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The iPhone Considered as a Work of Art

Is my iPhone a 21st century work of art? The exquisite touch of realism in the faint shadows under the icons at the bottom: The sleek, Brancusi-like sleekness of line and form: The use of color and the attention to detail: The way it holds and rewards the attention: The human voices that emerge from it, speaking and singing to me: Is this not art?

As far as that rhetorical question goes, a hyphen could set up a category in which, potentially, to place this objet d’artifice. “Is this not-art?” The distinction between art and not-art has struck me, in the past, as trivial or pedantic. We come after Marcel Duchamp and Warhol, after all; to argue against anything qualifying as art is to announce yourself as a Muggle.

And yet distinctions and definitions matter, and while slotting the iPhone 6 into one category or the other isn’t going to shift sales up or down, this interests me, if only as an intellectual exercise. Notice, for example, that no one in the 19th century thought the telegraph pad was a work of art. The 19th century in general seems to have been much less anxiety-ridden about the shortening of time and distance through which it lived. (Email has shortened the time of message transmission by days, yes, but only when compared to snail mail—the telegraph and rotary phone had done so long ago.) All technological artifacts can be contemplated for their aesthetic value, including (in my personal experience, especially) warplanes and typewriters. Yet I am fairly certain that the SR-71 Blackbird or a vintage Olivetti is not-art.

So what about my iPhone? Not-art or art? The only reason the possibility entered my head in the first place may be because Apple, Inc. has spent millions of dollars on ad campaigns to convince me to do so. This was Apple’s original PR masterstroke: To push the idea that its technologies and interface were somehow more conducive to artistic creativity, and better suited to creative people. (Or rather, better suited to be purchased by people who consider themselves creative.) From the idea that the Apple product is inherently more artist-friendly, it is one step to the idea that the Apple product is itself a work of art. What is certain: The iPhone is an artifact of early 21st century communications technology. Which, in sixty years, or six months, may come to seem as outmoded as one of those cinderblock cellular phones of the 90’s.

Litmus test: If you can mass produce it in China, it’s not a work of art. One thing they cannot assemble over there are Kay Ryan’s poems (Ashbery’s poems, possibly; but not Ryan’s). Even if I accept the equation of technological artifact as work of art, the iPhone strikes me as a minor epigram relative to an epic 3.5 Tesla Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner. The MRI machine is more beautiful and more complex than the iPhone, generates eloquent images of human suffering—and saves lives every day.

A related question arises: Is the iPhone’s wildly successful ad campaign itself art? Or is it not-art? Admittedly more hairsplitting, I concede: Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters have transitioned from advertisements for shows to museum pieces. Still, it seems they are exceptions. Warhol’s work was never commissioned by Campbell’s Soup (the Campbell’s Soup labels were), and nearly all advertising images remain stubbornly quarantined, even in our everything-qualifies culture, as not-art. Except during the Super Bowl, we rarely contemplate commercials, however well-made, for their execution and success as examples of their form.

Advertising produces striking, memorable images, true, but Speer’s Cathedral of Light, and Goebbels’ racially charged footage of rat infestations, provided striking and memorable images too. While we can consider or analyze these in artistic terms, the mind denies them the fundamentally noble appellation of art—a nobility we grant readily to bawdy or irreverent art, like that of Rabelais or Aristophanes. (Leni Riefenstahl fascinates people so much because her films lie on the border between art and propaganda; or, depending on your opinion, possess dual citizenship.) Today’s ad campaigns, for all their visual power and vibrant creativity, seem to be a not entirely benign species of propaganda. Propaganda’s purpose is primarily rhetorical, that is, it persuades you to do something you might otherwise not, and what’s more, to do it urgently. Under 20th century fascism, propaganda’s purpose was to get people to part with their moral decency; today, the advertising campaign (note the military-political tenor of “campaign”) wants to get people to part with their money. Propaganda wants to get something from you. Art wants to give you something.

So is my iPhone a work of art? Hold on, let me ask Siri….