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Yes, but Is It Art?

by Ralph Lombreglia

October 1996

THE Atlantic Monthly has kindly offered me space on this Web site to write about "digital culture." Beginning in November, I'll be here each month to consider examples of interactive electronic media -- Web sites, CD-ROMs, hybrids of the two, and any other form that may come along -- that suggest the present state and possible future of arts and letters in the digital realm.

I plan to look at the best examples of serious digital multimedia, to talk sometimes with the practitioners, and then to ask, "Yes, but is it art?" I know that most of the time the answer will be "No," but that fact itself does not invalidate the act of looking. Indeed, I'd consider it promising if the answer is sometimes, "No, not yet." I'm confident that someday the answer will be a wholehearted "Yes." I take it on faith that new expressive occasions and opportunities will give rise to new art; but I also realize that the technologies providing the new opportunities are themselves in their infancy. Some of the experiments that I'll be looking at may fall short as art but still be significant as artistic R & D.

Plenty of people do not take on faith the things that I do. When I was a graduate student in creative writing in 1980 (well before personal computers were commonplace), one of my fellow students, a poet, liked to claim that genuine artistic greatness was not possible in our time. Regardless of the power of an individual's talent, said this poet, our threadbare zeitgeist cannot provide the momentous convergence of cultural forces enjoyed by artists in more profound historical moments. My poet friend seemed to feel that, in terms of cultural and intellectual history, we are little people living in a little time, vested with the power and authority to say little things. His shorthand for this was to say -- a little too smugly, a little too automatically -- "We don't live in a Golden Age."

I didn't much care for the comment or the attitude I sensed beneath it. I thought it was a self-justifying and oddly defeatist pose for an intelligent, talented person to strike -- a person who had chosen to be an artist himself. As you can see, my having agreed to write this column suggests that I am still disturbed by this position. Surely the awe-inspiring intellectual and technological achievements we're witnessing today -- in digital information, nanotechnology, biotechnology, exploration of the oceans and outer space, and so on -- justify calling our time, in some real sense, a Golden Age.

But we're also witnessing unprecedented global displays of stupidity, fear, hatred, and brutality. If anyone thought that instantaneous planetary multimedia telecommunication would automatically transform humanity into . . . well, into humanity, let that person consult the morning headlines. And if our amazing era is not a Golden Age of human brotherhood and sisterhood, why should it be a Golden Age of art? It is well worth wondering -- as a number of good commentators have done lately, including my friend Sven Birkerts, in these virtual pages -- whether contemporary technology is transforming human mentality in a way that will inevitably change the nature of literary and artistic experience and that may eventually render our "traditional" notions of such experience regrettably obsolete.

I have no ready-made answer to that big question. I take it seriously. I'm watching. But as I've said elsewhere, unmodulated materialism is the real culprit. And since art, real art, is always a physical portal into the metaphysical, is always "really about" the immaterial dimension of our lives -- our "values" -- we ignore it at great peril. The culture at large seems increasingly content to ignore it. Here in the digital realm, where some people feel we're least likely to find it, we'll be looking for it -- looking for art, or the possibility of art, and for evidence of the impulse to make art no matter what the naysayers say.

My poet friend had his quip about the Golden Age; I have a few quips of my own. I like to say that it was a happy day when Bob Dylan went electric. I mean, when Bob Dylan had the guts to go electric despite the howls of grief from his "traditional" fans and no doubt from his business managers. Some extraordinary new folk music came out of that departure -- music that did not invalidate the man's equally wonderful, but different, acoustic music. I feel the same way about the much-maligned Miles Davis. Was all of Dylan's and Davis's "electric" work as good as their very best acoustic work? Has all of it aged equally well? No, but as I said above, that's not the point. Real artists don't lie down in "tradition" as if in a casket. If Bach and Charlie Parker and Shakespeare and James Joyce could be alive in their working prime at this moment, they wouldn't be doing the work they did in their time. But they'd be doing their work.

My poet friend would presumably say that there can be no Bach or Shakespeare or Charlie Parker today. I say that James Joyce, for example, found a way to "go electric," even without a Fender guitar or a multimedia computer. I'm here on the lookout for the latest electricity.

A final note: "digital culture," as the term is used in this column, does not refer to the anthropological study of the computer industries, of consumer behavior, or of love affairs conducted via e-mail. It would be impossible, though, to force a complete separation of "culture" (arts and letters) in digital media from "the culture" of those working in digital media. Inevitably, their influence on each other, their mutual interpenetration, will become part of the subject here. The focus, however -- happily, refreshingly, without apology -- will be art.

We (the Atlantic Unbound editors and I) have some interesting ideas for this column. If you do, too, then by all means let us know.

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