Neither Speed Nor Technology Improves Art

A month ago Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel opened here in Cedar City, produced by the Southern Utah University Opera Theatre and sung by university students. In the article/review that appeared in the University Journal, a math student was quoted as complaining that she’d forgotten that opera was all sung, and that the opening of the production was slow — until the witch appeared. There was no mention of the vocal technique, the live symphonic accompaniment, or the actual singing, much of it by students who had previously won state and regional awards.

The reason why I mention this is that it is an example of the impact of the growing pressure to technologize, speed up action, and quantify both the arts and education dealing with the arts, technophilia, if you will, applied to the arts. Motion pictures and television programs are filled with movement and increasingly quick cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint. Songs tend to be shorter and more repetitive. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein often wrote songs with melodies running 20 bars or more. Today, it’s a rare popular song whose melody line exceeds six bars, even with all the technological aids to composition.

More and more, university professors in the arts are judged on how many compositions, performances, and publications they have completed, and how many student credit hours they have produced — not how good said compositions, performances, or publications might be and not what their students have done after graduation, which is in fact a better indication of the quality of teaching than student “satisfaction” evaluations — but student evaluations can be computerized and analyzed quickly. Students taking music appreciation find it almost impossible to listen to classical music without watching a video.

Close to twenty years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan made the observation that the arts were one area where technology could not be effectively applied to reduce costs and shorten the time involved. As he noted then, a Mozart string quartet that took twenty minutes to play in 1790 still takes twenty minutes to play, and the musicians still need years of training to play it properly. Moreover, as any number of musicians and music aficionados have noted publicly in recent years, electronic reproduction or amplification of the music, no matter how good, degrades the listening experience, because electronic systems, regardless of what the techo-geeks claim, does not reproduce the full range of harmonics and overtones.

Great art cannot be painted any faster than in the time of Manet and Monet. Admittedly, technology has resulted in a wider range of generally better pigments, but the actual creation process isn’t any faster. Great sculpture still takes time. Great wines still need to be aged, even if technology has resulted in overall cheaper and better common wines. Great cheeses require technique and aging.

So why do we as a society keep buying into the idea that faster and more technologized is better, especially where art is concerned?