How robots replaced amateur artists.

James Matthew Wilson, an editor at Front Porch Republic, has posted the first four sections of an essay called “Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic,” and the fifth and final section is on its way. Though he’s posted excerpts for discussion at FPR, the full text is at First Principles (parts one, two, three, and four). If you’re interested in the fine arts and even a bit favorably disposed to the kind of conservatism that advocates “local and limited government founded on enduring cultural traditions, stable and self-sustaining communities, and, above all, the Christian intellectual legacy which informs all things by means of faith and reason,” it’s worth printing it all out and finding a quiet place to spend some time with the essay. By way of contrast, if you find that kind of conservatism to be a cover for all manner of nefarious schemes, you might want to do something else with your time. I suppose it’s enough to say that Wilson calls for conservatives to attend to the fine arts and also argues against theories of art that conceive of aestheticism without beauty. For the latter purpose, he draws on Jacques Maritain and, perhaps more surprisingly, Theodor Adorno. (The section on Maritain will be the final one, it will be published sometime in the next month.)

Though I’m very much an amateur when it comes to appreciation of any of the fine arts, I’ve spent some time dabbling in theological aesthetics and my Platonist side loves any project that aims for the unity of the transcendentals. I imagine a healthy artistic culture as one where the popular arts draw one’s gaze upwards, so to speak. Or, from the other direction, a healthy culture would have paths by which amateurs could approach high art: sort of an idealized version of Christendom. Our culture, I’m pretty sure, is not such a culture. Sometimes when I’m in a reflective mood I get rather stunned by the amount of repetition I’m willing to stomach in pop music: the same chord progressions, the same rhythms, the same song structures repeated again and again and again. And the same goes for the, well, artlessness of the motion pictures and television programs I so often watch. I don’t say it’s a bad thing that entertainment exists which is easy to absorb passively. What I lament is that the kinds of passive entertainments to which we expose ourselves so rarely even gesture at what is more sophisticated. Immersion in our culture’s popular entertainment rarely provides tools for understanding or approaching high art.

I want to say it doesn’t have to be this way, but I sometimes fear we’ve passed over a threshold, and the technology we structure our lives around has destroyed the conditions under which fine art and popular entertainment can be bonded together. Even as technology has empowered the amateur artist, it’s also done a great deal to render her irrelevant. For example, before the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s, if you wanted to hear music, you had to either get someone to perform it for you or learn to play it yourself. To put it simply, people must have needed more musicians, both amateur and professional, but cheap dissemination of recordings reduced this need, and thereby took away an incentive for becoming musically literate. These days, you can be a devoted music fan and still know nothing at all about how music works.

So I suppose what I’m getting at is that I’m all for a regenerated appreciation of the high arts, but it seems pretty clear to me that there’s no simple return to music or poetry or painting as it was in the past, since the forms that used to be popular arose from conditions which no longer exist.

This is something I’d like to explore in more detail, but I’m not exactly sure where to start. Further, I have no doubt that there are multiple texts I should read before opining any further, including some of what Wilson talks about in his essays. Any suggestions from the readers for books or articles on technology and the decline of art music?

(Apologies for the title. The best bloggers think of snappy quips, puns, or quotations for their post titles, but I couldn’t come up with anything like that. The choice was between weird and boring, so I chose weird. Feel free to suggest alternate titles in the comments.)

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8 thoughts on “How robots replaced amateur artists.

  1. “To put it simply, people must have needed more musicians, both amateur and professional, but cheap dissemination of recordings reduced this need, and thereby took away an incentive for becoming musically literate. These days, you can be a devoted music fan and still know nothing at all about how music works.”

    I honestly don’t know how to feel about this… they did a study where X% of, I think it was, Japanese Children had Perfect Pitch (that is, they could hear a note out of context and tell you if it was a B-flat, or an E, or whatever) when some *MINISCULE* percentage of American Children had the same talent (relative pitch is a skill… you hear a B-flat and then hear another note within an octave and being able to name it… that’s something that you can train. Perfect pitch, as I understand it, is something that people either have or do not).

    Hell, being a philosophy student once meant that you knew Greek, Latin, Italian, and German. Being a theology student meant that you knew Greek, Latin, German and Hebrew. To read a text meant to read it in the original. Now we have Babelfish. Now we have favorite translators, even. We read Kaufmann when we want to read Nietzsche, Ciardi when we want to read Dante, and Fox when we want to read Genesis.

    Our scholars are dumber than the scholars of old. (Or, maybe, just me.)

    That said… it’s wonderful that so much is now available to so many. If I want my best friend to read Nietzsche, I can just hand him a book. There. Done. I don’t have to read it, then translate it, or get a new best friend (one that speaks German this time).

    And the same for music. When I hear something delightful, I can go to my friend and say “here, listen to this guy play this flute at the same time that that guy does this on the piano and that guy plays percussion!” Our music appreciation is dumber…

    But, once upon a time, we would have had nothing. Now we have a feast!

    The downside of the feast, of course, is that it also allows for such things as Lady Gaga and World of Warcraft. Why listen to something interesting when you could listen to something unchallenging? Why read when you can do the computerized equivalent of m&m sorting as you grind to get from level 78 to level 79?

    Everybody has access to the biggest library in the world, containing all of the music, all of the books, all of the art… all of civilization, really. And most of the traffic involves pictures of tits.

    Ah, well.

    Great essay. It got me thinking/depressed.

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  2. I agree with some of the points you’re making here. But I want to challenge the notion that somehow earlier art- be it music, sculpture, literature- was somehow qualitatively better than all that exists now. I think we do have to wade through a lot more garbage than our ancestors did, simple due to advances in technology and diminishing costs of production and distribution. However, you cannot possibly believe that everyone who was engaged in the enterprise of art prior to, say 1930, was skilled in their medium.

    In our age, there is an abundance of great art, if you seek it out. I spend hours each week reading indie music blogs and listening to tracks so that I can find great music. If one ventures outside of the corporate chain bookstores, you’ll find plenty of books worth reading. I’d imagine the same case can be made for art- skip some of the big name museums and check out smaller galleries (though the large museums have amazing collections, I am still pissed off at the MFA in Boston for its Herb Ritts exhibition in the 90’s).

    I suppose what I am saying is that, sure mainstream art is largely crap. But there are ample opportunities to experience non-crap, it just might take a little bit more effort.

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    • I agree; and I’ll make a case using music, since I’ve spent the last 33 years living with a jazz musician.

      Before recorded music, what people heard depended on the skill of the musicians they encountered. A guitar player, fiddle player, or pianist with limited skills but a good sense of timing and stage presence could define “great.” With recording, there became a comparable standard of good for listeners. But even more important, came the ability to capture what ‘good’ sounds like for players. Technology advanced the ability of a musician to learn from other musicians without being in the same room. My husband spent countless hours learning from John Coltrane, even though he never picked up a saxaphone to play until years after Coltrane died. He did the same with Bill Evans, who we saw perform live before his death, but the learning was with the recordings and a piano, not in the concert hall.

      I know, there’s written music. It’s important, but a transcription doesn’t impart most of the musical technique a skilled musician brings to the table.

      Music is as ephemeral as the spring blossoms without technology; it’s played and then it’s gone. Technology allows a student to hear what great music sounds like; even a student swamped in a culture of pop music can search out the work of Miles Davis, Nina Simone, or John Lennon.

      Today, anyone who wants to learn can listen to the work of masters, ready to fill your ears, thanks to technology. And with new technology, anyone with a computer and a mic can now make a relatively good-quality recording. Social networks can help you locate music you would never have heard when the big record companies acted as the gate keepers.

      Sure, there’s plenty of crap. But some of that crap is the learning stages of musicians gaining mastery; and some masterful art is gaining audience that would otherwise languish in obscurity and disappear like the spring flowers in July.

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      • From Justin:

        “However, you cannot possibly believe that everyone who was engaged in the enterprise of art prior to, say 1930, was skilled in their medium.”

        And I certainly don’t. I’ve stumbled across plenty of bad art from earlier ages, as some of it has been inadvertently preserved alongside things worth preserving. Try an old hymnbook for some astonishing clunkers, both poetically and melodically.

        Justin and zic,

        The paradox is something that I suppose applies more broadly with technology, as Jaybird described above. We have the kinds of direct access to art and information that our ancestors could only dream of. But technologies that have given us this access have at the same time displaced intermediate practices. Because you can listen to the masters any time you want, you don’t need clumsy amateurs who are slightly better than you to give you some idea of how it goes.

        This is important for a culture of fine art because while access is up and many artists are doing good work (I’ve been listening to Arvo Pärt), it seems that artistic literacy is down at least in part because of technological displacement, and so it’s hard for me to imagine a culture-wide renewal of interest in art music or stand-alone poetry.

        As a side note, I like a bunch of indie-rock bands, but it’s pretty rare that formal complexity, which is to say engagement with the properties of music, is a virtue of what they perform. I find it’s often a combination of lyrics and personality set to (sometimes)-better-than-average-for-pop-music arrangement and performance that draws me in.

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