All art, in time, is robbed of its context. Discuss.

In a discussion about the tension between art and technology my doctoral supervisor, Brogan Bunt, brought my attention to a quote by Charles Baudelaire:

Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable. (Baudelaire)

One of the gripes I have with exploring art within the craft of technology is that I feel that many works are doing nothing more than expressing “hey, this is what you can do with technology these days”. Its a gripe that I support by issuing the parameter-mapping Turing test challenge… this is a challenge which effectively asks: ok that’s nice and clever and everything but what is the eternal and the immovable in your art?

What one can do with technology today is only interesting given the context of today. Tomorrow, it will be .. well, yesterday’s news. So really, I think I am questioning Baudelaire’s statement. I’m not sure that the transient really is one half of art. Time robs art of its context … it robs it of the meaning of its transients. A great work of art must surely transcend time, in other words it must host the presence of the eternal … the immovable.

So …  I’m going to correct Baudelaire’s statement:

Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; art, being the eternal and the immovable, must transcend modernity.

To be honest with myself, I think I must accept that perhaps my definition of art is one within which I place no pre-condition of the necessity to understand the context of a work. In other words, I would like my art to speak to all people, irrespective of their understanding of the context within which it was borne.

That puts me in a particularly difficult position because technology has been central to so much of the work I have produced (and currently am producing). I think there is a preconception that I am slowly realising I must discard. It is the preconception that the exploration of technology can reveal something that is eternal. I think that is a fallacy.

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7 Responses to All art, in time, is robbed of its context. Discuss.

  1. Bogus Name says:

    Surely, the exploration of anything can reveal something that is eternal. I think the point you wanted to make was that technology is not eternal, so that using technology just for the sake of using technology can not produce art.


    • Hi Martin,

      yes … using technology just for the sake of technology can not produce art. But I think that many people explore technology thinking that within technology they will discover something that is eternal.

      Take John Chowning, for example, he discovered that by modulating frequency with a sine wave (FM) you could produce sounds that are very similar to percusive instruments. So in a way he discovered something eternal simply by exploring technology.

      Or maybe he didn’t …. maybe the fact that FM sounds like percusive instruments is meaningless. I dont know.

  2. Marc Lavallée says:

    The goal of the second exploration was to create rich sounds, as Risset did, but in a more economical way. Since it was possible to use the technology to imitate real world sounds, there was a commercial interest. I don’t know if FM is eternal (as a technique), but it seems to me that all synthesis techniques are more interesting when used to create new (or unheard, “inouïe”) sounds than to imitate real (or known) sounds. If new technologies are developed with a goal of imitation or replacement, for economical reasons, then we may forget that percussive sounds were once produced by hitting objects together, like some children who believe that fish are naturally born frozen and rectangular… What kind of Turing test is valuable in such a context? The way we perceive sounds is more important than the technology we use to produce them, but then we need the technology to hear them…

    • Marc,

      The Turing test is intended to highlight whether the choice of parameter mappings (from one digital data set to an other) reveals anything that is eternal … or whether the act of mapping one parameter to an other is just done for the sake of seeing if you can map one thing to an other. See here:

      From a sound synthesis perspective Chownings’ Turing test with respect to FM would be is there any thing revealed in FM synthesis about the world generally? Or … is FM just a technique to create sounds that is more efficient than others? If it is just a technique then it is not a work of art. It might be interesting taken in context of the times … but it holds not much interest isolated from its context.

      Compare that to a composition, created 300 years ago, whose interest still holds today even if the listener has no knowledge whatsoever of the historical context it was created in.

  3. Marc Lavallée says:

    A first contact with art can generate interest about the creation context, regardless of the age or provenance. Contemporary art often “work” after learning about the creation context. The word Art comes from the latin word Ars which mean “technical hability”, “technical knowledge”, “craft”. Did FM reveiled something? Certainly. Is it art? Probably, depending on the definition of art. My impression is that Turing tests are too anthopomorphic to test “artificial intelligence”, but maybe they’re good to test “artificial art”. I’m not helping…

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