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Anybody can do that

April 10th, 2005 by

Punctuated equilibrium is a term from evolutionary theory which I borrow here to describe the development of my own thinking. Last Friday marked such punctuation, a burst of change, and a flurry of new thoughts. I spent the day at the Museum of Fine Arts with high school art students and the evening with folks from the Signal/Noise conference.

During both segments of my Friday, I heard the phrase “anyone can do it” in both positively excited and negatively dismissive tone. Students shook their heads at the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt’s massive geometry, One-Two-One with Two Half-Off and Sir Anthony Caro’s painted steel Kasser. “This isn’t art,” they told me, “anyone can do this.”

A few hours later, I sat beneath the carved dragons of Ames Courtroom watching Michael Bell-Smith manipulate a piercing guitar sample into a believable drum pattern. Total production time including making comment was just around the length of the average pop song. It was a startling demonstration of the transformative power of available digital media tools. Anyone can do it.

The students visiting the museum sought sublimity. They were attracted to work demanding the dedication and mastery of a craft. Of the last century, I saw them react most strongly to Carol Cohen‘s three-dimensional glass paintings. With rare exception, conceptual and abstract objects did not capture their attention. They value the production over the product. Marvel at the labor and eclipse the result.

There is a deep desire in many human beings to witness attempts to defy the accepted limits of the species. We cheer on the athletic accomplishments of Olympians and the brilliant innovations of automotive engineers. However, it seems that appreciating works requiring expert craftsmanship rather than those that “anyone can do” is little more than celebration of the freaks; in painting, they are those statistical outliers with the ability to convincingly represent three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane with a limited set of pigments. Given enough time and proper instruction, anyone with intact control of the hands and wrists could mimic the seemingly superhuman production of a Caravaggio. (Many already have. Art historians occasionally confuse works of the Masters with works by their students and assistants.)

To warp this analogy to the 21st century, present technology can have many effects on an audience’s commitment to craftsmanship. Creative use of technology is about the quality of the product, rarely the production. I can program a computer to perform Mozart. However, I will likely never receive the accolades of a concert pianist. There are dozens of similarly high quality recordings of Mozart. Audiences support the classical pianist for her production, not her product.

Frequently, folks are disappointed to discover that their favorite pop singer is lip synching. There are numerous pitch-correcting tools that digitally adjust a live vocal recording to ensure it matches a predetermined melody. Country singers opposing this practice now put stickers on their records proudly proclaiming that they are singing “naturally.” Debate raged deep into the night when Kid Kameleon was called out for digitally arranging his Shocking mixtape diptych rather than mixing live on turntables. When the traditional value of production over product is applied to creative uses of digital media, it creates strange dissonances.

In the comments that followed Michael’s presentation, one attendee raised an important question: if we can mutate any gurgle or fart into a tightly wound snare drum, why sample a recording protected by copyright? This led another member of the audience to speculate on the mysterious “swing” and “feel” of a 70’s breakbeat. A later comment pointed to the recently scarce “warmth” of analog recordings. Is this purely nostalgic mythology or can better code provide swing, feel, funkiness, warmth, and soul?

I don’t mind hyperbole: anyone can do anything. If I practiced hard enough, I could sink 100 consecutive free throws. However, I can’t be Lebron James. Perhaps in the world of digital media production, we value the producer over the product.

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