From the Archives: Art & Technology: Toward Play

The January-February 1968 issue of A.i.A. includes an expansive three-part feature about technology’s impact on art. All of the sections were authored by Douglas Davis (1933–2014), who explored the relationship between creativity and new media in his groundbreaking work as both an artist and critic. In the first part, titled “The New Combine,” Davis discusses the importance of synthetic, industrial materials for modern painting and sculpture to create a backdrop for understanding more adventurous light installations, video projections, and kinetic art. His point is that all contemporary art relies on new technologies, and therefore works that feature it more obviously—as a “Combine” of old and new mediums, to build on Robert Rauschenberg’s term for collage in three dimensions—should not be dismissed as novelty or gimmickry. The second part consists of interviews with three artists: György Kepes, Billy Klüver (with whom Rauschenberg organized Experiments in Art and Technology, a series of collaborations between artists and engineers), and James Seawright. The third part, “Toward Play,” which we are publishing below, casts his interests in a philosophical light. If the objection to the incursion of technology into art comes from a humanist impulse, Davis writes, then that same humanist perspective should recognize the element of play and the excitement of discovery that animates experimental practices with new media. We turn to Davis’s article this month, when our special issue, “The Digitized Museum,” includes Mike Pepi’s article “Silicon Values,” a critical look at how institutions try to make space for innovative art. —Eds.


The machine is endowing art with an element of play—play in the sense of scope and freedom, play in the sense of sheer fun. The New Combine may outrage the old-line humanist and the art-for-art’s-sake critic, but today’s artist rushes forward in his new partnership with technology, leaving foes and critics behind.


Technology is not subverting art without opposition. The New Combine, to put it another way, has its enemies, honorable enemies—many of them deeply involved, on every level, with contemporary work. Their complaints, whatever the source or the vocabulary, reveal at base certain familiar dispositions—to see technology as an alien, inhuman force, to associate its use in art with mere “gimmickry,” and, finally, to fear any surrender of control by the artist himself over the technological materials involved in his work.

To oppose technology in art is to oppose it in life, for technology is as much a part of man as his home or his road or his clothes; in company with all these, technology is surely nonhuman, but man alone can render it inhuman. It is man alone, moreover, who reduces material of any kind to the level of gimmickry. There is nothing inherently superficial in a light bulb, as there is nothing inherently noble in pigment. If the oceans of oil wasted upon imitation of the great abstract painters in the 1950s did not wash away this fallacy, nothing ever will. It seems we must learn again that art can incorporate any material and any process, when employed in the service of the imagination.

That technology is a neutral, not a negative tool, is conceded by the best of the humanists, by those engaged in a rearguard defense of Western art and civilization against what they consider the excesses of the present, both in politics and in art. When Lewis Mumford, the dean of these guardians, compared technology to the walls of a prison, he also took pains to add that we built the walls, “even condemned ourselves to a life-term….But those…walls are not eternal.”

On the difficult issue of “human control,” however, the split between new and old is profound. It is no accident that the literary and critical establishments reserved their greatest scorn over so long a period for John Cage, who has distilled in his articles and lectures, as well as his music, the ideas most repellent to the humanists; they are ideas, moreover, that have been realized in the work of many artists, among them Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Allan Kaprow, Robert Whitman, the choreographer Merce Cunningham and a whole train of young composers. When Cage recommends, to take just one example, the use of chance methods in composition—the flipping of a coin to determine the order of sounds in music—on the ground that such procedure “brings us closer to nature in her manner of operation,” he strikes at the root of Western esthetics as it has been defined since the Renaissance. (To Mumford, for example, one of art’s central tasks is to “arrest life in its perpetual flux . . . detach itself . . . in its [art’s] final perfection.”)

Cage has not been the only influence on the movement variously described as neo-dada, to be sure; surrealism, Oriental philosophy, Marcel Duchamp, all have contributed, as well as dada. There are wide differences of approach between Cage and Duchamp, Rauschenberg and Kaprow, dada and surrealism, but the net effect of the work produced by them has been an erosion of the line between art and life, between, in effect, greater and lesser degrees of subjective control. The “found objects” in a combine by Rauschenberg turn us out toward the world, away from art, as do the “found sounds” in a Cage concert; when we perform in a happening, we perform as ourselves, not as created (and therefore arrested) characters.                                                                                                                                                                                                          Poetry, mystery and pleasure

It is only natural, then, that these artists—and all those influenced by them, deeply or slightly, from Robert Morris to Charles Frazier—should embrace technology with undisguised lust. For the machine offers the best of all roads away from the self and its inherent limitations. Let the computer then provide us with tables of random numbers, let random sound waves light our dance, let the evening’s television fare provide us with images for our large screens (as in Robert Whitman’s “Two Holes of Water-3,” presented as a part of “Nine Evenings”). The more independence we can cede the machine, from a Cagean point of view, the more interesting, indeed, the more fun, art becomes, for it takes forms no earthbound ego might imagine. Recall that Billy Klüver concluded his preparatory remarks for “Nine Evenings” with a reference to the Chinese fireworks of three thousand years ago as “maybe the fast use of advanced technology to give poetry, mystery and pleasure to the people. I feel that our performances will have some affinity to these long-forgotten forerunners.”

If it is difficult for the humanist to endorse this position, he can—and must—come to terms with its historicity. There is not only the whole tradition of anti-art behind it, but also certain analogous responses, responses based so deeply in our sensibilities that they barely admit rational explanation. When we play the machine for its own sake—and enjoy it on the same basis—we merely confirm on a new level that love for the thing itself implicit in abstract expressionism as well as the found object. The abstract painters taught us to discard the search for illusion and for meaning in a canvas, to look upon form only as form, color only as color; it is a lesson transferable to computer graphics. The disposition to enjoy the Ding an sich is beyond recall; no amount of lecturing in defense of meaning can stay its course.

There is, for all that, a strong countercurrent on the issue of “control.” Artists like Gyorgy Kepes and James Seawright shape light to their own ends in a perfectly orthodox, almost painterly fashion. And there are many artists drawn to technology because it permits more, not less control. Countless composers, Milton Babbitt preeminent among them, have been attracted to electronic music primarily because it dispenses with the accidents attendant on live performance; the giant “Synthesizer” constructed so lovingly at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center during the postwar years provides the composer with the precise, immutable sounds he needs. Choreographer Alwin Nikolais’ energetic use of both electronic music and an imaginative, full play of light upon his dancers permits fuller control of the stage—and therefore the senses of the spectator. The latest turn in sculpture has been toward control, too, toward the use of industry by the artist as his production arm, a process reinvigorated in our time by Donald Judd, who sends his plans to a metal fabricator in order to get ta exact finish he wants. Ron Davis still constructs his own pieces, but he summarizes the spirit of his colleagues when he laments that a new Chevrolet is “more perfect” than most art made today. “There are a few Southern California artists,” he says, “who seem to be trying to make perfect art, but fall short of the perfection of General Motors.”

The humanist’s last straw 

The effect of all this work, whether aimed at total or lesser control, incontestably de-emphasizes the hand and therefore craft. I suspect that this is the final straw, for the humanist. As Billy Klüver says, most of us expect the true artist to mix his own pigments. We still nourish the myth, reinforced by Hollywood and the schoolmarm, of the lone, romantic artist, sweating away in garret obscurity, chasing after meaning. We certainly have no preparation in song or story for a Donald Judd consigning work by phone to a company of factory hands. On this level, too, the humanist must, gives way or stand isolated in his own ignorance, just as the political conservative must give way in time to the guaranteed annual wage and the puritan to the new sexual morality. In all these cases we are involved not with propositions but with realities already fixed in our sensibilities, if not yet in public policy.

Michael Noll of Bell Labs is already working on a means of attaching the computer to the brain so that the artist may one day be able to transfer a measure of his conception directly into real form, avoiding even such fragile mediums as the pencil and the telephone. Criticism cannot escape the implications of such work, either, save by avoiding the issue of conceptual art entirely, as it has so far done. The critic must, in dealing with the kind of art represented in fact by David Tudor and in plan by Michael Noll, transform his traditional concern for craft into a concern for ideas, a concern with concept rather than product. Tudor may have ceded the content of “Bandoneon I” to its components, but in the original idea of the piece lies its reality—and the only ground upon which to judge Tudor himself.

A time for play

Above all we must learn, it seems to me, both as audience and as critics, a new respect for play, or at least as much as we now give, no doubt rightly, to sobriety and craft. How deeply ironic it is to find the machine producing a sense of joy long absent from contemporary art. Dada, for all its antic moments, was at base bitter, war-weary; surrealism grounded itself in apocalyptic Freudianism; what abstract expressionism “expressed,” over and over, was the intensity of the inner man. When the humanists insist that the artist rise above “mere” play with technology, they reveal how little they have learned from contemporary philosophy, psychology and sociology about the importance of the play pulse to the shape of civilization itself. Wittgenstein finally concluded that language was a game; even Sartre says that man is never more himself than when he plays. It is then, in this completely nonfunctional moment, that man best differentiates himself from the machine, not as master to servant but as human to nonhuman. The machine, as we have seen, can outcontrol man in any functional sense; it can never outplay him.

I do not contend that the spirit of play wholly dominates our use of technology in art or that it should. It is but one component, if the most striking, in a vastly complicated fusion, one that includes fear and wonder and skepticism as well as play; yes, vastly complicated, but the more satisfying for all that, and heralding, as I am sure it does, the only relationship possible for any of us, now, with society itself, a society bound far more closely to technology than is art. We are learning to resist that society here, embrace it there, help it today, stop it tomorrow. The old simplicities will not do, either in life or in art, and certainly not the one that disparages technology, bidding us to use it only as a servant. Chaucer wrote long ago, about marriage, in words applicable to the New Combine as well:

For o thyng, sires, saufly dar I seye,

That freendes everych oother moot obeye,

If they wol longe holden compaignye.

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye. . . .