Friday, September 10, 2010

Three Cheers for the Internet

I just finished watching Jane O'Brien's video report on the BBC News site, run under the headline:

Why art galleries are embracing the internet

The report, which was recorded in the middle of an opening party at the Phillips Collection in Washington, seems to have been motivated by a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, which indicated that "Americans who participate through electronic media are three times more likely to go to a gallery, theater or concert than those who never go online or use an electronic device." Since the video clip is only a bit more than four minutes in duration, it is much more an account that this particular relationship between the physical and virtual worlds is a beneficial one, rather than a disciplined argument for why this should be the case. The framing of the report may even have been dangerously deceptive, conveying the impression that the story is more about a party where everyone seemed to be playing with one form of technology or another, rather than about the exhibition being celebrated. On the other hand I would like to believe that the Endowment study was the result of a legitimate methodology. So I would like to offer some explanatory hypotheses for that "three times more likely" result that O'Brien cited in her report. Furthermore, in my own effort to establish legitimacy, I shall follow the guideline of expository writing that requires three supports for the thesis sentence (that being the Endowment result) and explore three hypotheses that strike me as particularly viable.

Needless to say, the hypothesis I feel is most important is the one that O'Brien neglected entirely, which is that there is a strong correlation between our degree of interest in an "art experience" (or probably anything else for that matter) and the extent to which we discovered that experience through our own initiative. This hypothesis is very much a product of personal "encounters of discovery" in cities like New York, London, and Paris, which are particularly conducive to such encounters taking place. Wandering the streets of these cities, one finds not only galleries and performance venues but also no end of posters doing their best to capture one's attention. (Those posters are confined to the streets. They are on the walls of underground stations, not to mention most of those cafes where one is likely to stop to take a break from several hours of wandering.)

The problem, of course, is that only a few cities provide such opportunities for discovery; but the limitations of such physical opportunities have now been addressed, if not trumped, by the affordances of the Internet. Whatever I may have written in the past about our reflective capacities having been eroded by "Internet culture" in general and the trivialized "answer-driven culture" induced by powerful search engines, such as Google, which was specifically targeted in Nicholas Carr's Atlantic Monthly article, there remains a symbiotic relation between technology-enabled surfing and our capacity for discovery that can still tweak a more enduring level of interest. In other words, if New York encourages the wanderer to discover opportunities for "art experiences," then the Internet is virtually (in at least two senses of the word) New York on steroids; and, having been encouraged by what one discovers through wandering cyberspace, one is better disposed to encounter such experiences in the physical world.

However, there still remains the question of what that encounter will be. The challenge of that question lies behind my advocacy of pre-concert talks. As I wrote in 2008, I first began to take these talks seriously when I was living in Singapore and the General Manager of the Singapore Symphony told me that her biggest problem was that most of the people in the audience did not know what to do when attending a concert. In the context of my ongoing interest in the dialectical opposition of nouns and verbs, too much attention (from managers, performers, and often the creating artists themselves) is given to "art-as-object," while the very idea of "art as experience" (which happens to be the title of a book published by John Dewey) is neglected, even if "experience" is what matters most to anyone on the "audience side" (using that phrase to capture not only those sitting in concert halls but also those entering galleries and museums).

This leads to my second hypothesis. This one begins with observations that O'Brien made in her report but emphasizes an observation that was only implicit in her account. While her report illustrated several ways in which technology enabled a more active approach to experiencing art, it did not emphasize that just about every example demonstrated in the video clip involved some form of play. In the past I have written about the extent to which the Internet may have eroded our capacities for discovery and understanding by taking away what used to be valuable "play objects;" but this is a case in which technology may well be providing a new generation of such objects that enhance opportunities for experience.

This, in turn, may be related to my third hypothesis, which is the extent to which that capacity of the individual to discover through such play objects is likely to undermine the authority of previously established "great experts." I recognize that this hypothesis undermines my own advocacy of pre-concert talks; but, even in such settings, the important issue is that, because through the Internet we can challenge "received wisdom," we are more likely to do so. We may not do it by confronting a pre-concert speaker with a smart-ass question; but we can still do it in a way that will reinforce the experience of the evening and dispose us more positively to seek out subsequent experiences. Because art lies in the experiencing, rather than the objects being experienced, any source of expertise will always be ephemeral; but the act of understanding itself can become an acquired skill, perhaps no different (from a verb-based point of view) from Friedrich Nietzsche's appeal to the act of dancing as a metaphor for thinking in Twilight of the Idols.

Thus, however jaundiced I may be about the negative implications of our "Internet culture," I realize that it may be dangerous to throw out the baby of enhancing our capacity to experience art with the bathwater of deleterious technocentric thinking!

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