The Mind of James Donahue

Loss Of The Arts

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Digital Art Has No Soul
by James Donahue
Something happened to art in recent years and I think I know what it is. When we switched to electronic digital recordings we lost the soul of the artist. It is art by machine and no longer coming from human hand and heart.
While I knew that I did not really enjoy looking at electronically, computer generated art as well as I did the real thing, the digital effect on the music I was listening to was more subtle, but present just the same. In recent years I have not been listening to music as much as I used to, even though the new CDs make the quality of the sound better than I can ever remember it. It just doesn't move me any more.
I didn't realize what happened until a friend described the digital sound tracks. "They are not complete," he said. "There are just sound bites. The music has lost its soul," he said. "It has happened to all of the art. We have whole generations now who have never listened to music on vinyl."
Could this be true? I turned to my dictionary and looked up the word "digital." Among the various definitions I found: "An audio recording method in which sound waves are represented digitally (as on magnetic tape) so that in the recording wow and flutter are eliminated and background noise is reduced."
Indeed, what a great way to describe the soul of music: "wow and flutter." That is the part they took away. And that is the part of the sound track that gives music that special kick. It is the piece of the artist's soul that touches the heart.
There may be something to my friend's criticism of digital art all right. Visual or hearing art now comes to us in vision particles, or sound bites.
Radio and television transmissions are required, under Federal Communication Commission rules, to be digitally recorded and delayed for a few seconds so technicians have time to bleep those accidental nasty four-letter words. Our movies are presented on DVD in sound and vision bites. Cameras capture computerized visual bites. There are no more negatives. There is no more film.
Indeed, some people have noticed the change and tried to do something about it. In 1996 Keith Johnson and a man with the odd name of Pflash Pflaumer who developed something called High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD), a patented process that records 20 bits of sound information instead of 16 bits in music and DVD movie sound tracks. Microsoft, which now owns the process, even goes so far as to promote the process as "putting soul back" into music.
Better, perhaps, but not perfect. They are still "bites" of sound. The full, rich text is still missing. And when it comes to listening to Beethoven's great Ninth Symphony, picking up on the Firehouse Five in some good old Dixieland Jazz, thrilling to the powerful voice of the great Lisa Gerard, or enjoying a blues tune by artists like Lightnin' Hopkins, there is nothing like hearing it from a vinyl recording so that the art experience travels soul-to-soul.
The only thing better than that would be to hear the music live in concert. But most folks can't afford that luxury these days. Most of the great artists are gone so their concerts are a thing of memory.
Perhaps this will help explain why contemporary youth is drawn to CD noise from those contemporary "singers" and "rap" speakers that all sound alike. There is no art in this stuff. There is no soul. They are the voices of a contemporary drug culture that preaches hate, sex and violence. It is a youth culture gone mad.
I am not surprised to hear that the music industry is losing money. The blame is placed on the new CD burners, and Internet thieves, but I have to wonder if this is really true. When I wanted a recording by a particular artist, I never had trouble doling out the few dollars needed to get a quality recording.
The music industry, now controlled by big business interests that I am told shuts the door to new and upcoming artists, is forcing us to listen to what the industry believes will make money. That very concept is designed to fail when it comes to creative art, even without the failure of digital machines. 
My problem has been finding music that I want to own. It just isn't out there anymore. With a few dynamic exceptions, even the movie industry is cranking out some pretty dull stuff, filled with worn out plots and poorly scripted stories. It is hard to get enthused about contemporary art of all kinds today. I think the digital culture is subconsciously turned off to it.
Unless they packed a concert hall, the youth of today has no memory of hearing music filled with soul.
I fear that contemporary civilization has lost its art. Historians will tell you that when this happens, civilization as we know it is crumbling.

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