Saturday, October 2, 2010

Is Art What You Do, or What You Consume?

For most of human history artistic production consisted of telling stories or dancing or singing songs within a community, around the fire, at church gatherings. Anyone who wished to participate could, and stories evolved in the telling, music gained verses as it moved from community to community. Tales took on a collective richness and who they "belonged to" and exactly who had "created" them was fluid and a bit vague.

As I wrote in Broke is Beautiful:
These days we’ve become accustomed to the idea that entertainment is something you consume, not something you make. We buy records, we rent DVDs and generally leave imagination to the professionals. Much of modern life, in fact, seems to be a rebellion against daydreaming. We listen radio on the way to and from work; we switch on the TV the minute we get home. There are now even screens to entertain us in restaurants and at the gas pump, as if we would become so bored in the five minutes it takes to pump gas that we would just give up and go home. They should know that’s never going to happen. That’s what iPods are for.

How are we ever to find a moment for quality daydreaming with the CNN airport network and the CNN grocery store check-out line network and CNN monitors at the post office? Recent surveys show that children everywhere now spend up to 80 percent of their free time outside of school watching television. Not surprisingly kids who are heavy TV viewers are less imaginative than children who watch only one hour a day. We no longer value our own fantasies; we pay other people to show us theirs.

I came across another example of this in a fascinating article in The New Republic, Ellen Handler Spitz reviews a new collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales called "The Grimm Reader." She points out that the movement from stories as oral tradition to written form made them static.

Fairy tales were originally recited aloud, and that format gave the listeners considerable power. They were able to exercise a direct and partially controlling effect on each recounting. If attention waned, stories were modified. They could be spiced, embellished, or curtailed. But contemporary American adults rarely tell fairy tales to children anymore. We read, slavishly adhering to a text. Such reliance denotes a diminished narrative inventiveness among us, even a dereliction in regards to the sacred task of passing on our cultural heritage.

We have internalized the idea that art is a product created by talented professionals, and forgotten about the community tradition in art so thoroughly that we think of Internet media that allow broad amateur participation and two way and collective communication as new and novel.