Technology, Art, and Penn

Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame) was quoted as saying the following:

Technology adds nothing to art. Two thousand years ago, I could tell you a story, and at any point during the story I could stop, and ask, Now do you want the hero to be kidnapped, or not? But that would, of course, have ruined the story. Part of the experience of being entertained is sitting back and plugging into someone else’s vision.

Not to sound too much like a textbook, but: Do you agree or disagree? Explain.

7 thoughts on “Technology, Art, and Penn

  1. I have to disagree – that’s an incredibly narrow view of what both art and entertainment are. Isn’t film a different art form than theatre, each distinct from the story teller in the marketplace? As for entertainment, plugging into someone else’s vision is only part of the experience – choose your own adventure books and videogames are entertainment that isn’t entirely passive, and a large part of the entertainment is the ability to explore the bounds of the vision you’re presented.

  2. Now the statement “Technology adds nothing to art,” is certainly narrow minded by itself. This of course depends greatly on one’s definitions/ideas of _technology_ and _art_, not to mention ambiguous figurative “nothing”. But i digress into semantics. Regardless, technology has enabled art since berries were used for dye and someone put hair on a stick and called it paintbrush.

    I would like to read a larger context (does anyone have the which-month? ’93 copy of _Wired_?). If Penn were ranting about “video games” gaining marketshare on films/movies (does this make video games “art” or the artform of the future) OR if Penn were responding to a comment on various post-structuralist “interactive” plays/ movies/ books in which a viewer picks certain plot points, OR if the interviewer asked how he and Teller used technology within their “art” — etc., i would validate certain aspects Penn’s statement.

  3. I figured I should just put the entire quote in context in here. I should mention that part of the quote wasn’t actually said by Penn, but rather written by the author summing up what Penn had apparently said. Here’s some context, including the section from which the quote was pulled.

    I had to censor some of the strong language to get it through my spam filters, but I left as much untouched as I could.

    Most of the way down to Atlantic City, we talk about interactive entertainment. Penn says it’ll never work. Entertainment – movies, theater, music, art – boils down to the performer, not the audience, being in control.

    “Technology adds nothing to art,” he says. “Two thousand years ago, I could tell you a story, and at any point during the story I could stop, and ask, Now, do you want the hero to be kidnapped, or not?” But that would, of course, have ruined the story. Part of the experience of being entertained is sitting back and plugging into someone else’s vision.

    “The fact of the matter is, since the beginning of time, you could buy a Picasso and change the colors. That’s trivial. But you don’t because you’re buying a piece of Picasso’s f**king soul. That’s the definition of art: “Art is one person’s ego trip.”

    Penn says he and Teller “have been offered a huge amount of money and a huge amount of technology to do interactive s**t. We have turned them down. Not that the technology wasn’t up to snuff, but because we don’t have any ideas.”

    “The whole f**king world is pretending the breakthrough is in technology,” he says, as we whiz by the Blade Runner-like landscape of New Jersey oil refineries. “The bottleneck is really in art.”

    It is only natural that Penn, the magician, should have an intimate understanding of the relationship between technology and art. Or more specifically, technology and the art of magic.

    Technology is, and always has been, an important tool in the magician’s bag of tricks, explains Teller. Though he never talks on stage, off stage Teller is a marvelous talker, a historian of magic, and now, in the hour or so before their first show, he’s holding forth during dinner at an Atlantic City hotel.

    Magicians have always exploited new technologies, from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who used a trick involving an electromagnet to quell a rebellion in Algeria in the mid-19th century, to, well, Penn & Teller.

    Teller quotes Arthur C. Clarke, who noted, “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    I’d also like to point out that about two years after this was published, Penn & Teller almost released a video game, but it was never released for some reason. I don’t know why, and I haven’t spent much time trying to find out.

    Personally, I think, “The bottleneck is really in art,” is a much more interesting quote, although it requires context to get it.

  4. Personally, I think comments like this (and pretty much anything said by Roger Ebert on the subject of video games) are true about a major chunk of interactive gaming, but they’re obviously missing the games that achieve true art status. Yes, there are games that are basically crappy choose-your-own adventure games. Reference Dragon’s Lair as the stereotype. Yes, there are games where the technology actually made things worse. Reference pretty much any FMV “game” that came out in the early to mid 90s. Then there’s the much more subtle problem of games that think they’re movies. Talk to anyone who’s played Xenosaga and probably one of the first things they’ll say about the game is that they don’t remember playing it so much as watching it.

    But there are lots of games that are nothing short of art, because they managed to see what the medium could accomplish, and ran with it. Find a copy of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If you’re not much of a gamer, find someone who is. Watch them manipulate the game. While the pictures are pretty, and the characters and story are entertaining, it’s the control that is the art, in my opinion. Trying to evaluate it the same way as a movie or a book is missing the point.

  5. If technology has nothing to do with art then tell me how you created that line drawing of yourself in the upper corner.
    Like it!

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