Right Before Our Eyes

Technology shaped the show as the 20th century transformed old arts and created an array of new ones

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Our pell-mell 20th century wasted no time in sounding its characteristic theme in the arts. That theme was--what else?--change. Radical, rapid, sweeping change. And more of it than had ever been seen before.

Within the century's first two decades, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and James Joyce--the advance squadron of modernism--created works that broke dramatically with the past, tearing apart traditional artistic structures and reassembling them in startling new ways. The convulsion of World War I only reinforced the modernists' conviction that the West's moral and cultural heritage had collapsed. All that remained, in T.S. Eliot's vision, was a Waste Land crying out for creative renewal. To Virginia Woolf, what had happened was more fundamental even than geopolitics or culture. Looking back in 1924, she concluded that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed."

Yet where the arts were concerned, these pioneers still didn't know the half of it. Even as they shaped their dense, experimental innovations--sometimes deliberately designing them to flummox the bourgeoisie--change of a different order was taking place a few steps down the cultural and social scale. All kinds of exuberant, colorful and popular new art forms and media were springing to life--more new forms and media than had arisen in any previous century.

Already, in 1900, Guglielmo Marconi had worked out the essentials of radio. The phonograph was fast evolving into the basis for a recording industry. By 1912, 5 million Americans a day were attending a new entertainment called movies. New Orleans echoed with the sounds that were jumbling together gloriously as jazz. Denizens of Tin Pan Alley were polishing the wit and jaunty lyricism of the pop song and revamping European operetta into an original American theater form: the musical.

No previous century had seen such a potent interaction between the arts and technology. You have to go back to the invention of the printing press in the 1450s to find anything comparable. Now, seemingly overnight, machines and electronics were transforming virtually everything. Photography, an important 19th century invention, became almost a different medium in the 1920s and '30s with the combination of high-quality, handheld cameras, film on an advanceable roll, and the flashbulb. Photographers were free to roam the fields and streets. They could cover crimes and wars. Soft, pretty pictures gave way to a more spontaneous, realistic style.

Recording technology changed popular music from sheet music, performed in Victorian theaters and parlors, to disks that spread thousands or millions of copies of a given performance across the landscape (and across radio's airwaves). The original 78-r.p.m. record was just that--a passive record of a three or four-minute song. In 1948 the l.p. accommodated longer pieces as well as the arrangement of various tracks according to a unifying theme. Soon, as with the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album became an electronic creation in its own right, impossible to duplicate in performance. These days, when voices and whole orchestras can be conjured out of a synthesizer, one wonders whether recording is even the word for it anymore.

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