Taking off from Jon's post in response to 4.4: some disorderly thoughts of my own on the role of technology in contemporary life and contemporary art.
I'm not familiar with McLuhan's account of "amputation" but I'd be more inclined to say that new technologies create attenuations or displacements as well as amplification of ability (and desire) rather than the kind of absolute loss that his metaphor seems to imply. We can, at least in many cases, still recover something of the older ways of doing things. "Old media" tend to stay with us, though they may seem to some to lose their "relevance."
I think that while the use of tools and artifacts is common to many animal species, homo sapiens has taken this to an extreme. This has both advantages and disadvantages; these are hopelessly entwined and we have to face both. Short of a global apocalypse (though that is certainly imaginable), we are caught up in technology and technological society. As Jon suggests, humor and absurdism are a big help.
I just came across an old essay, "On Transcribing and Superliteracy," by the Darwinian aesthetician Ellen Dissanayake, in which she offers a humorous reflection on her "day job" as a transcriptionist as a means of reflecting on the differences between oral and literate cultures and the ways hyperliteracy has distorted contemporary literary and language theory. Some of her language from the article also appears in her wonderful 1992 book Homo Aestheticus, which offers a "species-centric" view of art as a unique human adaption. I'm on the fence about the art as uniquely human (it depends, as I said earlier, on how one defines art--a tricky question for certain). I'd have to revisit her ideas at greater length but I think they are worth taking seriously in the light of questions being raised in this discussion. (As an evolutionary thinker, she is, of course, well-informed about the deep continuity between humans and other animals. But perhaps she is still too much a "humanist.")
Writing, painting, traditional musical instruments--these are all technologies too, with their associated gains and losses (though mostly gains, or so one would like to think). Concerning computers (briefly discussed by Dissanayake as writing tools, interestingly enough, from the perspective of 1990), I think they are a perfectly legitimate means for making art. Hopefully it's not a mere prejudice, based on my background as a painting student, nor sheer backwardness, to suggest that more traditional artistic media have a special role today in offering a counterweight to the effusions of our digital culture. If memory serves (I don't have the book on me), philosopher Paul Crowther concludes his chapter on digital art in his The Phenomenology of the Visual Arts by affirming the primal necessity of painting and other established artforms. These connect (and reconnect us) to our bodies and our senses in ways that images on a screen--even virtual reality immersion--cannot.
I agree that Ellen Dissanayake's work is important to this conversation. Her most recent book, Art and Intimacy, that grew out of her work with the child psychobiologist, Colwyn Trevarthan, argues that art originated in and is an elaboration of acts of love and care and its cultural/biological role has always been to reinforce interpersonal and social bonds. When understood in this way, art is no longer a solely human enterprise. We are clearly not the only creatures whose very existence depends upon the mutual bonds of relationship and the continual reinforcement of those bonds.
I agree too on your interpretation of McLuhan and would use the word atrophy to describe how unused organs of perception lose their strength from lack of use like muscles do. I have found the work of Jean Gebser very stimulating in terms of perceptual bias, some claim that McLuhan took many of his ideas from Gebser who anticipated his theories in germ by at least two decades.
Disanayake claims art is uniquely human in her earlier book, although a lot of what she says there suggests otherwise. I haven’t read Art and Intimacy (yet) Does she change her mind there?
I of course have great sympathy for her general thesis.
Arthur, as I'm sure you could have guessed from my most recent essay, I'm a big fan of materially embodied form ("its" rather than "bits," to bastardize a phrase of John Wheeler's). But I'm not at all sure why painting should be given priority here. Despite my formal training in the medium, and despite the fact that I'm usually identified as one of its practitioners, I've always been allergic to painting's superiority complex. (Indeed, if we're talking about our need to have a sensual relationship with matter, sculpture would seem the more likely candidate for privileged status!) All the same, I'm grateful to you for reminding me of Paul Crowther, whose writings about art and embodiment have been very influential to me. But to the larger point of your final paragraph: While I agree that material presences are more important in art than ever (to, as you say, offer a counterweight to our immersion in the digital), I think there's an enormous role in 21st century art for "it and bit" hybrids. The examples cited by Sarah in her most recent post are a case in point. This is art that uses the latest technologies to collaborate with other animal species for the betterment of our built environment. Like any other tool, technology can be both deleterious and a great boon. I'm always excited to see artists using digital technologies to create sensually alluring, complex, and multi-valently profound art (which is, admittedly, nowhere near always the case with digital projects).
I think it doesn’t matter too much, outside of these specialized debates, whether or not other animals make “art” or if art is a human adaptation. As Abram observes, in his wonderful little essay below, animal behavior is astounding—I’d add the “behavior” (sorry for all the scare quotes) of more primitive organisms is as well. Who cares if we apply a human-derived honorific or not? At the same time, what is wrong with considering human art from a “species centric” or indeed culturally specific perspective? I think there’s room here for all sorts of perspectives as long as one doesn’t lose sight of the big picture.
Crowther’s point, and my own, is not to privilege painting or even traditional materially embodied art (he has a lot to say about sculpture in that book and elsewhere) in general terms. Rather it is to investigate what is distinctive and valuable about all of the major visual arts forms/mediums. As he also argues in that book, digital art seems to maintain a capacity for expansive formal innovation that painting has exhausted.
He does devote greater attention to painting PVA and elsewhere and as so could be said to “privilege” painting. Aside from what appears to be personal interest, it is clear that he takes painting to be a kind of foundation for more recent new and mixed- media forms. But he writes with sympathy about these too.
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