Electronic Age: When we lay art down, what will we pick up?

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?

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20 Responses to Electronic Age: When we lay art down, what will we pick up?

  1. Ed Snow says:

    Interesting questions and thoughts.

    Humans have a need to create and I’m confident they will continue to do so. I can make a theological argument that creation by humans is an act of worship of The Creator and evidence of humans literally being in the image of The Creator. I’m worried about whether the fine arts are at risk, from classical music to jazz, from short stories to arts criticism. Techonology has promoted more quantity but perhaps at the risk for more quality, at least that’s the alarm button I see people pressing.

  2. Sam Payne says:

    Agreed, agreed, and agreed. Humans have a need to create. Got it. But will they always have a need to create art? The question isn’t so much, "Will humans be replaced by machines," or even, "Will literature created by computers be as good as literature that humans create," as much as, "Imagine that some extra-human something-or-other satisfactorily assuages the human appetite to create paintings, books, movies, songs, etc. (these days, it easier than ever to imagine that as more than a hypothetical scenario). What will humans do then?" Unless art creation is, in fact, the zenith of human endeavor – the line that neither technology nor anything else will ever cross – what’s on the other side of that line for humans?

  3. Th. says:


    What’s next? What happens when we don’t need to eat or make love? When machines do those for us, what then?

  4. scott says:

    I think I have to offer two completely different responses–one to my perception of the question, and one to the thought exercise raised by the question.

    First, I don’t think I can accept the premise–I don’t believe people can lose the desire for art, because so long as there is consciousness that consciousness will retain a desire to express, and with the desire to express comes an interest in expressing well (aka, artistically).

    In other words, the only way art goes away is if independent egos go away. While I understand that some interpret Christian theology as suggesting that we’re all faces of a single great consciousness (an idea mirrored in many Eastern philosophies), my own assumption is that unity of purpose and conflation of individual identity are two entirely different things.

    God likes having someone to talk to (other than himself).

    Even those of us who feel deeply and intensely lonely do so precisely because we believe our attempts to communicate are either ignored or misunderstood. The desire to be recognized as an individual personality pretty much requires refined expression. If we feel our expression is not recognized (appreciation is a different question altogether) we will tend to further experiment with that expression until we feel we are recognized.

    The increasing diversity and refinement of expression is art.

    As long as there is someone else to communicate with, we will create art–even if that Other is artificial. It’s an innate element of self-determinate identity.

    Unless we believe that perfect communication eliminates the need for art (whether that perfection comes by technological or social means).

    That’s a harder question, but I tend to believe the exchange of fact and expression of self are entirely different things–and thus art still hangs around because it’s not just the expression of self that generates art, but the expression individual self.

    Even if it’s just preaching to the choir, I believe people will continue to preach so long as there is a choir.


    Second, (responding to the thought exercise)…

    I got nothing. Sorry. I had hoped something would come to me as I worked on the thoughts above, but nothing did.

    I just don’t have sufficient imagination to envision a scenario where we lay down art. Even if we adopt excessive pragmatism, the search for most correct methods will eventually lead to increasingly creative effort and artistic expression.

    I can see art becoming (temporarily) muted and lame, but not vanishing completely. It changes shape constantly, but it’s always there in some form.

    If we ever lay down art there will be nothing to pick up, because to lay down art requires us to lay down self–and if we lay down self we simultaneously lay down choice of any kind.

    Or so it seems to me.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Hm. If there was no literary art generated by man, what would I turn to as a form of creative self-expression? Philosophy. But I’d still write it down. :) And if I write it, it has to be art, right? (I heard that groan.) So its a circle.

    I can envision a world where plot elements are shuffled via computer and layed out for the perfectly paced narrative. Writers probably do that now.

    Does art have to be man-made? Seems to me I’ve seen visual art created by puppies with ink on their feet.

    Even if there is no need, I suspect humans will create art. After all, who needs art now? It isn’t like by-pass surgery: [i]Do it or die![/i] But I liked this post for its provocative nature. I’ve been musing about it all day. Well, at least during those hours I waited for the microwave install guy and the carpet cleaner to finish up.

  6. Lee Allred says:

    [quote]“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?[/quote]

    Sam, I would like to think your father’s right, but I’ve begun to have serious doubts. I think it very probable that in the near (too near!) future, computers will self-create much of at least the background or incidental portions of commercial art/entertainment.

    Watch this video to see how much they can create. It’s very difficult to tell if the fakery is real … or if they’re faking the fakery and what they want you to believe is really real or whether the fakery is fake, the reality they’re faking is really real, the simulation is what’s being simulated.

    Exhibit #1:


    "But," you may say, "there’s a difference between computers computer-generating movie backgrounds from set parameters inputted by people and actually creating art forms.

    Just keep that video in mind.

    Now, many of you (I hope) have seen the movie MUSIC & LYRICS. Hugh Grant’s character creates an entire song at his computer desk, playing the instruments, and mixing all the recordings into a fully accompanied song. And many of you have undoubtedly played around with Casio keyboards that can produce computer-generated rhythms and even instrumental accompaniments, doing so through a series of mathematical algorithms (no pun intended). A few of you may have even composed sheet music on the computer.

    Much of music theory is actually dictated by mathematical formulae that governs sonics, octaves, harmonies, etc. I think it is entirely probable that a lot of incidental music for entertainment will be completely computer generated. Melodies & harmonies composed randomly to set parameters (remember the set parameters of the movie set video?), then "studio recorded" in its own gizzard into a useable music file.

    Exhibit #2:

    Japanese anime/video game music industry is a throwback to Tin Pan Alley. Songs are written, scored, performed, and recorded often in less than a three-day turnaround. That’s just the vocal music. The incidental background music (BGM) is usually produced Hugh Grant MUSIC & LYRICS-style on a PC/synthesizer, sometimes never even being actually played on a musical instrument, just notes on the sheet music program.

    Watch the first 1:50 of this video*, and ask yourself: keeping in mind Exhibit #1, am I really sure that this simple (yet pleasant) melody _wasn’t_ computer self-generated? Is it beyond the realm of possibility for a computer program to have self-generated this tune?


    I think it may be only a matter of time before chunks of art will be computer-created. I do hold out hope that it will be a tool that actually allows artists to create better and more prolifically, doing the drudgework for the artist.

    I do think, though that human artists have a hidden ingredient that machines may never fully be able to replicate:a sense of humor. That and a driving need, at some level, to create for the sake of creating.

    Exhibit #3 is for your dad, Sam… :)


    – Lee

    * "Town Theme" game music from the TENEREZZA Original Soundtrack (APCD-0002) was composed by Shinya Ishikawa

  7. Is art something we do? Or is it how we do things?

    I’ve long been of the opinion that particularly in American culture, our tendency toward specialization (the flipside of mass production) has had the unfortunate effect of having us look at art as something "Other," something done by "Them," something that we take in at odd moments as a rare and precious break from the mundanities of "real life." But if that’s not the case–if "art" is actually anything we do in a self-expressive fashion where the manner of our doing and/or of our product in some ways expresses a personal style…

    Serving as a missionary in Italy, I remember tracting an old apartment building and happening to look up while climbing the stairwell. To my surprise, on the ceiling I saw a mural. It wasn’t a very good mural, but there it was.

    If art is a way of doing, rather than a separate thing we do, then I suspect it’s not something we *can* lose. Our medium may change, but of the working of art there truly is no end.

  8. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Interesting point, Jonathan, and its is probably true that, if computers take over art, they will do it well. This will always leave plenty of room for the bad artist, for the art that isn’t all that good. So most of us are probably safe. Its proven that Americans enjoy art at all levels. Stick with bad art and we’ll have careers. (I don’t mean it.)

  9. Hm. Lisa, I hope you realize that’s not [i]exactly [/i]the point I was trying to make…

  10. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    One thing I tell people when I am trying to teach them how to use their computers to do genealogy is that computers are very, very stupid. All they know how to do is what we tell them to do, and the only thing they are really good for is doing the boring stuff very, very fast.

    I think this applies to art as well. Computers, and other such technology, can only do what we tell them to do, and they do exactly what we tell them to do, very, very fast. The art still has to come from the artist, who uses the technology to do the boring parts and the rote parts and the repetitive, testing, tweaking parts.

    I remember listening to a computerized organ play Bach because someone had programmed in each musical note, and it was pretty emotionless even though it was exact. This was the same summer they used–what was it? 6 kilobytes?–to put a man on the moon for the first time. Getting that organ to play Bach took a huge amount of time because each note had to be individually coded.

    Technology has advanced to the point where someone can play an organ, and capture the emphasis and the sustained notes and all the nuances the organist puts into the performance, but it has not advanced to the point that it can do anything creative with that performance without further input from an artist. All the computer can do is play it all back again, exactly as it was played that one time.

    I’m not too worried about art. The ways we make art may change, but the artist still needs to provide the original input.

  11. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Below please find a link to an interesting post on the "Toward an LDS Cinema" blog on scriptural paradigms for LDS Art that might be considered at least a little relevant to the topic here (it starts out by mentioning technology, anyway).


  12. Thanks for the plug, Kathleen.

    I’ve seen iPhone apps and other computer programs that synthesize music as various visual elements interact according to predetermined programming (whether a physics engine, or whatever else) hailed as beautiful art. I get the sense, however, that the artist in question is not the device, but the programmer. Even the user in some cases, perhaps.

    My own father criticized digital photography and film making for a long time because he saw it as imitating "real" film. He continues to criticize computer animated movies that try to simulate "real" camera movements, including the slight motion you get from the breathing of a hand-held camera operator.

    I see his point. From one perspective, imitation of one medium by another misses the mark. But I don’t totally agree.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that if we can develop technology that satisfies the artistic impulse, then the technology will have become the art.

  13. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Yes, Jonathan. I’m just playing. I have a brain that tends to work sideways. It keeps me engaged.

    Adam mentions computer animation. I remember feeling cheated when I saw that ballroom scene in [i]Beauty and the Beast[/i], a real feat back then. Or rather, I felt that animators were cheated. Out of work. But of course I now see computer animation as a new medium. I agree that the medium may change, but the human touch will always be the spark that generates art.

  14. Lee Allred says:

    [quote]Technology has advanced to the point where someone can play an organ, and capture the emphasis and the sustained notes and all the nuances the organist puts into the performance, but it has not advanced to the point that it can do anything creative with that performance without further input from an artist. All the computer can do is play it all back again, exactly as it was played that one time. [/quote]

    One of the things I considered in writing last night’s post on this subject was computer generated poetry. It’s possible to come up with poetry that’s not too indisinguishable from undecipherable undergraduate poetry such as found in BYU’s INSCAPE.

    (Had to throw that in. BYU’s sf magazine used to share office space with INSCAPE.) :)

    Basic programs like http://www.randomhaiku.com/ can generate Haiku like

    admiring my limb
    Monkey approved my flowers
    under my clothing

    or (reminiscent of The Economist)

    into the money,
    Suzuki and Paris walk.
    Belgium starts running.

    Most of what it generates, of course, is rubbish and is very limited in that its random text strings are themselves a limited set. So far.

    One reasearcher on the subject, Maurice Watz, writes: "One might argue that human language is fractal, since every word has mappings into other parts of the language, often self-referential or relying on a real-life context, making ‘dumb’ translation of the map difficult."

    The problem is is that fractals [i][b]are [/b][/i]a modern computer’s specialty. Ever use PhotoShop?

    Currently computers can do more than just playback music "exactly as it was played that one time." Within programmed parameters they can vary speed and emphasis, successfully mimicking human nuance. There are programs that have computers playing along with human muscicians and [b]improvising [/b]based of the human’s playing.

    See wiki article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_music

    Here’s a site with various samples of computer-composed (and played) piano music:


    Computer-generated artforms are still a ways I think from professional human quality — or even to the enjoyability of the video game music I linked to last night — but I think the gap is narrowing. I hate to think how many of my arguments against computers ever creating real art match up to the argument human chess players were making until the mid-1990s.

  15. Moriah Jovan says:

    I don’t know if it’s apropos to post this, but since Lee posted haiku, I’ll go ahead.

    I’m running a group creativity experiment on my blog http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/group-creativity-experiment-intro. I gave the participants a week to come back with something, so I didn’t expect anybody to post today, but someone did and I thought it was pretty powerful in the context of the prompt.

    I see the computer as another tool of art, like a paintbrush versus a pencil versus charcoal versus pastels. Perhaps woodcuts.

    Or a percussion orchestra (cf chamber version of [i]Carmina Burana[/i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OHHTY0-LzY ) versus Stomp! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=US7c9ASVfNc

    There are, of course, tools more suited to one artistic endeavor than another, and tools that can’t be used for certain endeavors at all.

    You can’t use a computer to sculpt. You can PLAN it on the computer, but you can’t sculpt with it. Likewise, textile art.

    My brother works at Electronic Arts as a hotshot programmer. Do I consider him an artist? Yes, I do. No tool other than a computer can be used to create his art. WordPress’s slogan is "Code is Poetry," and after having been in some C++ trenches and, more recently, XML/xHTML/CSS, I have to agree that the really elegant code, stripped down, simplified, yet efficient and powerful, is really, well, art.

  16. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I’ve heard people complain that some movies are "nothing but computer special effects," but can’t that be art as well?

    Yes, the story and the acting was less than memorable, but the special effects were amazing. And some movies are worth going to see just for the special effects.

  17. Th. says:


    One primary reason that Pixar’s animation is so much better than the bulk of its competitors is that every frame is manipulated by a human being. This is also part of the reason Pixar films are so much more expensive than other studios’.

  18. I’ve never been able to understand the disdain that some people have for special effects – as though they make a film somehow illegitimate. What does a special effects artist do (in essence) that painters, authors, and other artists haven’t already been doing for centuries? Not to mention cell animators?

  19. Scott Parkin says:

    There’s a romantic notion that the artistic mind is antagonistic to technology–or perhaps more accurately, that the technological mind is incapable of the deep introspection needed to either discover or express depth of soul.

    I think that’s simple, self-congratulatory bunk. Tendencies may play, but neither is exclusive of the other.

    (I’m working under the assumption that art is defined as an expressive depth or quality, not merely as a matter of technique or technical excellence.)

    If the claim is that a team of people working together can’t produce art–that true Art is a necessarily solitary activity–then I can appreciate the argument. In something as complex as film (writing, acting, design, cinematography, special effects, sound, editing, direction) it takes a special blend of talents and vision to succeed.

    If the claim is that an excess of technical competence is evidence of a lack of communicative or considerate depth, I think the argument starts to lose power. Yes, time devoted to developing technical skills *may* represent a lack of time spent contemplating mysteries, but it’s not a given; it may represent a special reverence for their vision that demands a greater technical skill to fully express, or a belief that exceptional technical skill is in an of itself a worthy expression of art.

    Technique (craft) is just as much an element of art as mind or spirit. I haven’t studied art as a unified discipline, but as a sometime author, I can suggest that by my own observation art consists of at least four (arbitrarily defined) elements–uniqueness of vision, clear understanding of subject, communicative composition (I lump medium into composition), and technical competence.

    Weak art tends to leverage only one or two of these elements beyond a simple competent baseline. Solid art leverages two or three. Timeless art excels at three or four.

    Avatar, for example has ordinary uniqueness, ordinary understanding, good (maybe very good) composition, and excellent technical competence. It’s a thoroughly entertaining sensual experience, but not a particular new or interesting idea nor a particularly new or interesting take on an old idea.

    Great technique; weak story; adequate visuals. Worthy of being dubbed "just another special effects film." I think it falls short of art, but succeeds admirably as exceptionally well-wrought basic entertainment.

    Pixar, on the other hand, regularly applies nearly as much attention to technical excellence (it’s visual style is a matter of choice, not technical limitation) as Avatar, but also spends much more attention to unique vision and depth of understanding. Pixar nearly always offers a new take on an old idea, then brings enough "Wow" in the visuals to keep your focus. But more importantly, Pixar nearly always leaves something existential for you to chew over after the fact–something Avatar simply didn’t do (in my opinion).

    Thus, Pixar works are *also* special effects films, but they are not *merely* special effects films. For me, they are much, much more like art because they hit all four elements, but rise above average on more than two.

    Minerva Teichert has always bugged me a bit that way (as does much "home art"). To my eye her technique was adequate, her composition solid if unremarkable, her vision interesting, and her understanding excellent. On my arbitrary scale that puts her at weak art bordering on solid, but far from exceptional.

    I’m completely outvoted on that issue. The majority of Mormon art critics see more depth of composition and uniqueness than I do, and thus put her in the solid-to-exceptional category. And so we reasonably disagree. Since they have the credentials, I have to take it on faith that there is a depth there that I simply cannot perceive. I accept that Teichert made Art even though it doesn’t touch me at the same level of depth; for me her works are resonant, but not transformative–not unlike Avatar.

    Which begs a fair question–does art require balance across those arbitrary criteria or is it sufficient to go to exceptional depth in a single area, with competence in at least one other?

  20. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    It would be interesting to see if we could come up with examples of Art that excel in only one of each of those arbitrary areas, Scott, then determine how they rate in the other areas.

    I don’t feel competent myself to evaluate works in that way, but I’d like to know what others think qualifies.

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