How robots replaced amateur artists.

William Brafford

William Brafford grew up in North Carolina, home of the world's best barbecue, indie rock, and regional soft drinks. He just barely sustains a personal blog and "tweets" every now and then under the name @williamrandolph.

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8 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    “To put it simply, people must have needed more musicians, both amateur and professional, but cheap dissemination of recordings reduced this need, and thereby took away an incentive for becoming musically literate. These days, you can be a devoted music fan and still know nothing at all about how music works.”

    I honestly don’t know how to feel about this… they did a study where X% of, I think it was, Japanese Children had Perfect Pitch (that is, they could hear a note out of context and tell you if it was a B-flat, or an E, or whatever) when some *MINISCULE* percentage of American Children had the same talent (relative pitch is a skill… you hear a B-flat and then hear another note within an octave and being able to name it… that’s something that you can train. Perfect pitch, as I understand it, is something that people either have or do not).

    Hell, being a philosophy student once meant that you knew Greek, Latin, Italian, and German. Being a theology student meant that you knew Greek, Latin, German and Hebrew. To read a text meant to read it in the original. Now we have Babelfish. Now we have favorite translators, even. We read Kaufmann when we want to read Nietzsche, Ciardi when we want to read Dante, and Fox when we want to read Genesis.

    Our scholars are dumber than the scholars of old. (Or, maybe, just me.)

    That said… it’s wonderful that so much is now available to so many. If I want my best friend to read Nietzsche, I can just hand him a book. There. Done. I don’t have to read it, then translate it, or get a new best friend (one that speaks German this time).

    And the same for music. When I hear something delightful, I can go to my friend and say “here, listen to this guy play this flute at the same time that that guy does this on the piano and that guy plays percussion!” Our music appreciation is dumber…

    But, once upon a time, we would have had nothing. Now we have a feast!

    The downside of the feast, of course, is that it also allows for such things as Lady Gaga and World of Warcraft. Why listen to something interesting when you could listen to something unchallenging? Why read when you can do the computerized equivalent of m&m sorting as you grind to get from level 78 to level 79?

    Everybody has access to the biggest library in the world, containing all of the music, all of the books, all of the art… all of civilization, really. And most of the traffic involves pictures of tits.

    Ah, well.

    Great essay. It got me thinking/depressed.Report

  2. Alternate title suggestion- Paradox of Plenty.Report

  3. I agree with some of the points you’re making here. But I want to challenge the notion that somehow earlier art- be it music, sculpture, literature- was somehow qualitatively better than all that exists now. I think we do have to wade through a lot more garbage than our ancestors did, simple due to advances in technology and diminishing costs of production and distribution. However, you cannot possibly believe that everyone who was engaged in the enterprise of art prior to, say 1930, was skilled in their medium.

    In our age, there is an abundance of great art, if you seek it out. I spend hours each week reading indie music blogs and listening to tracks so that I can find great music. If one ventures outside of the corporate chain bookstores, you’ll find plenty of books worth reading. I’d imagine the same case can be made for art- skip some of the big name museums and check out smaller galleries (though the large museums have amazing collections, I am still pissed off at the MFA in Boston for its Herb Ritts exhibition in the 90’s).

    I suppose what I am saying is that, sure mainstream art is largely crap. But there are ample opportunities to experience non-crap, it just might take a little bit more effort.Report

    • zic in reply to Justin_Anderson says:

      I agree; and I’ll make a case using music, since I’ve spent the last 33 years living with a jazz musician.

      Before recorded music, what people heard depended on the skill of the musicians they encountered. A guitar player, fiddle player, or pianist with limited skills but a good sense of timing and stage presence could define “great.” With recording, there became a comparable standard of good for listeners. But even more important, came the ability to capture what ‘good’ sounds like for players. Technology advanced the ability of a musician to learn from other musicians without being in the same room. My husband spent countless hours learning from John Coltrane, even though he never picked up a saxaphone to play until years after Coltrane died. He did the same with Bill Evans, who we saw perform live before his death, but the learning was with the recordings and a piano, not in the concert hall.

      I know, there’s written music. It’s important, but a transcription doesn’t impart most of the musical technique a skilled musician brings to the table.

      Music is as ephemeral as the spring blossoms without technology; it’s played and then it’s gone. Technology allows a student to hear what great music sounds like; even a student swamped in a culture of pop music can search out the work of Miles Davis, Nina Simone, or John Lennon.

      Today, anyone who wants to learn can listen to the work of masters, ready to fill your ears, thanks to technology. And with new technology, anyone with a computer and a mic can now make a relatively good-quality recording. Social networks can help you locate music you would never have heard when the big record companies acted as the gate keepers.

      Sure, there’s plenty of crap. But some of that crap is the learning stages of musicians gaining mastery; and some masterful art is gaining audience that would otherwise languish in obscurity and disappear like the spring flowers in July.Report

      • William Brafford in reply to zic says:

        From Justin:

        “However, you cannot possibly believe that everyone who was engaged in the enterprise of art prior to, say 1930, was skilled in their medium.”

        And I certainly don’t. I’ve stumbled across plenty of bad art from earlier ages, as some of it has been inadvertently preserved alongside things worth preserving. Try an old hymnbook for some astonishing clunkers, both poetically and melodically.

        Justin and zic,

        The paradox is something that I suppose applies more broadly with technology, as Jaybird described above. We have the kinds of direct access to art and information that our ancestors could only dream of. But technologies that have given us this access have at the same time displaced intermediate practices. Because you can listen to the masters any time you want, you don’t need clumsy amateurs who are slightly better than you to give you some idea of how it goes.

        This is important for a culture of fine art because while access is up and many artists are doing good work (I’ve been listening to Arvo Pärt), it seems that artistic literacy is down at least in part because of technological displacement, and so it’s hard for me to imagine a culture-wide renewal of interest in art music or stand-alone poetry.

        As a side note, I like a bunch of indie-rock bands, but it’s pretty rare that formal complexity, which is to say engagement with the properties of music, is a virtue of what they perform. I find it’s often a combination of lyrics and personality set to (sometimes)-better-than-average-for-pop-music arrangement and performance that draws me in.Report

  4. Bob Cheeks says:

    Welcome to the Front Porch Republic!Report