We are living in a world that has, as Bill Maher puts it, New Rules. Part of the work I do with students, community members, arts organizations and (occasionally) the general public is to convince them that these new rules exist. Not everyone is convinced. Most people I talk to in the arts world are still under the assumption that we are not undergoing a fundamental shift in the way people participate in and respond to art — that all we need to do is market harder and convince more people to give us more money and we will be just fine.
This is not only misleading, I have become convinced that organizations and artists who continue to think this way will not be around 5 years from now.
Ben Cameron, director of the arts granting program at the Doris Duke Foundation, likens this shift to the Protestant Reformation, in which the reformers convinced a sizeable portion of the Christian world that people do not need an intermediary (a priest) in order to approach God. This democratization of Christianity was aided and abetted by the invention of the printing press, which made the Bible, in theory at least, accessible to anyone. Our tipping point now is the ever-encompassing internet.
The operative words here are “capable of accessing the entirety of information.” This means a true democratization of the arts — anyone can access the arts, high quality, low quality or in between, from the past or present, with just a few clicks. Google Art Project allows viewers to not only look at some of the greatest art works in history, but to zoom in to paintbrush level and also to choose to look at them in context, on the walls of the museum. Art lovers, even casual ones, have no need to use an artist or a curator as an intermediary to experience art.
Yes, you say, but that’s not the same as a live experience. That’s not my point. I’m not trying to say that our task is to draw people away from technology to live experience. I’m saying we have to erase the lines separating technology, live experience and participation, draw a circle instead of those lines, take ourselves out of the center of that circle and put the arts consumer right in the middle.
Education is feeling this same kind of seismic shift. Students don’t need teachers or libraries to receive knowledge any more. Students can access any knowledge they want, at any time. Thus teachers have become less keepers of the knowledge which they then parcel out to students, and more curators of the students’ education, helping the students evaluation the quality of knowledge, solve problems and think critically (and yet, we are still testing on knowledge of facts. Don’t get me started).
What does putting the arts consumer at the center of the universe mean? For some, it means creating means for audiences to be active participants instead of passive observers. For others, it means creating opportunities for audiences to provide feedback, or even be part of the process of selecting or evaluating the art. It may mean using technology to provide “behind the scenes” looks at the artistic process, involving audiences during artistic selection, rehearsal and post-performance evaluation and not just inviting them in to see a finished product and then letting them walk away.
We will talk about all of these things in the coming weeks. In the meantime, your thoughts?