Is technology destroying high art?

Is your vision of the future one in which we are all mindless drones who don't know how to make anything?

I'd like to try and ease your mind.

"The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders." - Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Author, 1964
Implicit in the idea that technology makes our lives easier is that artisan-ship and high culture is being eroded away by technology, because there is less of a need for mastery. My father is a potter and I have watched the appreciation and value of his work wane as Target rolls out mass produced pottery that looks more and more handmade. Each year they are able to mass produce handmade "look-alikes" with increasing variety and thus the layman increasingly can not see the difference. Adobe Photo Shop killed the photo airbrushing industry, cinder blocks diminished the number of fine stone masonry craftsman, the printer almost wiped out the profession of fine calligraphy and more. My goal is not to disprove that idea, but to make it sound not as bad as it seems. I'll be using the developed western world for my examples, since that is where technology is having its largest impact in this area.

If you look at the 1600's in France and Italy for instance, it looks as if there was an amazing golden age of art and culture. You look at history and you say to your self, "we don't make anything like this anymore, it is so sad." Such was my own experience when I moved to France during my college years. I went to Europe and looked at the craftsmanship in all the buildings from that time period. It is amazing! I said to my self, how could we have lost our value for such things. Though these marvels of history are amazing and unique you have to balance that with the understanding that for every amazing old building that survived there were thousands of plain, unremarkable grass thatched roof buildings that no longer are standing. Only the magnificent survived, because it was deemed worthy of preserving. And then suddenly the golden age of art starts to loose a little of its luster.

Continuing this line of logic. You realize that these paintings in museums were commissioned by the wealthy and were not a common part of the fabric of society, except in churches as every where else, they were locked away in the wealthiest estates. As, in turn, what is commissioned and produced today is locked away in rich estates as well, and so, like before, high art remains exceptional and rare. Nothing has changed. The difference being between the old and the new is that the art of the renaissance was seized by the revolutionaries (who killed their rich people) allowing for these wonders centuries later be put on display for us. The wealth of the ages concentrated into public spaces across the globe in museums that only number in the hundreds on a planet with over 7 billion citizens. Centuries of art concentrated into a few handfuls of buildings. This can create a distortion that art was plentiful at one time and thus artistry was plentiful.

This distortion is furthered even more by the ratio of mass produced goods we have in comparison to hand made things. It's not that there is less art, it's that the ratio of mass produced goods to hand made goods is increasing. But more of one thing does not make less of another. It's not that we don't own hand made things anymore, it's that the poor can own stuff now and they don't have to save 3-7 months to buy something like a wooden chair. The "have-nots" now have and can own things like Scandinavian furniture from IKEA. These people in an equivalent socioeconomic class 500 years ago would be lucky to have a non dirt floor. There is just more stuff, art production is where it always has been, in the hands of the wealthy. Having more of one thing does not make there any less of the other thing, it just makes it seem diluted.

The last thing you should consider as you marvel at the art of the enlightenment and renaissance, is that you may not be taking into account the shear increase in the types of available art forms that now exist. You think less "Greek sculpture" instead of more "sculpture in general." You may not see many Greek statues being carved today, but there is a huge amount of new sculpture being done every day that does not fit into the classical category.

Take it a step further and add in all the jobs that require mastery, everything from app designers, to life coaches, to authors, to people in science and engineering. Most people one hundred years ago worked on farms, in mines and in factories. The amount of jobs requiring a high level of mastery have dramatically increased. Even when you compare the professionals of today against the craftsmen of yesterday, they are in some ways much more sophisticated than a stone mason who perfected replicating the same design over and over. Not only has mass production removed humans from repetitive production, but it has forced us to do what a machine cannot. Still something is lost. How great would it be to be a black smith, if it had not been made economically nonviable. It's a trade off, you don't get to be a black smith but everyone gets to own a set of silverware.

So? Are there less skilled carpenters, craftsmen that make cars by hand and the like in the world today because of mass production? Absolutely. Are there more artists and knowledge workers in the world than before? Yes. Is there still a majority of people who have no appreciation of these things, who do not understand or value this type of mastery and are, dare I say, uneducated? Yes, but this negative conception of the world needs to be tempered by the understanding that the culture which existed before was actually less artistic, less cultured and less educated than our society of today. There are more 'Da Vinci's in the world than there ever has been, but they are still rare and so it is easy to be nostalgic when 'Da Vinci's are thrown in your face by museums, teachers and history books to the point it forms a distorted picture of the past that leads you to believe that the net effect of technology is that it is diminishing high art and culture. It is true, technology has distracted us, and this is a problem, but these people who have not mastered a craft have always been around. The ditch digger is replaced by the back hoe and now he or she makes subway sandwiches. Independent of whether they have apps or any other technology, the only difference is that those people have a new way to distract themselves. Which some would say is a net benefit.

So don't be too glum when art or high culture is under threat by the onslaught of new technologies. Instead focus on what you are going to master, what value you are going to bring to the world and what brings you satisfaction.

A great movie about golden age thinking is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

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