Is the iPod killing great paintings?

The painter David Hockney -- who prefers his eyes to his ears -- thinks iPods are making us all ear-loving freaks.


Farhad Manjoo
June 16, 2007 1:34AM (UTC)

In a speech at the Tate Britain in London the other day, David Hockney, that much-beloved painter of L.A. swimming pools, argued that mobile music players like the iPod, along with poor arts education, has caused a "fallow period of painting" (not to mention fashion):

"We are not in a very visual age ... I think it's all about sound. People plug in their ears and don't look much, whereas for me my eyes are the biggest pleasure ... You notice that on buses. People don't look out of the window; they are plugged in and listening to something ... I think we are not in a very visual age and it's producing badly dressed people. They have no interest in mass or line or things like that."

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Does this sound like positive nonsense to anyone else? And I ask as a fan of Hockney's paintings and his ideas, someone who did not, for instance, recoil at his camera lucida theory of old art (short version: He thinks the Old Masters used various optical devices to help them paint realistic pictures.)

But this iPod idea is just useless. First of all, what does it mean for a culture to be either "visual" or "audio"? Are large numbers of people really choosing to go with their ears over their eyes in some meaningful way? Are we driving with our eyes closed, or popping on blindfolds when we chat with our neighbors, or what? And even if this cultural condition is possible -- and it's not -- wouldn't you need more diagnostic evidence than the observation that people aren't looking out of bus windows?

Because at the risk of cataloging the obvious, let me point out that the bus thing doesn't mean anything. First of all, folks may not be looking outside the bus because maybe there's nothing out there interesting to see. Or maybe they'd like to read instead (which, you know, you need your eyes for). Or maybe they're tired after work. Or maybe the bus windows obscure the scenery. Whatever it is that's keeping people from looking outside the bus, I'm pretty sure it's not the iPod.

You know how I know this? Because you can plug in your iPod and look out the window at the same time. Nobody -- and I mean not a single earthly soul -- has ever sat on a bus and thought, "Oh dear, should I listen to the Lightning Seeds or look out the window instead?" Anyone who has an iPod and wants to look outside can do so easily and safely, because when God created us 6,000 short years ago, he gave us the capacity to see and hear at the same time, really eliminating the need for us to choose between a visual and audio culture. (Thanks, Man!)

But I don't even have to mention any of this to disprove Hockney's idea that the world is now all about sound. All I have to do instead is say one word: television. More people in the world watch more TV than anything Apple makes. TVs turn up everywhere with the sound turned down -- in airports, in elevators, in bars, in restaurants, television is all visual, no audio at all. Maybe Hockney should consider this eye-demanding medium as the cause of the fallow period in art.

After all, you can paint while you're listening to the iPod, but not while watching TV.

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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