On the wall in my office hangs a photograph of Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda dome at the University of Virginia. In the nighttime image, as soft yellow light glows from between the building’s white columns, a single bolt of brilliant white lightning zigzags from the heavens and connects with the top of the dome. It’s breathtaking.
I’ve noticed during the years that visitors under a certain age automatically assume the lightning bolt was digitally added using Photoshop, the image manipulation software. Under that assumption, the photo is no big deal. I invariably set the record straight, explaining that the moment occurred five years before Photoshop was invented. I try to get them to imagine the hundreds of failed pictures the photographer had to take – while standing outdoors in an electrical storm – before capturing Mother Nature’s finest sky fire along with the perfect measure of amber from within the building.
Despite being in the business of digital manipulation, I worry about its long-term effect on our appreciation of art.
After watching Transformers and the new Tron, I was confounded by their popularity, ranting to my kids that such movies are just computer games running for two hours on autoplay (made worse by formulaic dialogue and cliched acting). Then it dawned on me: they are popular precisely because they are two-hour videogames, the hottest form of entertainment eating up CPU cycles for a certain age group.
In the world of music, even my generation came of age with technology horning in on talent. It struck home recently when I bought a CD of the Beatles Let It Be… Naked, a re-release of the 1970 classic but without the orchestral overdubs and embellishments added during subsequent production. All you hear is perfect-pitch vocals and on-the-mark playing from one of the tightest bands ever. What you hear is pure talent, not technology.
With today’s recorded music, you cannot be guaranteed that even the singer’s voice has not been digitally enhanced with auto-tune software. Can Britney sing? How can we be sure? And then there are digital drums, guitars, bass, keyboards, strings and everything else.
A large part of the wonder of art is marveling at what a human being can create. Have you ever seen a painting or heard a song and found yourself muttering, “How can a person possibly do that?” Have you ever seen Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis or Sean Penn on the big screen and just shaken your head in amazement?
I worry that the digitalization of our society is making it harder to separate the wheat of talent from the chaff of technology. If I wanted to, I could place your image on the top of Jefferson’s dome with a lightning rod in one hand and your hair wild like Christopher Lloyd’s character in Back to the Future, a mad-scientist spark in your eyes. But that wouldn’t make me an artist.
What’s next for the way we experience art? Smell-o-vision? The tactile sensation of guitar strings even though our hands are empty? I’m hoping for a backlash, an insistence expressed in the marketplace that we return to the pure revelation of remarkable talent. Our ability to create and express art sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Let’s show what we can do, pure and simple.