Did you know that the Greek word for ‘art’ is techni? Technically it’s spelled τέχνη in the Greek alphabet, and I couldn’t put this sentence together without two more English words with Greek roots - ‘technically’ and ‘alphabet.’ Clearly, the influence of the ancient Greeks on millennia of human culture is indisputable, which is why it is strange to me that we somehow lost track of the idea that art and technology are actually two sides of the same coin. To the Greeks, they are literally the same.
The definition of τέχνη translates as: art, skill, craft, or the way, manner, or means by which a thing is gained. When we look back at history, it is no wonder that the tools humans used to make something innovative were seen as technology. In renaissance Italy, Leonardo DaVinci was considered both a scientist and an artist, using the most modern technology of his era to produce completely new works of art. When the technology he wanted didn’t already exist, he invented what he needed himself, and he was not the only one.
Whether it was Johannes Vermeer using a camera obscura (a photo projection apparatus) to “cheat” (or innovate?) on his realistic portraits two hundred years before the modern camera was invented, or Benjamin Franklin playing around with the sound produced by running his fingers along the edge of half-empty wine glasses and translating his tipsy whim into the Glass Harmonica (one of the oddest American-invented instruments that was so popular during its 15 minutes of fame in 1791 that Mozart wrote a quintet for it over the pond in Vienna), artistry and invention have unquestionably gone hand in hand. But while we are quick to acknowledge the role of these technologies in making unique art possible, we rarely think of them as art themselves. Why not?
Think about how the world might have been different if Vermeer hadn’t felt the need to hide his brilliant shortcut because his culture at the time valued his ability to capture the human form with just his brain and his hand more than the ability to create a device that could capture those forms regardless of the operator’s innate artistic abilities. The creativity required to conceive of both the concept and the intricate executional details to build a new device from scratch is certainly equivalent in genius and artistry to the creativity required to paint a magnificent portrait, and so why the separation between “artist” and “inventor” or “artist” and “technologist.” It is easy to accept the argument that Stradivarius, one of the greatest makers of violins in history, was an artist and a master of his craft with scientific precision, yet, do we think of the software engineers who invented Kubernetes (or κυβερνήτης) as such?
"It is easy to accept the argument that Stradivarius, one of the greatest makers of violins in history, was an artist and a master of his craft with scientific precision, yet, do we think of the software engineers who invented Kubernetes (or κυβερνήτης) as such?"
Is it the tactile nature of a Stradivarius that makes it feel more like “art” than “technology”? Yet there are certainly mediums like poetry and music that lack a clear visual or tactile component (at least for the audience) and are still considered art. What about the economics of it, then? We do have a modern cultural ideal that art is produced “artistically” - whether that’s Jackson Pollock going wild with paint splattered on the floor or Van Gogh wallowing in his starving bohemian ways - there’s some expectation of a “beyond the ordinary” counter-cultural approach worthy of a Baz Luhrmann musical. “Art for hire” or produced with any commercial plan in mind offends our modern sensibilities, and yet much of the great western artwork that is louded today as a pinnacle of human achievement was produced for commercial purposes, and not always successfully.
We cringe or shrug at the idea of a genius using their mind for overtly commercial purposes, or even worse, on behalf of a faceless corporation, while most western art and technology in the last 2,000 years has, in one way or another, been produced with the hope of earning a living for the artist. Perhaps one difference is credit. While we know that Haydn was the genius behind his 107 symphonies that were performed at the Hungarian estate of the Prince of Esterhazy, his aristocratic patron, we rarely know the individuals whose artistry is behind the modern technology that we value so much. While Steve Jobs gets copious credit for his artistic bent (perhaps enhanced by his artistic ego a la Picasso), there are thousands of other geniuses in the background, gaining little credit for their contributions beyond their name on a slew of corporate patents. If we named those people for their accomplishments like Haydn, Mozart, and Vermeer were named, would we find it less difficult to think of them as artists?
"We cringe or shrug at the idea of a genius using their mind for overtly commercial purposes, or even worse, on behalf of a faceless corporation, while most western art and technology in the last 2,000 years has, in one way or another, been produced with the hope of earning a living for the artist."
If the Greeks have taught us anything, it is that the dichotomy (διχοτόμηση) between art and technology is a false modern construct. It turns out the word ‘technologist’ and ‘artist’ are synonyms (συνώνυμα) and there is no point in dissecting a distinction between two words that are considered to have the same meaning. And, in the end, it’s all Greek to me!