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Yes, Apple's new iPad ad is ugly and crushing, but art can't be flattened

There is something so ugly about crushing an acoustic guitar. Making it buckle, making the middle of it explode in splinters. That might be personal to me, as someone who grew up with a dad who was what you might call a campfire guitarist — not a performer, just a dad who used to entertain us with songs like "Dark as a Dungeon," a little folk tune about the lethal dangers of coal mining. Maybe to you, it's not the guitar. Maybe it's the cameras or the vinyl records.

A little more than halfway through the new ad for "the thinnest Apple product ever,"an enormous hydraulic press bears down on an acoustic guitar — and cameras, and records, and other things that hold reservoirs of emotion for people who make art. Paint, pencils, a dressmaker's mannequin, books, a wooden model of a person, a not-yet-dry clay bust, a video game cabinet. Everything is flattened under its power. But the most spectacular crushings are of musical instruments — that guitar, a piano, a drum set, a trumpet standing on its end until it gives way.

The ad — which Apple has since apologized for — is meant to communicate, I suppose, that this tiny, thin iPad can contain what is important from all these things. It can replace them all. You can make your music with it. You can paint with it. You can play games on it. You can take your photos with it. And it suggests this means you can finally destroy all those things that have been so burdensome, like massive pianos and messy paint.

But these are not practical items to begin with. Nobody owns a piano because it's practical; it's about the least practical thing you can own. It can wreck your floor. It goes out of tune. And if you happen to get a new place, you don't just need movers for it; you may need special movers. You don't own a piano to get from point A to point B in the most direct way you can. You own a piano for the reason we had one in my house: a person plays it. Someone sits down, as my mother did, and plays the "Maple Leaf Rag," and you can hear the pedals lightly squeak, and you can watch hands skitter across keys, and of course you are listening to music — but also, those are your mother's hands.

Of course, to be fair, the ad is also meant to cause controversy, because you do not crush beautiful things and offend accidentally. The ad says almost nothing about the iPad itself except that it's very thin; the point is all the crushing, the point is the ugliness, so admittedly, to recognize that ugliness is to serve the ad's purpose.

But its ugliness is also what proves the folly of its concept. The reason people will react as emotionally as they do to the vulgarity of the ad is precisely why the thinnest iPad yet cannot do what they say it will do. It cannot replace the things that people have, over hundreds of years, learned to carry and live beside, and to incorporate into their creation of what they hope will be beauty. Art is intertwined with humanity, with all its flawed dimensions, and the two cannot be separated. In the making of art, there is family, there are friends and collaborators, there is both fragility and permanence, and there is the passage of time. And there is physicality.

In our current environment, the ad plays as an extension of, or maybe a companion to, the idea that artificial intelligence — or what travels under that name — can take over the production of art: of books, of illustrations, of music, of films. We are enduring an all-out assault on the need for anyone's idiosyncratic individuality to be involved in the creation of art. It is an attempt to reduce creative acts to devices with the right capabilities, to the point where machines can make it all entirely without us. We will, in this vision, order a book or a film as we do a mass-produced piece of fast fashion, and as such, it will be cheap and disposable and reliant on the exploitation of labor.

But the very fact that Apple knew this ad would make people so angry is how you know this reductive approach to art is doomed to fail. The people who made this ad specifically chose to crush things that are valuable not only because of their capabilities, but because they are things that creative people imbue with meaning, that they save up for and hand down to their kids. Those things will not be replaced by iPads.

You can make beautiful music with an iPad; you can make beautiful digital art. But that art will be made alongside other music, other art, not stacked on top of the corpses of old violins. If you think of new frontiers in art as an opportunity to destroy sculptures or explode bottles of paint, you never understood art at all, and you never will.

In certain kinds of stories, "I am not worried" is the last thing you say before the monster devours you. But while I am worried about the economics of art and its creation, I am not worried at all that art made by humans will ever vanish or be replaced by the thinnest iPad ever. The gasp that went up from so many people when they saw that guitar explode, that sound came from the part of a human being that makes art. And that part instinctively understands that beauty isn't fixated on tech-world dominance. It doesn't demand to crush what is loved in order to chase the fantasy that you can fit everything that matters into the pocket of a briefcase.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2024 NPR

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.