15 March 2020

Mumford -- Art and Technics (xiii)

"...by perfecting a mechanical method, the "taking of pictures" by a mere registration of sensations was democratized. ... What had been in the seventeenth century a slow handicraft process, requiring well-trained eyes and extremely skilled hands...now became an all-but-automatic gesture. Not entirely an automatic gesture, I hasten to add, lest any photographers in this audience should squirm in agonized silence... For after all it turns out that even in the making of the most mechanically contrived image, something more than machines and chemicals is involved. The eye, which means taste. The interest in the subject and an insight into the moment when it--or he or she--is ready. An understanding of just what esthetic values can be further brought out in the manipulation of the instrument and the materials. All these human contributions are essential. As in science, no matter how faithfully one excludes the subjective, it is still the subject who contrives the exclusion." (92)

There is, internecine politicking aside, a squirm-worthy element of these developments nonetheless: the inaccessible Technics of "a slow handicraft process" can indeed be elided via mechanization, and said process thereby rendered superfluous; but the choice and responsibility of Art, as Mumford speaks to earlier on, cannot be elided. (And why would we want them to be?) This "democratization" is thus constructive only insofar as the old Technical barriers prevented latent Art from being realized; insofar as they were concurrently preventing vapid or destructive impulses from manifesting in the material world, they were at worst neutral and at best critically important. Who is to say, really, how much of which kind of desire is latent at any given time?

The chance of gaining generative power without first passing through a protracted period of struggle and introspection is bound to be irresistible to many people, at least to the extent that they are consciously aware of this dynamic. Struggle and introspection themselves are, if inherently resistible to most people most of the time, nonetheless endemic to a certain small cross-section of the personality spectrum from which the master handicraftsperson tends to come. I say this not to valorize these traits but in fact to de-valorize them. In value-laden notions of art's place in society, such formative factors have a way of becoming value-laden too. By positing certain deep-psychological traits as conducive to artisthood and others as anathema to it, we run afoul of the distinctively American (and it is this even now, actually) belief in total freedom of vocational choice. But if artists did not place themselves on such pedestals to start with, then the assertion that not everyone is fit to be an artist ceases to be offensive, even under a regime of totally free choice1.

And so, if the imposition of handicraft morality at a certain point came to look like a mere protection of entrenched gerontocratic interests, if its effectiveness in jump-starting a concurrent development of moral sense was habitually overstated by those same interests, if it truly is functionally dispensable, if it is a mere antiquated roadblock to self-actualization which is best bypassed altogether so as not to delay consummation, and if distribution channels (i.e. the Internet) have now belatedly undergone the complementary democratization necessary to complete the two-way artistic transaction, then I would expect great democratizations such as the one under discussion here to have begotten far greater and broader progress than they have. It seems instead that the extent of the progress has been to initiate an ever-ongoing Marshmallow Test whereby successful passage of the test has over time become defined by ever-shorter intervals of delayed gratification. For Mumford here, to the extent that it is a basic human need to be generative in some capacity or other, the ever-escalating development of the technics of reproduction has enabled this need to be met more fully, a profound social gain purchased at the equally profound cost of a correspondingly massive devaluation of the resulting products. This confounds the technocratic-progressive conceit to "a steady climb upward", pointing instead to "a series of flat plateaus" (84) borne of a complex web of concurrent microtrends. Threads of progress and regress thus swirl together in ways that can be quite confusing to the human subjects swept up in them.

To note just one much-discussed current, there are of course those whose subsistence labor commitments occupy virtually their entire lives, who simply don't have time for introspection, but who may also avail themselves of these shortcuts to generativity. There is an ever-present temptation to valorize their output (and its lack of refinement) as the essential expression of a particular oppressed class or ethnic group; yet such work surely also reflects, regardless of its other good or bad qualities, the condition of oppression itself and thus an intolerable stunting of human potential. The full introjection by the oppressed of the very artifacts of their oppression is precisely the condition in which said oppression becomes self-perpetuating. Certainly the degree of refinement needs to be a choice freely taken and not imposed from above, but therefore also not merely foreclosed by structural barriers. Short of that, who can say where the dynamic interaction of personality and circumstance, of nature and nurture, might deliver any given person who is afforded the opportunity to stop and think about all of this more-than-occasionally? Given that most basic right, reflections of identity are bound to look rather different that they do without it. And if we simply elect never to stop and think about what we are doing, then what is the point?

1. Is totally free vocational choice really such a privilege? Is it really quite so kind and caring to let young people figure all of this out for themselves just as it has become too late to change course?

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