I’ve got a friend who plays in a band for a living, and because he and his mates travel with lots of expensive gear, he keeps as close an eye as he can on what’s happening on the tarmac as luggage gets loaded. Through airplane windows, he watches stuff get tossed around, smart-phone camera at the ready. He’s snapped some photos of some particular scary luggage moments, and he’s always one touch of the screen away from communicating such to an audience of his choosing.
Some twenty years ago or more, my dad, a traveling musician himself, lost a guitar to a baggage handling accident. Bob Dylan had been its former owner. The fact of its demise still hurts a great deal. The remains of the guitar (the headstock and about ten inches of neck) lie at rest in Dad’s desk drawer. Last time it was brought up in conversation? One week ago, when Dad said “The day it happened, I had half a mind to take a picture of the pieces of the guitar (they came to him in a shoebox), and send the picture to the company who made the flight case in which the guitar was destroyed.
“Half a mind?” Why only half? Why didn’t he just snap the picture and get the message to the case company? It only took a moment to settle on why not: he’d have had to take the photo, develop three copies of it over a week or so at the local Fotomat, find the address of the case company (how on earth did we find addresses at all twenty years ago?), package the photo, apply postage, drop it in the mail, and wait a week for it to arrive at the case company. And then wait another week, and another, for a response.
And there’s my friend, today, watching through the plane window as thousands of dollars worth of mic stands plow through a plywood casing into thousands of dollars worth of mixer. Point, click, attach, send. Thirty seconds, it takes, to go public with that narrative, with full-color photos. Fifty seconds, maybe, if he also wants to color-correct the photos.
So technology is progressing. No news there. But it’s progressing in ways and at speeds that allow it to cross lines that we’ve taken for granted would never be crossed. I remember a discussion in an English class at Weber State University in which the professor postulated a future in which machines could do even the most creative work now done by humans. I’ve mentioned this discussion to my dad before, and this is where Dad always chimes in, “Except Art. Art is safe. Computers will never do Art.” Okay, Dad. Fine. Except not really fine, because Dad’s only hard evidence for his argument is that art employs skills that have always been unique to sentient beings – and maybe still are, mostly. But we’re losing ground on that front, I think, and while it might be unthinkable for a machine to do Art, isn’t the “unthinkable” pretty routinely accomplished as technology progresses? My computer, right this second, can compose in its brain a summary of this blog post, or organize it as a five-paragraph essay and determine which should be the thesis statement. That’s not anything like genesis Art creation, but, well, my oh my.
It seems counterintuitive sometimes, but I guess I’ve got to allow space in my imagination for a world in which Art gets done by things other than humans.
If that’s true, I wonder if it could also be true that humans might react to such a thing in the same way that they often do when faced with the mastering of human tasks by machines: they leave those tasks to the machines, and leave off doing them themselves. That possibility has preoccupied me lately. But in my head, I’m not asking so much, “Will art always require a human hand?” Rather, I’m saying, “Suppose for a moment that at sometime in the future, the impulses satisfied by the creation of Art are satisfied in some other way than by us making it. What do we do then?” It’s the “What do we do then?” That’s had me thinking. I’ve been in some pretty ardent discussions with people who look on the creation of Art as the end of all pursuits. They compare their own creative impulses to God’s, and they talk about humans having mastered such-and-such, in order to master such-and-such, in order to become artists, in order to become … well, that’s just it. They look on art as the top of the pyramid.
I’m an artist, and it’d be cool if that were true. But I don’t know if I buy it.
So my question has remained, and today I’m articulating it in this way: if it’s in any way imaginable that there could be a future in which humans lay aside the creation of Art (as they have lain aside other things at which machines and systems have become adept), what’s next for us? If we ever lay art down, what will we pick up?