Discussions about copyright sometimes set up a dichotomy between technology and creativity. But is the gap between the two really so great?

Historian Maury Klein notes that the introduction of the word “technology” in its modern sense comes as early as 1829, when Jacob Bigelaw published his book Elements of Technology. Bigelaw defined the term as “the application of the sciences to the useful arts.”

In 1855, George Wilson, Regius Professor of Technology at the University of Edinburgh and first Director of the Industrial Museum of Scotland, gave an inaugural lecture at the University of Edinburgh for its new technology chair. Below is an excerpt from his lecture, What is Technology?

What’s interesting is how he sets up the distinction between technology and the creative arts as a matter of definition. The two fields otherwise have very many similarities and share many of the same purposes. The distinction, thus, is more a matter of semantics than anything else.

Thus far, the meaning of the word Technology is not far to seek, but it must be taken with two important qualifications, to which I now request our attention. The one of these is, that Technology includes only Utilitarian Arts: the other, that it includes only certain of these.

It is by a quite conventional limitation, that the word art, τέχνης, (technes), denoted by the first dissyllable of Technology, is held to signify Useful, Utilitarian, Economic, or Industrial Art, for the Useless Arts, such as Legerdemain, or the Art of Conjuring, are eminently technical, and still more so are the worse than Useless Arts, such as cheating at cards, and other sorts of dishonest gambling.

Nor is the limitation less conventional which excludes the Fine Arts from the domain of Technology; for no Arts call for more skilful workmen than Painting, Sculpture, and Music, and none are more technical in their modes of procedure. Far less are the Fine Arts excluded, because they are regarded as useless or hurtful. The Technologist avoids them for exactly the opposite reason. Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, Music, and the Sister Arts, are in the highest degree useful, inasmuch as they minister to the wants of the noblest parts of our nature; but in so ministering they excite such emotions of pleasure, or its inseparable correlative, pain, that the sense of their usefulness is lost in the delight, or awe, or anguish, which they occasion. So much is this the case, that while men thank each other for the gift of bread when they are hungry, or of water when they are thirsty, or of a light to guide them in the dark, they return no thanks for a sweet song, or a great picture, or a noble statue; not that they are unthankful for these, but that the duty of thanksgiving is forgotten in the pleasure of enjoying, or the strangely fascinating pain of trembling before a work of creative genius.

And the artist himself, singularly enough, in a multitude of cases, makes no complaint at this thanklessness, and counts it no compliment to his work to call it useful. The end of Æsthetic or Fine Art, he will tell you, is the realisation of beauty, not utility; as if the latter were rather an accidental or unavoidable and unfortunate accompaniment of the former, than the welcome inseparable shadow which attends it, as the morning and evening twilight, tempering his brightness, go before and after the sun. But such a description of the aim of his labours, though natural to the Artist, is unjust to his Art. The true object of Æsthetic or Fine Art is not Beauty, but Utility, through or by means of Beauty.

It may be that the Poet, the Painter, the Sculptor, the Musician, often think only of the emotional delight which their works will awaken in the hearts of their brethren. But these works, in the very act of delighting, serve those whom they delight. It is surely as useful a thing, on occasion, to fill the eager ear with music, or the longing eye with the glories of form and colour, or the aching heart with thoughts of joy, as it is to fill the hungry stomach with food, or to clothe the naked body.

1 Comment

  1. Michael Levine

    Cheating at cards is a useless art? More than Call Me Maybe?