By William Deresiewicz
Do the arts have a future in the electronic age? The short answer’s easy: of course they do. The art-making impulse is inextinguishable; the geniuses will keep on coming (on a maddeningly irregular schedule); the forms and media will change, yes, but then they always have.
Still, it isn’t going to be that simple. In Public Speaking, the Fran Lebowitz documentary that came out a couple of years ago, the writer made a striking observation. A great audience, she said, is more important for the creation of great art than great artists are. Great audiences create great artists, by giving people the freedom to take chances. Lebowitz was thinking about the audience that existed in the theaters and galleries of New York City in the decades after the Second World War, the age of George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and so many others.
I don’t need to tell you what kind of audience the computer is creating. Online reading (and viewing, and listening) means skimming and skipping and surfing. It means never starting something without already thinking about when you’re going to get through it so you can move on to the next thing. It means refusing to give yourself completely to any single experience. Inevitably, writers and other creators will adapt themselves to the new conditions of reception. What the audience can’t be bothered to invest the time to get out of a work, creators aren’t going to take the trouble putting in: subtlety, complexity, detail, depth. Sentences will get shorter. Syntax will get simpler. Ironies will broaden. Vocabularies will contract. Stories and arguments will start dropping parts. Everything will have to squeeze itself into the smallest possible space. If you want an example of the way that writing is shaped by the expectations of its audience, just think of academic prose.
It’s not that a novel is any different on a screen than it is in a book. It’s that we’re different, because the medium tunes our nervous systems to a different pitch. We come to the screen to be entertained: we bring it our impatience. We come to the screen to shop: we bring it the expectation that we’re going to be pandered to. (An analogy: look how watching television has changed the way people act at the movies. No one knows how to shut up anymore, because they still think they’re in their living rooms.) The New York audience prided itself on being challenged; it looked for art that offered it resistance. The very fact that we’re alone in front of our computers probably makes the situation worse. When people compete to appear sophisticated, art and artists win.
Great audiences give rise to great artists, but the inverse can also be true. “Every great artist creates the taste by which he is appreciated”: something that can certainly be said of Balanchine and Cunningham. As Wordsworth wrote to Coleridge, “What we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” The artists of the future are going to have to do this, too, and they will have their work cut out for them.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.