John William Godward, "Dolce Far Niente" (1904)
In the earliest days of recorded music, the goal was to produce something perfect, something better than reality. Thus the old joke where a veteran pianist is invited to come hear a new and promising talent play as the youngster records a piano concerto. Over the course of numerous takes the task is completed. As they sit and listen to the playback at the end of the day the veteran pianist turns to the younger colleague and says, "That is a beautifully played piece; don't you wish you could play like that?" The fear then was that the finite would pretend to more than it was, that the experience of time, the guarantor of our 'mere' humanity, would be circumvented. The so-called democratization of consumption, the ability to reach a mass audience with arts that had once been available only those of privilege, whether through radio or recording, would lead to a democratization of production as well, so that the true possessor of artistic gifts would be lost in a sea of mediocrity. Finally there was the worry that the new media, with its illusory perfections would invite people to flee reality. The arts would become a source of fantasy and escape.
But now we have gone full circle, and the media, having penetrated every aspect of life, has left nothing real. Recording media no longer aspire to fantastic perfection; this is in fact achieved with increasing ease and consumed readily, but no longer with any suspension of disbelief: everything from pop vocals to the action thriller is seen to be the nothing that it is by the public that consumes it. The escapist aesthetic of the Enlightenment and instrumental reason, here, reaches its culmination in a sense of universal meaninglessness, as persons gradually are made aware of the extent to which life is art. In order to compensate, the media, whether one talks about film, writing or music, etc. attempts to manufacture an experience of spontaneity and even reality for those who have forgotten what that is. 'Imperfections' are themselves very carefully planned in order to give the feel of reality (e.g., Eminem telling us he can't hear his snare; inviting you to feel like you are there when he was recording; the very thing the pianist in the earlier example was trying to avoid). Reality t.v. tries to turn everyday life, the very thing from which humanity once needed to escape, into something to be solved, like a puzzle, stressing the priority of instrumental reason in all aspects of life: one ought no longer to think one's work hollow and unfulfilling, since the business-rationality is no different from that which is present everywhere. We are entertained, comforted by the brutal monotony of it, the hollow 'sponteneity', which assures us that those last vestiges of the Real – the work place, love/dating/sex, friendships, etc. – are all vacuous, commodifiable, and need not be taken too seriously.