The Artificers

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-09-06 16:00:00-04:00 No comments

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In Jonathan Cott's book of conversations with the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, there is an anecdote where Stockhausen met with D.T. Suzuki (an influence on fellow composer John Cage), where Stockhausen talked about how his music was "artificial" in the sense that much of it was made with tape, electronics, etc. instead of the human voice or a conventional instrument. Suzuki disputed this distinction. To him, something was not "artificial" because of its means of production, but only "artificial" if the act of producing it, in whatever form, went against your inner convictions.

I remember, from over the years, any number of arguments in this vein not just about music but any other creative act. People disputed the use of the computer in the visual arts, in writing, etc., because of its degree of artifice compared even to other mechanical means. Folks who didn't mind either the mechanical or electric typewriter went into a tizzy when confronted with the computer. To my mind, it had nothing to do with the innate nature of the thing, and everything to do with the simple fact that anything new, especially a new means, a new method, is always confronted with great shock by most minds.

I have no issue with, say, analog vs. digital. What I have an issue with is the use of digital, or analog either, in lazy, uncreative ways. I don't mind the use of digital effects in a movie vs. practical ones; I mind when either one is used only to show us things we've seen in other movies, with no new point of view brought to them. The paradox of modern visual effects is that you can render just about anything with total forensic realism, so the new problem is not how to show something but what to show in the first place. And so now there is a happy rediscovery of how things like the human face or a sunset or the natural activity of a person are the greatest special effects of all.

Digging back through my files, I do find that I've groused more than a few times about how the bloat in modern fiction seems to be traceable to the mechanization of writing. (I don't think this started with word processing; the electric typewriter came far earlier.) But the more I think about it, the more it seems clear to me that longer works, however they have been produced, only enjoy attention because audiences have been trained into accepting them even when their length is an article of bad faith.

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Critic Roger Sale coined the term "imperialist fiction" for writing that made the case for the total vision of its author at the exclusion of other things — Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, etc. The idea that someone would go through the trouble of creating such a grand work became justification for seeing something of value in it. We now have more tools than ever to make such a job easier, but that doesn't mean those tools are to blame; that just means we have another excuse to use them unwisely.

The hardest part of putting any new technology to work in our creativity is to avoid using it to simply indulge in our worst, most regressive excesses. It took decades before filmmaking advanced to the point where it was doing more than just photographing stage plays, and the art is still advancing thanks to the social contexts and conventions around film. The same things seem true of anything else. One can lose the aesthetic and cultural advances made around a particular art form because attention turns elsewhere, or sentiments are marshaled against them, or fashion's tide washes in and out. We're still trying to figure out what to do with video games, for instance; like filmmaking before, games require a new social context that we're still in the process of pulling together.

The only other thing about producing art with modern technology that strikes me as being artificial in Suzuki's sense of the word is how much easier it becomes to simply repurpose other people's work uncreatively. A Guy Called Gerald, the house/techno legend who gave us "Voodoo Ray", gave a video interview where he talked about the differences between how he worked then (the 1980s) and now. The key difference, as I interpreted it, is convenience in all forms. When you make music on a laptop using Reason and the like, it becomes easier to just copy and paste things, and to make new things mostly as a way of cobbling together old things. I can't complain too much about the mere fact of this — you wouldn't have "Voodoo Ray", or much of modern music at all, without sampling — but I see his point. You want to find something that is entirely your own whenever you can, whatever the means of production. You don't want the means of production to just be a crutch, a way to facilitate not doing any real creative work.

As a kid, I cut my teeth on three kinds of writing instruments: Plain Old Paper And Pen(cil), my father's long-disused Remington manual typewriter, and WordStar 3.3. It took very little time for me to see why word processing with a computer beat everything else in terms of efficiency. It took a longer time, though, to appreciate how writing long-hand, or using a mechanical typer, forced me to think about the significance of every word. But the act of using the computer did not feel any less "natural" than writing on paper. It was all just writing. It was all natural.

Tags: A Guy Called Gerald Karlheinz Stockhausen creativity music technology word processing writing