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June 13, 2007

Something Better Comes Along...

by Douglas McLennan

The pace and magnitude of change is so profound now and technology can accomplish so many extraordinary things, it's easy to think that we live in a special time unmatched by any other in history. While it's exciting, it's also scary, because the rules we used last week might not be the rules we have to use next week. For much of the past century, a big challenge for artists was getting art out to people. One of the founding missions of the National Endowment for the Arts was to bring great art to more people.

Bringing art to the people is hardly the problem these days. The choices are overwhelming, and, just as cheap prints of great paintings and recordings of famous artists revolutionized people's relationship with music and art, so too is digital distribution transforming audiences' relationships with all artists and arts organizations. If we can have whatever we want, however we want it, whenever we want it, perhaps we value the art we use in a different way. It becomes everyday, not special-for-company. The context of how we encounter art matters a lot, and clearly that context is changing for many people.

Then there's the paralysis of choice. How can I enjoy any one thing, commit to any one thing, if I feel like I'm missing out on the other 500 things I could be doing right now? I'm a last-minute decider anyway, but I find myself increasingly stymied by the choices available to me. Even when I do decide, I often spend much of the time wondering if what I chose lives up to other choices I might have made.

It's all enough to change my expectations about where I invest my time. In some situations I'm less likely to take a chance on something. Sometimes I find it comforting to partake of a monolithic blockbuster, where I can be anonymous and nothing is expected of me. But I also have less patience for big organizations that don't speak directly to what I'm looking for. You're doing too much Tchaikovsky this season? Boring! I'm outta here. I insist on peak experiences. But guess what, it's harder and harder to find those peaks.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, it's easy to feel this is all new in human history. But one of the comforting things about the book we're talking about here is that many of these changes have historical parallels. The technology might be new, but the ways we use it, and the things we find useful about it are ultimately subject to longstanding human nature. Indeed, some of the more interesting points in the book seem to argue that some of the ways we interacted with art in the 20th Century might be the anomaly rather than the time we're in now. We might, in fact, be returning to more traditional principles. Still, it's a scary time to be creating "content" of any sort. There isn't a creative industry that isn't seeing its business model being reinvented, the rules being changed. I wonder - how do you engage an audience when it's constantly looking across the bar for something better?

Posted by mclennan at June 13, 2007 3:49 PM


The artist is always confronted with the enigma of who his audience is and what they want and does he work for them or does he simply work. It's a conflict that seems to be invented and then reinvented time and time again. As a writer, I was sloted into boxes. As a video artist, I was never supposed to have been a writer in the first place. As a writer, I was supposed to stay in the box. As a video artist, I am supposed to be new at this (the NY Times says I have found a new home) when, in fact, I've done video far longer than I've been writing. The audience for both is supposed to be different but I am not so sure. As a writer, I was constantly being told my job was to give them what they want; there were a zillion tricks one was supposed to employ to engage the reader. It was not at all unlike being a whore and I've been that, too. Artists are poor and a young (I am no longer that) whore can earn far more from whoring than creating art. As a whore, one becomes quite depressed with the analogies; neither technology or sex necessarily make the art any better. All three -- technology, sex, and art -- are what you make of them. The question remains: do you give them what they want or do you give them what you want and can give to them. You can try (you won't succeed, I didn't) to burn the house down, reinvent both ART and YOU, and embrace revolution as a cause. But Art resists revolution because it is the accouterment of culture and culture does not embrace change with enthusiasm. Most revolutions fail. One grows jaded and old and bitter and downright hateful and giving up takes many forms. If one is lucky enough (or stubborn enough) they can find themselves still doing their art. Having left whoredom and boxes behind. While everyone else around you continues to scream that it is the audience that matters and it is the job of the artist to reach them and give them what they want in ways that are effortless for the audience to access (this means they don't have to think too hard), you know this: the art, the artist, and the audience will all disappear soon enough, and you are doing what you do because it is what you do. For them. Against them. In spite of them. You become less and less aware of them and you become focused like a laser beam on the art which grows to assume a life of its own. This is called a BODY of work and young whores, young novelists, young journalists, young composers, young dancers and choreographers, young painters, young makers of film, young actors and waiters, and young bartenders don't have this because TIME has more impact on Art than even revolution. How do you engage the fickle audience. The whore primps and markets until it can't primp or market anymore. The writer hears the words and the voice and this does not mean the music of the editorial dog and pony show that feeds off his work. The painter confronts his death. The dancer transcends the body. The composer reaches for that which is not ephemeral even in the face of evidence that implies dance as performance itself is ephemeral. The sculptor listens with his hands. The musician becomes his own instrument. You find the life that has been drained from you by the culture you once played master and slave to and now out of sheer revenge you make something that TIME can barely endure but it has no choice because what you have created is that compelling. "Better" is something of an illusion. Subjectivity is eternal. Revenge is often far more engrossing than sex, technology, curatorial guidelines, NEA paperwork, any resume, all the MFAs combined, starvation, a gallery owner's attitude, a museum's indifference, a rotten or unfair review, applause, or revolution.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at June 14, 2007 6:00 AM

As I read this piece I began to wonder what was the reaction at the time to the introduction of the printing press. Certainly it was revolutionary in its time and presented artists (monks mostly, I'll assume), publishers (mainly the established Church) and the reading public (growing with the availability of the printed word) with many of the same questions. My God, now everyone (who can afford the technology) can make a book! Look at all the choices. How can I possibly make the right time investment choice with so many books available? And yet for many decades we have easily managed that particular Arts overload.
I think participation is the new technology if you will. It's not necessarily the delivery systems that are important but rather the notion that our needs for the arts is changing. As a boomer I look for more involvment personally. I'm not so much interested in a passive experiance and I certainly don't want/need a third party imprimatur to decide if the experiance is/was valuable. No doubt my children and the next generation feel the same. I think you're correct in observing that the 20th century Arts paradigm was an anomaly of sorts, however that doesn't mean we are going back to a previous approach to the Arts but rather creating our own engagements based on our relative values. Technologies are accelerators and facilitators to changes already in the works, maybe?

Posted by: Tony Reynolds at June 14, 2007 7:13 AM

New technology is one thing. New thinking is another. New technology is dependent upon new technology. New thinking is dependent upon thinking people. There are no new people. Only old ones imbued with all the tired masquerades of the sacred critic. You decide. Which is the more compelling. Or relevant. The critic or the artrist. Is the thing a CHOICE. Sadly. Probably. Few things are reliable. The censorship of this -- or whatever else That Other Voice might write -- is definitely one of those things. Totally reliable. Most brick walls designed to keep thought out, do.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at June 14, 2007 6:15 PM

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