent as it was on the ease of abstraction and impressionism found in black and white—was set to fade with the arrival of cheap color printing.

    Initially, the shift didn’t produce a sharp decline since the earliest color publishing techniques were rudimentary by today’s standards. Characteristicly, they tended to collapse subtle gradients into solid swaths of tone, producing images that came across like hyper-detailed versions of woodblock prints. By remaining slightly abstracted from reality, this look retained the imaginative gap needed to convey an abstract ideal, not to mention the high contrast, carefully constructed look and feel of the full color illustrations that had become the stock in trade for advertising agency art departments.

    Photographers as skilled as Schulman could adapt their vision with ease. But as color photography improved, it became far more faithful to scenes as they’re actually experienced. In the realm of architectural photography, this placed greater emphasis on the finished buildings themselves, detracting from earlier focus on the underlying structure and even moreso from the aesthetic movement that animated their creation. In the same way that good film editing has become an invisible art, contemporary architectural photography began to de-emphasize its own presence. No longer perched at the particular intersection of culture, media, and technology that sustained its development, its practice began shifting from art to craft, closing the book on the best of what had been done in its prime. Though the influence of material from this period persists in myriad ways, the canon is complete. Like Be Bop and Abstract Expressionism, the movement is indelibly fixed in a specific time and place.

    Reading Jon’s post I kept wondering if the same is becoming true of the media arts in general. By that I mean all forms that depend on once-protected recording (i.e. film, music, photography, and even writing to an extent). Obviously none of them are about to vanish. Quite the opposite. But their value and purposes are changing drastically. Meanwhile the engines of their genesis are being dismantled at an accelerating rate. In the same way that architectural photography enjoyed a moment of artistic transcendence in the middle of last century, it seems like the now-traditional media arts—as arts—will be rendered complete by the onset of digitization.

    In future, the media will be increasingly documentary, with influence becoming the product of invisibility in the service of seemingly direct connections between people and subjects. Alternately, it will be produced as intensely self-conscious explorations of the astonishing sum of expression that came to life in the heyday of analog mass media. Here, success accrues less to those with visionary ability, and more to those with a capacity for deep and knowledgeable reading. And as the ‘mass’ in ‘mass culture’ becomes less of an audience and more of a participant, this material will find itself getting adapted and recombined in countless ways. If the stories and gods of Homer are still with us, there’s no reason to think that this material won’t continue to appear and reappear for centuries to come.

    At the same time, the truly pioneering artists – people like Pablo Picasso, George Gershwin, and Miles Davis who have the imaginative power to reshape underlying paradigms – will have moved on, their work appearing in forms and fields that either do not exist at present, or are not presently recognized as channels for the levels of creativity and intelligence that characterize work with the sources, nuance, and depth needed to outlast the era of its origination.

    It’s worth remembering that when Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he was doing so at a time when the best painters were busy elevating themselves from their traditional status as craftsmen to the social and intellectual peers of the theologians who commissioned them. They were making high art from something that had previously been seen as mere decoration – the kind of thing that Plato would call “flattery for the senses.” Thanks to the assertiveness of the genius involved in the Renaissance, we know better today.

    So what’s next? The information revolution has set the stage. The nature of the work that will debut upon it remains anyone’s guess. In part, because so much remains undefined. That’s true not just of the commercial infrastructure supporting cultural achievement, but in the culture itself, and the ways we adapt our views to the conditions we’re irreversibly creating. The beauty of art is that it’s not about to wait. Unlike so much else is human life, it’s one of the few things that can simply will itself into existence. The structure it needs to advance comes in response to this initial development.

  4. Fentex says:

    Speaking of the Net and music, this YouTube clip was embedded in an article by a political commentator, in New Zealand, as an example that (in the bloggers words) “shows it is still possible to leap the chasm between old chain gang work songs into modern hip hop in a single bound”.

    That is something I would never have seen sans the Net except by an unlikely chain of good fortune for the musician. I have benefited, and now he might if I and others like me buy that track.

    I don’t think this illustrates a bad thing.

  5. Jon Taplin says:

    It’s nice to see the old crew back together again.

  6. Fentex says:

    Such serendipity I should stroll by, after a lengthy period, so soon after you began blogging again.

    Which on the ye olde topic of digital commerce and markets reminds me of ebooks. I have almost entirely switched to reading on my ereader (Cybook Odyssey), and not JUST because it holds back the need for glasses a few more years, all right?

    Anyway, serendipity and ereaders – the death of the bookcase for conversation material is a pain. I fear for the serendipitous discovery of interests the looming death of bookshelves represents.

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