October 8, 2011

Gesamtkunstwerk. Or, "In the beginning was the Word."

As happens often, I start responding to a comment, and then realize I've written something more, and I make it a blog-post.

David commented here, (thanks!) concerning Steve Jobs....

I recall you, John, saying the iPhone is a work of art. I think that's the problem. It's only a work of art. Steve Jobs really only distinguished himself from the rest because he made things others made look better. I would find his cult following a little disturbing if he were selling something more dangerous than a glorified phone. The American Enterprise Institute has an article debunking all the nonsense equating Jobs with guys like Edison. Except for the design and operating system, what part of the iPhone was actually made by Apple?

Good question.

I didn't mean "work of art" to mean something that simply looks good. Or a painting on a museum wall. I meant that it's a "total" work of art, including all its characteristics. Hardware, battery-life, OS, and engineering; all are part of the same totality. Apps, both in appearance and in how they function. The box the phone comes in and the stores it's sold in. Ads and web pages, and customer-service.

They are all of a piece. My phone is a splendid example of both form-follows-function and function-follows-form. It is what was once called a gesamtkunstwerk, a "total work of art." That's a term from my favorite period, around the turn of the 20th century. Architects or artists back then would, when possible, create a home and all its furniture, and the carpets and dishes and everything, sometimes down to the gowns that the women of the house should wear.

The iPhone is just as much a "gem" in its gritty hundreds-of-thousands of lines of code as it is in its slick outer appearance. I've had mine for 8 months and only needed to restart twice. Other than that it's been on non-stop. (Yes, I think it does work better than other phones. But that's not quite my point.)

I would add that Jobs' aesthetic and vision is not mine. I think that, like most modern art, the vision here is spiritually flawed. But that is because creative artists always reflect the true "self" of their time. And I think our time is out of joint in many ways.

It's not Edison that Jobs resembled, but Ford and Disney. The world-changing cheapness and simplicity of the Model T resulted from an obsessive attention to every single part, and every detail of manufacturing, all ordered and inspired by the vision of one man. The Model T was a "gesamtkunstwerk." Its aesthetic was not one of beauty, but one of freedom. Ford's obsession was freeing people, especially the American farmer. (When Lefties like Obama obsess about trains, they want to do precisely the opposite. The want us "inside the barbed wire." They want to put us back in the box.)

Also, I think the "cult following" thing is much overblown. The cult is fringe; most iPhone or Mac users just like their machines. It's the same with any cool product. There is a "cult" of BMW drivers, but most people who own BMW's are not cultish. I love my phone passionately, but there's an Apple Store a quarter-mile from me, and I rarely visit it.

"What part of the iPhone was actually made by Apple?" That's Industrial Age thinking. The physical parts of everything are becoming less and less important. Boeing is right now assembling its awesome new 787 Dreamliner out of sub-assemblies that are manufactured all over the globe. So who "built" a 787? What the heck IS it? What's real? I'd say what's real is whatever's written with the stupefyingly powerful CAD software Boeing, and each of its subcontractors, uses. If every person and machine and building and "thing" involved in making 787's were wiped out, our world could get the 787 production lines running in a year or two. As long as we have those CAD files. Without those Ça n'existe pas. But those files are art, part of the real art of our time. Ignore the rubbish on the walls of MOMA.

It is spirit that is real, not matter! And we see this everywhere. iPhones are "made in China," but Chinese companies are now starting to out-source production to Brazil. And it won't be astonishing if in a few years the Brazilian companies outsource parts to Africa or Indonesia. And in a few more years maybe your home 3-D printer will make you a new phone.

This is all around us, but we can't see it. We are blind. If I told you the Cosmos is the Word of God (as it is), you would think I'm indulging in obscure superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Yet you are swimming in that Truth like a fish who is unaware of water. Art is real, God is real, material "stuff" is just the fog tendrils about the bridge of dreams.

Posted by John Weidner at October 8, 2011 12:30 PM

"That's Industrial Age thinking."

I don't disagree with you there. I think over-the-top admirers like Auletta are the ones stuck in the industrial age by comparing Jobs to Edison. By showing the iPhone as a collaborative effort like you said, I can appreciate it as a whole 'work of art'. But it also means we're less likely to see giants like Edison who build whole systems by themselves. Liberals like Auletta tend to hero worship. That's why they need to make people like Jobs a bigger-than-life hero and others (Bill Gates) a bigger-than-life villain.

Posted by: David at October 8, 2011 2:51 PM

As someone who has worked on operating systems, I find the cavalier dismissal of that work ... irritating. Mr. Weidner is exactly write to point out how much of modern things is information, not physicality per se.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 8, 2011 3:27 PM

As I have mentioned to Evil Rob, the amazing thing about Apple in the last decade and change is the fact that every time they come out with a new product, everybody starts playing by their rules. The iMac came out and suddenly everybody started looking to design all-in-one products with candy colors. The iPod came out and suddenly they were the ones to beat—even though they were far from the first MP3 player on the market. The iPhone came out and you not only ended up with touchscreens on mobile devices, but the physical language that Apple designed became the default.

That's the most obvious manifestation of the current Apple devices. They become the default, in spite of earlier models and in spite of the fact that other companies have tried to come up with better products. Everyone is currently competing on Apple's terms.

Now, I'd love to see game-changers in other realms. Maybe like Norman Borlaug in agriculture. It would be something amazing.

Posted by: B. Durbin at October 8, 2011 8:35 PM

Well, we have high-tech and Internet billionaires investing in space technology. That looks like a game-changer to me.

Competing with each other, in fact. Big bulls trying to build the biggest phallic-symbol rockets. I love it!

Posted by: John Weidner at October 8, 2011 8:43 PM
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