The Musician's Room: Art and Media

I keep seeing a particular question cropping up across the Internet forumsphere:
If a book, disc, or painting is simply the sum of its subject elements, and those can be transmitted and contained electronically, why do I get the feeling something is lost in the purely electronic versions that are supplanting the physical media?

Now, when the question is asked the media may change from CD to book to movie, but the question is coming up over and over again and many of those asking are consumers of both eMedia and physical media.

To answer that question, you probably need to ask more questions, of course. The first is, What exactly does a work of art consist of? Depending upon your answer to that question, there are another couple of questions you might ask yourself: Are books, art, and music simply a bunch of encoded data? ...and... Is all that is required for these works of art to exist and be propagated, a suitable encoding and transmission stream that allows the user to decode and recognize the data at the other end?

To help answer these further questions, perhaps we can answer even another: Why did the monks in the Middle Ages who worked at hand-copying texts, illuminate these books with elaborate hand-embellishment? Was it possible that they considered a book to be something more than a collection of letters forming words? Of course, back then, books were published by hand-writing the text on sheets and binding those sheets into a book. Some would argue that they were merely extending the technology of handwriting a little further into this illumination form to embellish. But really, it appears to me that there were a couple of motivations: Those who reproduced the contents of the books judged the contents worthy of embellishment. They also saw the contents as something enduring.

How about one more question: Why is it that art critics fiercely demand that a painting can only truly be comprehended when viewed first-hand. In other words, why do they maintain that something vital is lost in any photographic representation of a painting? Or another: Why do people feel a need to place a beautiful painting in a fine frame or in a place of prominence on a wall? Could it be that they feel a fine piece of art deserves a fine presentation?

This brings to mind some final questions: Is something lost when content is divorced from medium or is genericized to allow distribution to multiple media? Is there a philosophical statement that lies behind the new aesthetic, or lack thereof? Could it be that we have made a judgement upon the art of our culture, that it is so transient, so much a matter of passing fashion that it doesn't deserve any form of presentation?

For years there was a pressure to bolster the status of a book or CD by the quality of the binding and packaging of the item. Those works considered to be the very best were giving the best packaging. Even today, Apple and Amazon realize their tablets and readers need to be surrounded by excellent packaging in order to give them an air of excellence. What is communicated when the content they carry arrives virtually unadorned?

Of course, as the various media have been "democratized," ie. the cost of publishing has decreased to where virtually anyone can publish his own work complete with all the trimmings, the actual physical tokens and the physical media have lost much of their former cache' and gravitas to audiences that don't remember their former glory. Still...

Points to ponder...