Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 509:
AT THE ART MUSEUM

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 509.

Today, we visit an art show. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Museum of Art in Katonah, New York, mounted an important exhibit in 1990. They called it The Technological Muse. The subtitle warns us what's coming: Affirmation and Ambivalence in American Machine Imagery, 1840-1990.

Art and technology forge an uneasy alliance. The Greeks used the same word, techni, to describe both. Techni means art and skill in making things. We've let the two pursuits separate themselves in our minds. Yet they cannot be separated.

Driving to work the other day, I heard Buxtehude's music played on a fine Danish-built organ. It was superb, but I came away perplexed. Where did genius lie -- in Buxtehude, in the player, or in the man who created the organ? For that matter, which of the three would you call a technologist? Which would you call an artist? The fact is, they cannot be separated.

So we walk through the exhibit. How do artists cope with the man-made material world when they're part of it? Here are two paintings of the same scene by an English landscape painter. The first, done in 1837, shows a lake, trees, mountains, and a woman playing with her child. Six years later we see smoke from a train in the background. The woman is gone -- replaced with a man clearing the land.

Thus, the museum tells us, modern technology entered the artist's mind on little cat feet. The first fruit of the industrial revolution tiptoes into paintings, transforming them subtly and profoundly. Photography follows with its eerie ability to heighten reality.

In the 20th century art has become a Greek chorus behind the engines of industrial change. Artists look at gears for their intrinsic beauty. They celebrate automobiles and dynamos. They lament the destruction of the land.

They poke fun at bad technology. Here's something called an Arms Chair. It's an easy chair trimmed with 50 pistols. There is a seven-foot man, made of TV sets. Through it all rises the artist's agony over so much technology that is no longer techni.

In the end, these artists struggle with their own alter ego. Here's a wonderful picture of a machinist inside a Westinghouse turbine. He's adjusting the stator blades with a hammer. His face has the same quiet rapt intensity that the artist knows so well.

So we're back to the exhibit title, The Technological Muse. I don't really believe the machine is a muse at all. For the artist, technology is really what he sees when he glimpses a mirror -- suddenly -- out of the corner of his eye.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Fillin-Yeh, S., The Technological Muse: Affirmation and Ambivalence in American Machine Imagery, 1840-1990. Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1990.

Browne, M.W., Engines and Art, Or the Machine as Muse. The New York Times. Friday, Dec. 28, 1990.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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