Art is a technology

In a characteristically thought-provoking longread on Ribbonfarm (previously) Haley Thurston concludes her Better Art Vocabulary series by arguing that art is a technology, that it moves through technical innovation, and that innovation can be systematized and studied and improved.

Art is a technology. If you did a Casablanca / Law & Order double feature you might notice that although Casablanca perhaps has more ‘artistic value’ (that horribly vague phrase), Law & Order tells its stories with a mind-boggling efficiency that vastly outstrips the former. Some time after 1960 filmmakers learned how to tell more story with less. They learned how to convey more information in less time and without losing depth. If this kind of compression is one example of artistic technology, in other words, we’ve gotten so much better at it that even the workingman filmmakers that produce network television can do it. It’s artistic electricity. Literacy.

According to this model, you could call some artistic movements technological inventions. Or even technological revolutions. Painting realistically, non-linear narrative, or syncopation are all examples of things that had to be invented. And these practical inventions reflect more systemic, abstract inventions that could better be described as ‘ways of thinking.’ The invention of realism, for example, changed the scope of things art could (or should) be about from what was moral or pleasurable to what was truthful. Modernism, in turn, suggested that what was truthful could be approached by methods other than object-level realism. And so on, and so forth.

My interest in art as a subject is not because of philosophical fascination on its own merits. My interest is fundamentally practical: I want more art that is good. I write about art because of the sneaking suspicion that on some level ‘artistic value’ is a technology too. That ‘good’ is a technology. That it’s something that can be in some way broken down or optimized. That it’s something people can be literate in.

The Awe Delusion
[Haley Thurston/Ribbonfarm]