Saturday, 1 September 2012

Technology and the arts


Recently, I was looking through the pencil museum in Keswick, on the site where the modern pencil (including the coloured pencil) was perfected for mass production.

(Aside, I browsed a book on the history of pencils and their manufacture, and there were many references to Henry David Thoreau and his family. Before reading this, I never knew whether to believe that HDT really was as good at pencil design and manufacture as his biographers stated - but now I am convinced.)

You would have thought that after the pencil was perfected in the mid 19th century, there would have been a renaissance of drawing - but there wasn't. Probably more people drew; but the best were no better than in the past, indeed were probably worse. Pre-19th century technology was not, it seems, a constraint on artistic perfection.


And then I thought about musical instruments. The modern classical orchestra did not arrive until the late 19th century, when the design of woodwind and brass eventually settled-down (all kinds of brass instruments were used in the 19th century classical music - keyed brass, saxhorns, cornets where we now use trumpets etc).

You would have thought that this would have led to a renaissance of orchestral music, particularly in terms of orchestration - but it did not; indeed classical music died (or rather split into popular and professional sub-genres).


Or one would imagine that typewriters and word processors would lead to better novels, or more productive writers - but not really.

Indeed, it is remarkable how little technology affects the quality of artistic production.

Clearly all arts depend on some minimal level of technology, but it is amazing how little major technological breakthroughs affect artistic quality: certainly they seldom improve it.



dearieme said...

In the popular jest the typewriter helps the monkeys, not Shakespeare.

Jonathan said...

I agree with you, but I do observe that computer typesetting software has substantially raised the average quality of writing in technical fields, even during the 20 years I've been in them. I think this makes the observation all the more interesting--although technology sometimes really does boost the quality of the average, it seems utterly irrelevant to the best.