“Imagine a world without art.” This could easily have been the message greeting visitors to the Wikipedia site on January 18, 2012, when it went silent in protest against legislation proposed in Congress (Stop Online Privacy Act, or SOPA). For Wikipedia and Google the issue is “free information” in the “open” Internet. But it could also be art threatened by Google’s and YouTube’s demand for cultural productivity to be free (but for their profit).
As I understand it, two phenomena are determining the production and consumption of art today. The first is the gradual degradation of copyright protection, the notion of authorship, and of the discrete work. We have been reading for years how information in the Internet wants to be free. The downloading of music and film, for instance, has been made effortless. And many a computer and Ipod play scores of pirated tunes. Individual artists and traditional media companies have complained of vanishing revenues and venues and cases have gone to court.
In Free Ride. How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business and How Culture Business Can Fight Back (2011) Robert Levine describes the anaconda-like hold that artists and media companies find themselves in. He calls much of the culture industry on the Web parasitic, living off traditional production. According to his research, 99% of blog links to news stories go to mainstream media outlets. Seven out of ten most popular YouTube clips in history are major-label music videos. Google, Apple, iTunes, Netflix paint themselves as on the vanguard of cultural production while making millions out of this free information. But the traditional producers of culture, the music and film industry, newspapers, and publishing houses have all seen drastic drops in income.
The other parallel development, of course, is the public forum created by the Internet for amateur art. Here the possibilities are dizzying: Having just returned from your daughter’s concert, you upload her violin recital on YouTube. The Los Angeles Times won’t accept your Op Ed article? Post it on your blog. You are having a hard time finding a publisher for your novel? Locate an Internet site that can do it. Your article keeps on getting these rejection notices? Find a place on line for it. In short, anyone can post something on the Web and anyone can read it.
YouTube’s motto, of course, is Broadcast Yourself, echoed by Arianna Huffington’s (founder of the Huffington Post) pithy assertion that “self-expression is the new entertainment.” Both statements are apt descriptions of our time, albeit self-serving in so far as YouTube and the Huffington Post make money from the openness they promote. It is in their interest to create a disinterested climate for cultural creativity.
The freedom the Internet provides people to express themselves is taking us back to a time before art gained autonomy as a separate practice in its own right, when it was anonymous, when it didn’t belong to particular person or institution, or protected by copyright. This may be one of the unacknowledged ironies of our time that, while we speed towards the future technologically, we are returning to the past aesthetically.
Indeed, today’s shared cultural production resembles what Friedrich Schiller described as naïve creativity. According to Schiller, the naïve poet is tied to nature, embraces spontaneity, and has little self-awareness of creating art. The sentimental poet, on the other hand, thinks critically and intellectually, feels alienated from life and distrusts unmediated inspiration and feelings. As naïve art, Schiller praised archaic Greek poetry, which, according to him, was closer to nature and part of the society that produced it. The art of modernity is sentimental in that it separated itself from its milieu to become an institution in its own right, with its own rules and regulations, a feature of what sociologists call a functionally differentiated society.
Many poststructuralists of the last thirty years have tacitly accepted this division in their critique of the commodification of art, although they did not assume Schiller’s romantic vocabulary. They too longed for a time when art was not a Thing in itself, but a thing among things, when music was background noise, when sculpture served totemic purposes, when the aesthetic was painted on the body, and when opera was street theater. (They forgot, however, that Schiller discovered poetic self-consciousness and self-reflection – the hallmarks of modern autonomous art—in the Fourth century BCE and could identify one naïve modern poet – Shakespeare.)
Google, Napster, YouTube, and the Huffington Post all embrace the naïve art of the Internet age. But they are hardly naïve players themselves. For what space are they creating for art as art—self-consciously belonging to an aesthetic institution and existing as poetry, painting, novel, or drama? How is this art going to be supported, if the regime wants information to be free? Even the Homeric bards were given a meal for their singing. Hulu, can you spare a dime?
This is a question that academics don’t necessarily face, never having to earn a penny for their articles. It’s easy to call for free information when your monthly salary gets regularly deposited in your bank account. But the question has existential implications for musicians, journalists, and fiction writers. As Levine writes, “it has never been easier to distribute creative work. At the same time, it’s never been harder to get paid for it.” In short, the issue of art’s existence is hardly a sentimental matter.
Is this the brave new world of the future—a culture of amateurs and a cultural industry controlled by Internet companies? Is there a place here for artists who create art for the sake of art?