25 April 2006

Art as a balance to life in this technological society

I have done a lot of thinking over the past ten years or so about how living in a technological world affects our spiritual life (including our relationship with others and the whole of creation), and how Christian faith can inform our creation and stewardship of technology. (See "Technology and Christian Spirituality," my comprehensive paper for my Masters degree at Regent College.) I am now beginning to formulate a theory as to how an involvement in the arts (both as appreciators and as creators thereof) can be a balance for the potentially soul-deadening effects of technology.

1. Art keeps us engaged with the physical, material world. While technology draws us into abstractions and virtual reality, the arts engage our bodily senses and bring us into contact with the concrete stuff of life. This is true still of most of the art forms, especially sculpture, painting, dance, theatre, live music, architecture, and the culinary arts. Good poetry, while not material itself, usually employs imagery from the physical world and tends to draw us to experience it in person. Even photography, which is increasingly digital, and can involve hours of post-processing on a computer, still requires the photographer to get out into the physical world for an initial image. I think the more removed from the physical reality a photograph is (through digital manipulation), the less it helps to engage the viewer with the world around. And I suppose this point does not apply much at all to such forms of art as digitally composed and performed music, abstract visual art created entirely on computer, etc., except that they interact with our eardrums or retinas.

2. Art slows us down, and makes us more aware of the sacredness of time. While technology speeds up the pace of our lives, we need to slow down in order to read, observe, listen to, touch, taste, or contemplate an artistic creation. I am not sure what to make of the trend towards ever more multi-tasking, which puts the arts as a background to some other task (e.g., someone listening to music on their iPod while working at the computer or driving), as it seems to weaken my point.

3. Art is more inherently relational than most technology. There is an artist, and the observer can recognize traits of that artist's style, personality, soul, and worldview (see recent threads on this blog) in the work of art. On the other hand, a piece of computer hardware or software hides the creators' identities behind a uniformity designed for easier usability. I worked for eleven years in the software industry, and I can attest that the artists in us were crying out to be known anyway, so we used to hide little animated credits sequences (art!) in our software, even though it was against company policy. There is something artistic in the craft of software development, but I'll save that for another reflection for some other time (unless I decide I've said all I need to on it right there).

4. Art has the capability to be truth-telling, prophetic. We are moved to action by some film showing the degradation of the environment; David is convicted of his sin through a story; the gospel of God's loving forgiveness is communicated through Rembrandt's painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son." I'm not sure this point totally gives art the upper hand over technology, as certainly the Internet has been used to proclaim truth and motivate and mobilize people for social action, environmental protection, spiritual growth, etc. But the Internet is a tool, a channel of communication. The initial prophetic moment generally involves some form of art communicated via this medium, whether it be a well-crafted essay or a shocking documentary photograph.

5. Art, inasmuch as it has to do with Story, engages people in community. That may be a community of shared listeners, or the community of those who came before and created the stories. Again, this might not be the domain of art alone, as computer technology can be used to enhance, and even in some rare cases (house-bound invalids, for example) create, community.

These are just a few beginning thoughts. Very untested. Possibly completely out in left field. But that's why I'm putting them out here -- to get some feedback.


Iambic Admonit said...

Time Magazine recently ran an article on exactly the multitasking dilemma you mentioned:
Are Kids Too Wired for their Own Good?. The answer was, Yes.

I also remember hearing an interview with pianist Leon Fleisher on NPR not too long ago. He was asked if he thought all the music everywhere, much of it classical -- in stores, elevators, on-hold calls, airplanes, cell phone ring-tones, etc. -- was good. He answered very carefully, and said pretty much No. He said he was glad that people were more exposed to Classical Music than previously, in the age of radio only, no CDs (IPods weren't even popular yet when I heard this, and it wasn't more than two years ago for sure!), but he said he was sure people weren't actually listening. He thought they became numbed to music, so used to it that they didn't even hear it any more.

I saw this in action two weeks ago in school. In between classes, a student was talking to me with her IPod in one ear. After a few minutes I asked her if she was listening to music right then. Yes, she was. What was it? Some fairly heavy Christian rock band -- not what I would call easy listening or background music. Was she really listening to it, I asked, or was it just background noise? Background noise. How did she feel about that? Was she sorry to lost the experience of actually listening to music? Yes, she was a little sorry; she only "hears" a song the first 3 or 4 times she plays it, then it becomes undifferentiated noise in the background of life.

I wouldn't want that to happen to music. It is too valuable. And I wouldn't want that to happen to my consciouness. It is too fragile.

I am already guilty of letting some musics fall into the category of background noise. I have to fight this tendency. Perhaps silence is the best remedy; perhaps intentional listening/analyzing/interacting/dancing/wahtever it takes! is the solution.

But I'd also love to hear from you Rosie, or anyone, what the artistic strengths of this "Generation M for Media" are. How have these fast-paced gadgets improved art?

My sister mentioned something this weekend about technology making the sharing of photos easier. I said, Yes, but that doesn't mean we actully do it. How many times do we promise to send a photo, then forget? So I said, Composing music is much, much easier now than it ever was -- software that prints your scores, that writes down whatever you play, that transposes for you, that displays all instruments in concert pitch -- yet I don't think any composer since the Baroque has outdone Telemann for sheer productivity.

Rosie Perera said...

Yes, I saw that Time Magazine article. I handed copies of it out as required reading to the kids in a Sunday school class that I taught at my church a couple of weeks ago on the topic of technology. We had a very rousing discussion. These kids were about 12-14 years old. The two boys showed up to class with iPods in their ears (not knowing what the topic was going to be), which was a perfect lead-in to my getting them talking about technology. I asked one of them if he was able to pay attention to the discussion with the iPod on. He insisted that yes, he was good at multi-tasking. Indeed, he proved to be able to participate in the discussion--more so even than the other kids. But it never occurred to me to ask him whether he was really listening to the music. And it was a big personal challenge for me not to ask him to remove the iPod out of courtesy to the rest of us in the class. I find it quite off-putting, even rude, when someone has those things in and is supposedly listening to me. But I wanted to try to accommodate this younger generation, for whom that kind of thing is taken for granted and doesn't seem to be a problem. I wanted to find out what makes them tick. I came away feeling that this multi-tasking they claim they are able to do is really just a positive twist on what some people call ADHD. They were hyper, had short attention spans, interrupted each other, etc. It was an exhilarating conversation, but I'm not sure we really got anywhere deep.

I think you and Leon Fleisher are right that overexposure to music or art can make us stop paying attention to it. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. This is the age-old sin of gluttony, in different guise. Better to have a little art and really appreciate it than to be saturated in it to the point of apathy.

Yes, technology makes sharing photos easier, but even if we remember to do it, do we ever look at those photos again? How many photos have you received in email, only to store them somewhere on your hard disk and totally forget about them? Whereas if someone sends you a printed photo, you are more likely to put it on the fridge, in an album, or even frame it; somewhere where it can be seen and enjoyed, at least for a while.

We diminish the value of art by increasing its ease of distribution, just as we diminish the value of words and communication when we dash off a sloppy email instead of writing a hand-written letter that we take our time over. This principle held true already with visual art media which allowed multiple prints from a single image (photographs being the chief of those, but other technologies existed for reproduction even before photography). A fine oil painting will generally fetch more upon sale than the greatest photograph, simply because it is one-of-a-kind.

I think modern technological gadgets have not helped the quality of art. Digital cameras, for example, have brought this art form into the hands of the masses, even more than cheap film cameras ever did. Now because it is so easy to take pictures, everybody is doing it. But is it art? No.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

INteresting post. A few thoughts.

On point 1 I often found (and find) music to be a way to escape aspects of the world around me. There were things about my life I didn't particularly like and music is something I can control either through listening or creating that allows me to fashion a little bit of at least personal beauty in the midst of things that aren't very beautiful, things that are often mundane.

ON point 2 I think multitasking is older than we sometimes give it credit for. Opera multitasks the senses and could be criticized in its heyday as being similarly sensual and problematic to, say, TV now. Opera buffs may not want to admit it but a quick perusal of Wagner makes me think a comparison between his multi-media spectacle and TV is not entirely out of place. :)

ANd depending on the type of music we're talking about there are different ways of listening even in active listening. YOu can listen to a Bach 2 part invention in a different way than a John Lee Hooker song because of thematic, textural, and structural considerations. Which is hardly to say there's anything bad about John Lee Hooker songs, just that different styles of music require different types of listening ... but that different types of music organize pitches in different ways. Most of us wouldn't want to hear Song of Songs sun in ancient Jewish musical idiom here in the West (and most scholars aren't that sure how it would have sounded anyway).

For point 3 I see a pretty common complaint that the avant garde in music tends to turn away from the audiene or require of it ever-increasing stores of knowledge, minutae and erudition just to understand what is actually going on musically. This is more the case in avant jazz or classical music. In "indie" rock there's no appreciable difference in musical style or form so much as that the song-writers plug their guitars into different amplifiers and processors. THey may think they're being rebellious for political reasons but musically their music is just another variation of 1, 4, and 5.

Art is relational, though, regardless of whether or not it's bad or good. I may hate the music of Jim Morrison and the Doors, for instance, but there's undeniably a relational aspect we have even to music we hate!

4 and 5 really relate to each other and I feel, even speaking as a composer, that a lot of people make the capacity of arts to tell a story or convey meaning to be an idol unto itself. I've known a few people who have made the arts their religion because in the absence of any obedience to God they decided art was their god.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Rosie, the technology thing is a double-edged sword. Because I can only read with one and have bad vision in even that eye and because I came to my jmusical interests late for a composer of "classical music" (read, about sixteen); and because I grew up in a setting in which public education didn't exactly do a lot to promote the fine arts I've found technology immensely helpful.

I would agree that one of the problems we have noww is that the technology makes it easier for us to access great art and music but does less to encourage us to THINK about that art and music. And music education at a cultural level is more about consumption than the art or the work of artisans, if you will. So a piano sonata that I may sepnd ten years writing because I'm self-taught as a pianist and have some formal training in composition might have taken Beethoven just a few days to write! But then Beethoven also, so to speak, had virtually nothing else to do with his time.

There is a certain cultural freedom we have to "be anything we want to be" that prevents us from developing skills we have that in a "less free" society might have been figured out FOR us ... if we had lived long enough. In an earlier day I would have died from being two months premature so as Ecclesiastes warns us, we shouldn't ask why the old days were better than these days because it's not wise to ask those questions.

So I'll take reading an interesting blog to being dead. :)

Rosie Perera said...

Good comments, Wenatchee.

I suppose you're right about music being a way of escaping the world. I remember in my moody teenage years spending long hours holed up in my room listening to Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens on my headphones, shutting out the world and my family and even avoiding having to be with myself and my thoughts. That brings me back to the kids wearing iPods that I was talking about above.

I wonder if music can ever be used to bring people more in tune with the physical world or other people? Possibly through the words in certain songs (Creation hymns like "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" spring to mind), or through the practice of playing or singing live music together in an ensemble. A very relational and incarnational experience!

Yes, multitasking is definitely older than computer technology. I remember my mother used to read a book while stirring a pot on the stove, and she could carry on a conversation with us at the same time. (I'm not implying that my mother predates computers, but that this type of multitasking does not require much technology, other than that used to produce the pot and the book.)

Your response to point 3 relates closely to Tolstoy's What Is Art? which I'm reading now and hope to post a discussion of soon. He basically felt that art which requires esoteric knowledge to understand (i.e., that which is not accessible to the masses) is not good art. That included Shakespeare, Beethoven, Wagner -- basically all of what we'd call great art. I'm still trying to see where he's going with this, because he himself was in the elite class who could enjoy the great art of his day which he's condemning.

Yes, people can make an idol out of art, but so can they with technology. I did not mean to portray technology as being a totally negative influence on humanity. I was a software engineer for many years and am still proud of how many people I've helped through the products I developed. We've been able to do some amazing good through medical technology. And we certainly wouldn't be able to be having this conversation about art without technology!

I believe the creation of technology comes out of the same creativeness and ingenuity in human nature that produces art: the imago Dei in us. We image the Creator God when we create either art or technology. In fact, the Greek word from which we get "technology" - techne - means both the arts of the mind and the fine arts and crafts.