The Last 200 Years of Human Creative Output

I hope that I’ll be able to post with some more frequency in the next coming while. Look for some smaller reviews in the next couple days.

Humanity, I’m calling you out.

I was doing some thinking the other day about what we’d do if aliens showed up. Obviously, the first course of action would probably be to make sure they’re not going to kill us and eat the delicious delicacy between our ears, but all things considered, these aliens had the means to make the trip from their home planet one (or two) bazillion miles away to Earth, so I’m not sure we’d be able to do too much to stop whatever their plan for us would be, evil or friendly. So, assuming their first step of their visit isn’t “killing them humans good”, they’d probably want to see the pinnacle of what we’ve accomplished as a planet during our shared, human history.

If part of your skimming of our reviews involves looking at the picture and reading the caption, hoping it will be funny, you’re all out of luck this time.

They wouldn’t be impressed with our technology, so anything we’d mention about that would go as such:
Us: And here’s a bridge that spans a whole mile!
Them: A bridge… as in it spans, uh, water?
Us: Yeah, isn’t it a great testament to our ingenuity?
Them: Oh yeah, that’s really great. We just flew millions of light years to get here, and you’re trying to impress us with something that’s designed to keep your ground-based transportation from getting wet.

As an aside, I could see Apple running a TV ad where aliens are given the tour and they’re not impressed by anything, then they use an Apple and are transfixed. The Apple logo is shown, then we see the aliens replacing the computers on their spaceship (running Windows, of course) with Apples. You heard it here first.

With our comparitively puny technology, we’d be left to show them our artistic achievements. We sort of did this already on a much more limited scale with the golden records sent on the Voyager probes, but odds are, those aliens probably aren’t going to figure out how to make them work. Not because they’re not smart enough, but for the same reason that if cave men would have thought to leave a message for the future, we’d struggle decoding it. I hesitate to sound unnecessarily profound, but there’s something to be said about technological context. In 200 years, the concept of an optical disc will be foreign to us; imagine 2,000 years or 200,000 years. Now imagine that we’re aliens whose definition of “visible light” might be completely different than ours.

Anyway, we’re giving a tour of humanity to these apparently friendly aliens. Technology’s out, human history has just become insignificant (and not just because the aliens won’t care), as from the moment the ship is seen for the first time, everything will be measured as being either “before” or “after” that moment. This all means that the only thing left for us to show off and be proud of would be our art. First things first, we’ll investigate what we’ll consider “art.”

  • Paintings? – Sure. Let’s just remember how easy it is to create absolutely awful paintings though
  • Music? – That, too
  • Sculpture? – Eh, paintings do the same in a more portable medium. Sorry.
  • Architecture? – Hmm. Tough call. I’ll take the easy way out and say that it’s more of an engineering discipline than anything else, that it doesn’t count. Besides, aliens would have different ergonomic needs than we do. If the aliens rolling on the ground and slept hovering in mid-air, our architecture wouldn’t do too much for them.
  • Photography – Too new of an artform, and most successful “photos as art” are more “neat” than transcendent unless they’re pictures of landscapes. Hmm… maybe we’ll use those photos to convince the aliens not to raze our planet and turn it into some sort of intergalactic parking lot. The biggest thing against photography is the fact that its most affecting imagery is usually more journalistic than artistic.
  • Literature – Sorry, you’re cut: aliens don’t know Earth languages, and reading requires too much of a time commitment
  • Movies/TV/Video – eh, too much context in those media (discussed later)
  • Food/Culinary? – Nope. Aliens wouldn’t appreciate the same tastes. Heck, our food might even kill them.
  • Video Games? – HA!
  • Performance Art” – Hey aliens, I’ve heard they have delicious brains!

So that leaves painting and music. Thinking on both of those forms, what would we include? For music, we have any one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (among countless other things of his that could be included – one of the Brandenburg Concertos was included on the Voyager records, so let’s consider it the example for Bach), we have a selections of “Beethovens”: Fur Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and excerpts from the 5th, 9th, and even 7th symphonies to choose from. Handel has Music for the Royal Fireworks, but after that, the remaining selections get a bit thin. The 1812 Overture is quite an achievement, but remembering what I had said before about context and how aliens wouldn’t care about history, it’s not detached from its context (the Napoleonic wars — As Americans we don’t care about them, and aliens would care even less); when someone listens to it, they invariably say it sounds like fighting music. So it (and most any other event/history-inspired piece of music-think Finlandia, The Ring Cycle, etc.) is out of contention because it doesn’t transcend its context. The Brandenburg Concerto has the name of a place in it, yet as music, it’s completely detached from its namesake. Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks also has a very context-heavy title, but what in it evokes a fireworks display without talking in artsy-fartsy “painting with music” terms or even explicitly calls out the “royal” aspect of it?

I’ve just looked into baroque, classical, and romantic music, and anything made before those three was made primitive by Bach’s baroque – and for music of the 20th century, well, let’s take a look. Aaron Copland wrote some nice music, unfortunately, it’s not alien-worthy. There’s some sort of experimental or even reactionary sense to it, purposefully having instruments out of tune for effect and having some intangible “American” sound, sometimes taking existing folk songs and incorporating them into some larger work. That’s great and all, but aliens don’t deserve experimental music in any capacity. We should be proud of what we’ve figured out, not the steps it took to get there.

Looking at less academic music, there’s jazz, blues, swing, etc., etc. of the pre-Rock times, and all of those are out — if the music has little significance today, it’ll have even less in the future. Now, the Beatles are probably the most significant popular music artifact of the 20th century, but as Nate implicitly said, the music didn’t get very interesting until they started with the drugs. Nothing against the Beatles, but I’m not sure drug users make the best musical ambassadors. (Yeah, Bach, etc. probably used snuff or whatever was popular, but no one says, “Wow, he must’ve been high when he wrote this.” John Lennon, I’m looking through at you.) Also, the Beatles music has words, and as much as I’d like English to be Earth’s language there are two issues: 1) I don’t want the Queen‘s English to be the official one and probably more importantly 2) aliens don’t know English, the Queen’s or otherwise, much less any Earth language.

The other musical heavy hitters of the 20th century? Led Zeppelin – drugs; Pink Floyd – more drugs; Michael Jackson – yeah, that’d be a good idea; (I hate to admit it) Garth Brooks – I don’t even need to provide a reason. Yanni’s quite popular in his own weird way, and he has the language thing taken care of, but his music is too generic for representing human-kind. Yeah, there’s the non-Western World’s music, but let’s be honest: they’re all wishing that they were us by enjoying our pop music scraps we give to them years after their popularity here. It’s the Western way or the highway.

Conclusion: Nothing musical that’s alien-worthy after Beethoven. He died in 1827. Way to go humanity.

On to artwork: Well, the most well-regarded of today’s artists (by art-critics/snobs) is Matthew Barney. Take a look around at that link, and you’ll see that not only is his “work” not alien-worthy, it’s barely human-worthy. Like music, a lot of the more notable recent-ish artists had drug problems (Picasso) which directly influenced their art, “great” or not. Van Gogh wasn’t the most stable (cutting his ear off and all), and Dali – well, his stuff is interesting only because we view it as humans and react to it because of what we expect or don’t expect of what we consider “art.” Aliens have no reason to react in that same way. Also, Mary Cassatt did the whole impressionism thing in an Georgia O’Keefe did for “precludes its inclusion.

Just like with the music, we end up looking back to the “masters:” Rembrandt, the Ninja Turtles (whose work doesn’t really need introduction – except for maybe Donatello, that underachieving I-talian),

The Last 200 Years of Human Creative Output is given one disappointing star due to its absolute lack of providing anything we’d give to alien ambassadors as the pinnacle of human achievement. Beyond that, because there have undoubtedly been enjoyable snippets since then, we, as fans and humans, can only be distressed once we realize that it/they can’t hold a candle to the previous work. Now, let me prefend (come on people, it means defending yourself before someone has put you in a defensive position) myself here: I am a loud opponent of the “it was first, so it’s absolutely significant and ‘good'” mentality. Beowulf, The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Elvis, Sputnik, The Wright Flyer, and on and on – all overrated in any sense other than “first ~.” None of my picks were real “firsts” (except for Bosch and Bach – and Bach only sort of – but he was not the only game in town for that time of music when he was around), so I’m good to go, principles intact. Please, leave suggestions for the alien art and music presentation below.

6 Replies to “The Last 200 Years of Human Creative Output”

  1. Dan, I think you’re dimissing our technological achievements too quickly. I’m sure aliens would be impressed with our creation of the internet and how it gives millions of people around the world an easy way to access pornography.

  2. Darn it Nate, you beat me to it.

    Anyway, Calloway… I’m sure that the alien porn would blow ours out of the water. Even the Japanese would be squemish when seeing it.

  3. Good point. His parents should really get some of that blocking software. Looks like they’ve got a problem with their #1 son.

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