The Technium

Art As an Excuse

Humans are born to make stuff. We almost can’t help it. Place us in an empty flat plain and we’ll start building things. Put us on a dried lake bed in the middle of the desert and we’ll build things, take them down and build different stuff next year. We make tools, which make other tools, which can make big stuff, like cities and skyscrapers, and shiny things like space stations and mobile phones. We turn wildernesses into gardens and into farms by inventing devices and breeding plants. And then we make a lot of stuff that seems to have no function other than we like to make it, or like to see it, and like to know about it. That is called Art.

What all art has in common is that it is made. Art is created. It is easily understood as a painting on a wall, or a clay sculpture, or a gold necklace. We can touch and keep the art object. In modern times we’ve learned that art can be intangible. It is still created, but it may not be easy to touch or keep. Music was an early intangible form of art; so were dance performances. But if a poetry reading could be created art, maybe any kind of performance could be art.  As we got used to performance art, we might see any complicated creation to be art. Today one could say that a billionaire’s project to send 8 people to Mars might be seen as an art project.

All art is created but so are tools, and food, and shelters and clothing. We’d call only some faction of those made things  — whether tangible or intangible — art. There are some buildings we might call art, and some we would not. Very practical devices that we didn’t call art when bought at a store (like a radio), might be displayed in an art museum later on, for its design. Some clothes might be described as art, while most others are not. What’s the difference?

There is one school of art that says art is useless; that it has no function other than its own existence. If that is true, how can something manufactured with a specific practical function, like a hi-fi stereo, turn into art later? Is it because it is no longer practical?  There is another school which says that art serves the function of prodding, of goading action, of demanding a response, of forcing the audience into action. So art does have a function.

I think there is something to this, but it may reside in the audience. The difference between a creation and an art creation is the frame the surrounds the latter. The frame is put on by the creator and accepted by an audience. In part, art is an identity that is granted by the creator. If they say it is art, then it can be considered art — if that identity is accepted by an audience. Any creator, inventor, scientist, entrepreneur, craftsperson, activist is allowed to call their creation “art”.  But when a creation is framed as art, it carries different expectations, than when it is called a product, or science, or even an experiment. This difference set of expectations means it is judged differently than a product, or experiment. Instead of customers, it will have an audience. Customers expect a certain kind of utility and grade it on satisfying those promises. An audience expects a separate set of deliverables, and if those are met, they accept the creation as art.

Secular inventions need to be clear, specific, reliable, dependable, universal, evident, desirable, rational, and obvious to be successful. Art on the other hand, can be vague, obscure, erratic, surprising, variable, shocking, uncomfortable, emotional, unreasonable, and not at all obvious to be successful. Art can bring us benefits like pleasure or outrage without us knowing how. Its benefits may not reside at a conscious or rational level, which would be a bad design for a commercial or scientific product.

As technology continues to enable us as a civilization to meet our rational and enduring needs — all the ones we are clear about — we are liberated to spend more time doing art. Seriously, what will be do in the far future if robots do all things we don’t want to do? Probably make art. We will continue to make things, but we’ll do more of them with the art framing. So more and more often, each of us will be having to make this choice: do we want to make the next project as science or do we want it to be art? Should it be reliable and knowable, or should it be surprising and ineffable? Should it make money or should it make an splash? Should it serve customers or serve an audience?

Like all good things, this is a continuum. There is a steady graduation with overlap between the poles. Of course there are ways to have audiences and customers at the same time; and to make money making a splash. In fact most creations are hybrids.  What technology and progress and leisure give us is far more opportunities to use the frame mode in what we create. Making art was a luxury, particularly in the industrial age, but this option is widening in this post-industrial age. To aim to make something for its own sake, just because it could, or should exist outside of pragmatic reasons will increasingly become a commonly accepted reason to do it. As the general wealth of society increases I would expect more of it to migrate into the realm of art. I don’t mean as in art collections: I mean as in, I am doing this expensive project, not to make money, or to promise reliable benefits, but because it is art I have to do. In the future we will see more art as an excuse. I had to do this because Art. More of the things we create, we will create in art mode, meaning they are made in order to exist rather than to deliver pragmatic benefits.


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