An essay by Crispin Sartwell
From “Technology and the Future of Beauty” by Crispin Sartwell, which was presented as a lecture last September at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. Sartwell teaches humanities at Pennsylvania State University in Harrisburg. His most recent book is Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity. He is also author of The Art of Living : Aesthetics of the Ordinary in World Spiritual Traditions
This essay is reprinted with permission of the author from Harper’s Magazine, December 1999.
Most people, when asked to think about “beauty,” probably picture natural objects–trees, butterflies, flowers, the human figure. and thus express what we might call a Romantic aesthetic, which (though mightily challenged by certain strands of modernism) has been the standard understanding of beauty since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century, especially in America. This Romantic aesthetic reaches one of its purest expressions in Claude Monet. Consider Monet’s Water Lilies, for instance, and if you can recover the image from the walls of countless McDonald’s and Holiday Inns, you will recall that it is ravishing in its own way, though it has been trivialized by mechanical reproduction, mutating into little more than wallpaper. Dedicated to capturing and providing the pleasure of mere seeing, it makes a lovely illustration of the Romantic ideal of beauty. The pleasure of the simple apprehension of natural beauty is what governs the selection of motif and the technique by which that motif is presented. Visual pleasure, much more than lilies, is Monet’s theme, which accounts for its ubiquitous presence in college dorm rooms and food courts, and even now, after countless viewings, it still vields a slight but simple delight. If Monet is despised by folks like me and maybe you, it is not only that we have come to mistrust purely visual effects, or the fuzzy, sentimental, Laura Ashley brand of pleasure he provides; it also has something to do with the banality of pleasure itself. Perhaps we’re too suspicious now for Monet’s sensibility to seem plausible.
Contemplate by way of contrast an image by the American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler. The painting, called Steam Turbine, depicts an enormous steam turbine housed inside a power plant. Where Monet is profligate with color, Sheeler seems satisfied with the grays, from burnished silver to blueblack. But then that’s all he needs, given that there is almost nothing in the picture except unpainted metal. The gears, pistons, and ducts are handled with a photographic precision and a completely flat affect. Sheeler’s own process itself seems mechanical. This painting (which hangs, appropriately enough, in The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio) displays great clarity, both of vision and of mind, though I have no doubt that most people get more pleasure from the Monet. In some ways the Sheeler is weird, disturbing, or even inhuman –much like his subject matter. If I were to walk into the plant where Sheeler’s turbine was located, it is unlikely that I would experience it as particularly beautiful. It might even strike me as hideous. But Sheeler’s painting redeems the turbine or at any rate its structure, its configuration, its visual aspect just as Sheeler redeemed giant propellers, power lines, the railroad, and industrial parks by painting them. Sheeler was enraptured by the “classical” machine: the mechanical/ industrial colossus of the first three quarters of the twentieth century, which he systematically reduced to an almost abstract form (as did Monet with water lilies, through an entirely different process and for an entirely different reason). And of course the simple fact that he painted them is the ultimate abstraction from danger, noise, fumes, and all the other noxious attributes of heavy industry, none of which trouble the viewer as he contemplates them in an art museum.
What is seductive about the machine is precisely its simplicity of form. If you spend some time with Sheeler’s work you might notice that he rarely depicts “natural” things; his works are almost devoid of plants, animals, clouds. Even people are rare. All of those things, in comparison to the machine, are messy, complicated, arbitrary. But the machine can, with some limitations, be encompassed all at once in a single visual act: it is made by human beings for our own purposes and has a degree of complexity apportioned to our understanding. Yet it is precisely that quality that can make the machine landscape seem monstrous or bleak; the machine landscape is a landscape broken by human will, a will that is simplistic, paltry, and morally confused.
I work in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is just a couple of miles from Three Mile Island. The first time I rolled to work up Route 441 and passed it, I was intimidated. The gigantic concrete stacks suggest an engineering project in the old Soviet bloc, a relic of some two-bit American Stalin’s five-year plan. And it feels radically dislocated from its setting. An island rendered into concrete on a particularly lovely stretch of the Susquehanna, rising over small farms and small towns to transform the horizon, it seems to have been built on the wrong scale. But I’ve begun, under Sheeler’s tutelage, to see that it has a certain beauty; the stacks are gigantic hourglasses that embody a bizarre sensuality, and the steam that rises from them is an odd sort of weather. Three Mile Island is a monochrome, modernist beauty: a reduction of form to function so ruthless that the form itself is perfectly stark, absolutely purified, utterly abstract. Three Mile Island is a manifestation of an almost satanic beauty, a monstrous expression of pride and desire for power that is beautiful for its hatred of natural beauty, in its rejection of sweetness, in its insane scale. It is in its inhuman conception a completely human thing, an attempt to transform a whole region into an artifact.
The sort of aesthetic put forward by Sheeler in his art and by me just now with regard to Three Mile Island dissociates beauty from nature, or perhaps even declares that the further something departs from nature the more beautiful it is. One might see such an aesthetic operating even in the world of human beauty, where makeup, clothing, and plastic surgery can be conceived as ways of transmuting the body into an artifact, making over the flesh into a machine landscape, simplifying the complexity, the wrinkles, the arbitrary protuberances to make a comprehensible object of desire. We thus humanize the body in the way that all things are humanized–by concealing, polluting, and breaking. Furthermore, Sheeler and his aesthetic pollute the notion of beauty with use, even as the machines he depicts pollute the beautiful natural landscape. Indeed, there is the fearsome hint in Sheeler that what we think of as pollution might itself be a kind of monstrously beautiful humanization of the natural world.
Perhaps the nuclear power plant in its aesthetic is the final moment of the classical machine. But at the heart of the nuclear power plant there is a mystery that is incompatible with its machine nature: the nuclear reaction itself is not “mechanical” in the sense that a steam turbine is mechanical. It is something that people set in motion, but not exactly something they make or accomplish. It has the interesting “natural” property of potentially running out of control and destroying everything, like a typhoon or an earthquake. So Three Mile Island gives us a hybrid aesthetic or is a pivot in the relation of technology and beauty: it is a classical machine with something astonishing and incomprehensible at its heart. Three Mile Island displays a sort of beauty that is past, but perhaps it also points to something about beauty’s future.
Charles Sheeler was born in 1883. So he came of age at the turn of the nineteenth century. He was born only twenty-one years after the death of Henry David Thoreau, but the world into which he matured was not Thoreau’s world. Thoreau felt the onset of industry and sought to escape it, to hold on to a preindustrial aesthetic even as industry enlivened him. He always found beauty where there were no people and regarded people themselves as a kind of pollution. Sheeler, on the other hand, moving with a satanic American optimism, tried to make an aesthetic for the twentieth century. He tried to make us feel free in the machine landscape in which many of us seemed trapped; he tried to make a beauty for industrial workers rather than farmers. Thoreau dignified the idea of a natural humanity. Sheeler began to conceive and paint our future as cyborgs.
The age of the classical machine is over: those huge industrial landscapes that Sheeler painted are mostly gone now, or are lapsing slowly back toward something we might again call nature, in junkyards or dumps, or just standing there rusting. Our machines, if “machine” is still the right word, are both much smaller and much larger. Incomprehensible amounts of energy have been expended in miniaturizing the machine, so that the model device of the turn of this century is not the steam turbine but the Pentium processor. That our machines have at once grown so much smaller and so much larger has utterly transformed our relation to the artifactual world, the world of human creation. Technology becomes at once infinitely more personal (compare a PC to a steel mill) and also completely out of anyone’s control. The incomprehensibility of the Internet, however, is due not only to its size but also to its operation. The Internet is so widely dispersed, so amorphous and elusive, that a comprehensive grasp of its configuration is probably impossible. It is a system or environment with a life of its own, constantly in the process of transformation and growth. Individual human beings like us are more or less bacteria in the body of this thing. In both these ways, technology has transcended and is transcending the classical machine. Systems will in some sense be set in motion by people, but they will grow on their own. The collapse of the virtual and actual will above all occur not as a result of perfect simulation but as a result of ever huger accidents and bizarre turns of events no one expected, which is also the origin of what we now call nature. But it may be that in the next one hundred years we will have so radically reconceived the relation of humans to the rest of the world, annihilating the distinction between the natural and the artificial, between art and life, that we will utterly lose the concept of the natural. That should not surprise anyone; “nature” was invented by the Romantics as they stared into the barrel of the classical machine.
And it may be that that other Romantic bromide, the distinction between useful and useless, craft and art, commerce and aesthetics, will vanish as well. I really can’t tell whether the Internet is “useful” or not, and I don’t really care. Sometimes I accomplish practical things on the Internet, such as ordering a book from Amazon.com, but more often I just wander around aimlessly. I gaze at traffic patterns in Washington, D.C., just because I’m already at Washingtonpost.com; I trade contentless instant messages with my daughter, who’s at her mom’s house; or I spend an hour on Google searching for information about John Prine. The Internet is not useful or useless; it’s just there–like a forest or a mountain. There is no reason or justification for its existence, but all reasons and justifications, all commerce, will eventually flow through it. The beauty or ugliness of the Internet will not be useless or useful: it will be a kind of increate, inchoate fact. This is just an extension of the reality of the computer. Computers seem useful. They “save time” and so on. But in fact people have no more time now than they did before, and each increase in computer speed is compensated for perfectly by the increased demands of the software it runs: no gain is a gain and no efficiency is achieved; there is just an ever ascending spiral of signal densities.
Perhaps art in the next century will amount to a kind of terror in which collaborations of unknowable numbers of people and machines will make beautiful things that no one understands. Perhaps in the next century, works of art will begin both to fashion and to interpret themselves. Perhaps artists will grow works of art the way one grows a field of soybeans, hoping for the best. Perhaps the concept of art itself will become otiose or impossible in the face of the self-creating artifact. Or perhaps the greatest works of art of the next century will be self-consuming artifacts, communicative information viruses that grow by themselves and destroy through communication all communication in diabolically beautiful ways.
The forward thinking artist of the next century will make works too complicated to be grasped in a visual or auditory act. The machine will grow ever smaller and ever larger until we are hooked into huge communication systems all the time through tiny devices on or in our person. Institutions and governments will seek to control the Net and us through processes of simplification, screening, and monitoring, but will find that surveillance is impossible in the beautiful mess; the whole concept of power will have to be radically reconceived as communicative and pseudo-organic rather than ideological. The classical machine will play for the twenty-first century the role that nature played for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: it will be the object of longing and nostalgia. We will wish for industrial production in the way that Thoreau wished for oneness with nature. The industrial worker will take on the iconographic status of the cowboy. Paintings by Charles Sheeler will appear on posters in hotel rooms. People will design useless pseudo-classical machines, or they will make postclassical processors that look like classical machines. Self-perpetuating and self-annihilating technologies will make art a branch of horticulture. New and inconceivable hatreds will spring up and yield beautiful things. Beauty will be viral: impossibly profuse and self replicating and arbitrary and infectious and lethal. And finally, beauty will once and for all detach itself from pleasure, so that there is no reason for anything to be beautiful or not: no goal, no justification, only an inconceivably huge communication system awash in an arbitrary syntax of electronic impulses imploding into a beautiful death, as when you look at the remanufactured corpse in the funeral home and all you can say is, “Doesn’t he look natural?”