Inside Arts article Jan 26, 2007
A version of the following article was published in the Jan/Feb 2007 edition of Inside Arts Magazine. The topic? What will my job be like 50 years from now?
When the New York Times announced earlier this fall that the Metropolitan Opera would begin broadcasting live performances in movie theaters in North America and Europe, it was curious to note that this was not the first time the Met had used such a strategy for reaching audiences. In 1952, approximately 70,000 people in 27 cities saw Carmen in movie theaters. Clearly, though, watching opera in cinemas didn’t profoundly change business at the Met or this practice would have continued past the fifties. Revisiting the strategy now is probably less about creating a sustainable business practice than it is a savvy promotional tool for generating interest in opera.
It’s fairly safe to say that performance will be broadcast, simulcast, recorded, packaged and sold in new ways over the next fifty years as a means to grow audiences. Hollywood and the sports industry are already employing interesting interactive modes for engaging audiences (think 90’s audience development speak, i.e. “multiple points of entry ”). The fact that Kiefer Sutherland performs his character Jack Bauer for the hit television series 24 as well as for an animated computer game version of the show is one such example. Phone and online voting by viewers of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars is another. So is fantasy football. These techniques allow fans to act like fans by giving them opportunities to collect, study, peruse and trade with friends.
But as such possibilities bleed into the performing arts world, will increased opportunities for fandom necessarily bring more fans? Purists usually cite the special, intangible quality of artists performing before audiences as something that cannot be captured or siphoned through phone lines or satellite, and therefore, live performance is special and unique to other kinds of experience. Accordingly, if live art is increasingly distributed, traded and sold, won’t that just make it like everything else in our culture? And since performance is usually positioned as an antidote or mysterious other to competing forms of cultural experience, doesn’t making art more accessible actually lessen the very appeal and peculiarity that makes going to the theater interesting in the first place? Probably not.
Still, presenters, producers and critics will have to find different language and approaches for framing new techno-accessorized performance hybrids in whatever manifestations they take without deferring to the same old critical babble. Why? Because not only are audiences using new looking glasses but artists are also subtly shifting why and how they make art in the first place. Art scholar Johanna Drucker posits in her book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (University of Chicago Press, 2005) that it is necessary to leave behind the rhetoric of post-modernism that places artists in an oppositional relationship to the rest of society. Words like “innovative ” and “radical ” and “original ” set a false criteria for specialness that has little to do with the motives of many of today’s leading creators. That an artist’s work is often dismissed because it has seemingly been done before by an artist from an earlier time is an example of a worn out lens that no longer captures the complexity and definition of what seems to be happening in performance today. Drucker’s idea of complicity—that artists and audiences can exist with fuller knowledge and closer proximity to the other without compromising what makes art special—serves as an exciting platform for mediating the art experiences of the future.