Monday, June 07, 2010

Goldblatt, David. Review of Barry Allen, ARTIFICE AND DESIGN. NDPR (June 2010).

Allen, Barry. Artifice and Design: Art and Technology in Human Experience. Ithaca: Cornell UP 2008. Barry Allen's new book is unusual in its enormous chronological scope and its vast geographical coverage. Artifice and Design: Art and Technology in Human Experience takes us from the Upper Paleolithic Age to the present time and from East Africa to the lifelines of Manhattan. To say that it is interdisciplinary is to understate his attempt to be everywhere academically. Allen turns to "evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, science studies, aesthetics, and the history, philosophy, and anthropology of art and technology" to put in place his panoramic thesis. In its refusal to accept widely accepted views, Artifice and Design is as stubborn as it is provocative. Disagreement with Allen on the history and conceptual analysis of humanity's relationship to art and artifice should not prevent strong praise for his undertaking. So what is it about? Allen claims that the civilization that best manages its technology, the society of well-made works, must include the humanizing appeal of art -- a consideration of aesthetics. Beginning before the existence of what are believed to be the first tools and working up through the history of modern building and contemporary manufacturing, Allen insists that aesthetics, the way things look and feel, has been part of good design and, then, good engineering. Artifice, or workmanship, he says, is intimately connected to a work's perceptual appeal. Whatever else is involved in putting something together, its success requires perceptual concern as well. And art is, or ought to be, not disinterested perception, not art for art's sake, not exiled in museums or otherwise isolated from human life, but rather an integrated part of life, just as technology is irreversibly at one with how we live. Allen is a contextualist. When we utilize and evaluate artifacts, cars for example, we must also consider their effects and recognize that smog too is an artifact whose history is at one with the history of the automobile. So artifacts can be coherent or incoherent with the motives that originated them. Talk about technology always includes talk about a tradition of design and an economy of a people. Designers of machines need to care about what happens to them when machines are no longer needed or when they stop working. When retired, can they be recycled or repaired, or will they simply be added to the accumulating world of trash? "Repair," he says very nicely, "is a kind of care . . . Repair is a caring reply to skill's art". Allen prefaces his discussion of technology with nothing less than speculations on the origins of knowledge. Knowledge, he claims, has little to do with the modern and contemporary epistemology of the epistemologists. For Allen, knowledge begins with doing something. . . . Read the whole review here:

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