DJ’s and producers are often ridiculed for their lack of artistic merit. Cue Henry Rollin’s rant (here). “CD-Player, a Record-Player, a Computer Sequencer Program”, says one commenter on that video, “these are not musical instruments. DJs are not musicians, they are not artists, they’re only part of a huge business based on lies.”
At the heart of this argument is an idea that goes beyond DJ’s. It was, in fact, first used on photographers a century ago. Paul Spencer Sternberger writes about this in Between Amateur and Aesthete. Therein he highlights the technical innovation photography saw at the turn of the 20th century:
“The increasing standardization of the photographic industry and the improvement of the optical and chemical technology of the medium towards the end of the 19th century constantly enhanced photography’s capacity to record the specifics of optical information.”
This capacity for technical perfection was at odds with the artistic. Sternberger continues by mentioning that the “tendencies toward which photographic technology developed (for example, sharpness and detail) seemed antithetical to art.” The camera was not the brush, paint, and palette that typical artists dealt with. Here was something that only reproduced optical information. In a similar way, the record player and laptop reproduce musical information. They are a far cry from traditional instruments.
“Grappling with the dual nature of photograph as an ‘art-science,’ photographers during the 1880s and 1890s attempted to reconcile these seeming opposites.” And the same condition that Sternberger describes for photography is what DJ’s and producers have to grapple with. Backlash isn’t always from the outside either. Some DJ’s and producers see the transition from record players and MPC’s to laptops as a diminishment of artistic merit.
Even as DJ’s and producers have become more normalized, reconciling the opposites of art and science is always a priority. But this is not exclusive to DJ’s. The culture of art-science is where we all exist and will continue to. We have to reconcile with it every day.