Experiencing the Humanities

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14. The Future of the Arts


Chapter 14 of Experiencing the Humanities by Richard Jewell



There are several notable events and movements in the world of the arts that will be important for their future. Three of these are as follows:

electronic arts 

artists as professionals 

interactive art.

The "electronic arts" are TV, video, and computer arts. They are new in history.

"Professional artists"--those paid to be artists--have been few in number until the 20th century. Our higher standards of living have created a whole social class of paid artists (as already noted briefly in chapter two concerning the new creative social class).

"Interactive art" is a kind of art in that audience and art object or performance interact with each other. Interactive art in the future may increasingly dissolve the boundary lines between audiences and the art objects or performances they view.

Electronic Revolution

Marshall McLuhan, a social commentator, developed a viewpoint in the 1960s that the most important affect of TV (and now of computers and videos) is not the contents of what they show, but rather their affect on the way we see and feel things.

In other words, TV, computers, and videos help us experience more than one thing at a time. This is very different from writing and radio, that used to be the major ways of communicating before 1950. Writing and radio only can offer one thing at a time to our senses--the exact idea or sound being conveyed as we read each word or hear each sound. TV, computers, and videos, however, let us see a number of different things all at once. It is like the difference between hearing someone describe a person or scene, and seeing a painting of the same person or scene. The description takes much longer; the painting shows everything in an instant.

McLuhan and others (especially those who study the right-brain/left-brain divisions in our ways of thinking) suggest that we are becoming an increasingly sight-oriented society. We depend much more, now, on visual information, than did earlier centuries that depended on oral (out loud or written) information.

This means that the visual arts will receive more attention, probably, in coming decades and perhaps centuries than possibly they ever have before.  It also means that, given the nature of TV, computers, and video, for the first time in history the art forms that combine sight and sound may become the dominant art forms: TV and videos in particular usually combine both sight and sound as only live performances used to in previous centuries.

In addition, we have reached an age in history when we now can sculpture light itself through TV, computer, and video monitors, and show color and line moving through time. We also can show abstract representations of light, color, line, and sound in interaction with each other. Some artists already have worked in these directions, and the 20th or 21st century may see the first group of great artists in this abstract or expressionist medium.

Three-dimensional electronic transmissions called "holographs" also now exist, from laser and other technological inventions. These holographs may eventually replace two-dimensional TV, computer, and video presentations on monitors.

Another version of three-dimensional electronic transmissions is "virtual reality" or "artificial reality." It is a form of computerized reality that is being worked on by such groups as the Pentagon for human control of robots working in outer space; and by VPL, a licensee of the Nintendo power glove, for simulated three-dimensional computer programs using 3-D helmet-glove sets for computer games, architectural models, and surgical training. The helmet has computerized visual images that "allow" one to see an image three-dimensionally, and the computerized glove allows hand control of the three-dimensional image.

Professional Artists

The development of the electronic revolution and the increasingly greater wealth of many countries has allowed artists to become not only acceptable but also necessary to society.  In many societies and cultures, the artist was looked upon as useless. An artist who committed himself or herself to the profession of art was a leech upon society-- unable to work or to perform the duties of marriage properly, unable to be independent, and unable to contribute his or her share of work to society. Throughout history, it almost always has been the richer classes--royalty, priests, and sometimes a small middle class when a society actually had one--who have supported the fine arts and artists. And usually these classes of people had much less money, patience, and willingness to support the fine arts than our society does today.

A lesser-known class of "public artists" (those who developed their art by appealing to public wishes) such as strolling minstrels, artisans who crafted pots and silverware, and village storytellers all helped develop public art. This public art has come down to us in the form of ancient fairy tales and legends, old songs, and a history of fine craftwork.

However, in societies where a strong middle class exists--such as our own, or that of ancient Greece or Egypt--people are able to spend more money and time on the arts. Artistic activities such as watching TV, reading books, listening to music, and attending arts events become a significant part of such societies' activities. When art is so significant, the artist becomes a respected professional who is looked upon by the society as one of its contributing workers. Creativity becomes a commodity for which some people are well paid.

We may expect in years to come that as leisure time in the form of television, movies, music, and other arts becomes increasingly valuable, professional artists in larger numbers may begin to achieve the respect and pay that educators, government workers, and religious workers now receive. This changed status of the artist as professional is producing more people interested in the arts as a profession--and more interest in the arts themselves. There also is a continuing dilution or "popularizing" of the arts, a process of making artistic pieces more appealing to more and more people.

Critics of these changes say that we are getting sloppy in what we label "fine art"--that I Love Lucy and paintings of Campbell Soup cans never can be considered true art. Supporters of these changes argue that many great artists started out being loved by the public but hated by the critics, and probably we are producing more great art in our society now than ever before. Whether we agree with the critics, the supporters, or both, it is clear that the arts increasingly are becoming one of the accepted professions--and that art for its own sake is becoming more important to everyone.

Interactive Art

"Interactive art" is art that interacts with its audience. One example is of actors and actresses who talk with their audience during a play. Another example from literature is of children's story books that require readers to fill in the names of characters or other parts. Interactive video is a third example.

"Interactive art" is art in which the audience interacts with performers or the work of art itself, thus affecting the outcome:

1. audience interacting with 
2. performers or work of art 
3. affecting results

Interactive art is relatively new in the world of the arts. There always have been performers such as magicians and travelling performers who have involved audiences in their performances. But only in recent historical times have critics of the arts seriously continued discussion about whether interactive art is true art.

Is interactive art true art? Can a play, a story, or a video display be considered true art if someone has fiddled with it other than the original artist? Is not such art really more like a craft or game instead, or just an exercise or experiment--not real art?

These questions are important not only because more art is becoming interactive, but also because they help us define some of the deepest meanings of what art is and how it is perceived by by a person. In addition, questions about interactive art may very well define some of the great battles in art of the future--battles that younger generations of artists are only beginning to fight now. This is because those who define art also often decide who will get the money and freedom to work as an artist. If interactive art is not considered a true art form, some of our best creators of this art form may find themselves unable to continue serious work. Interactive art may be, in fact, one of the most important forms of art to be fully born in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In a way, it is possible to arge that all art is "interactive." Take a painting, for example. Doesn't a painting require the eyes of the viewer to perceive the colors, lines, and shapes of the painting. This leads to many interactions of subatomic particles of light traveling between painting and viewer.

However, this type of interaction involves only the first of the three parts of our definition above. Only the viewer is doing any real interacting. The painting is not reaching out to the viewer in any way.

It is more arguable that the sculptural arts are interactive. We walk inside buildings, stroll through flower and rock gardens and smell or touch things, and we touch sculpture if at all possible since it is meant to be experienced by touch as well as sight. We seem to do all kinds of interacting with the sculptural arts.

However, these types of interaction still involve only the first of the three parts of our definition above, even if we do use more senses than just sight with the sculptural arts.

The stage arts often are thought of as the place or occasion for more truly interactive arts. Actors and actresses sometimes will talk to audiences and listen to them. In some stage performances, especially, perhaps, history plays, comedic routines, and performances of magic, audience members actually are invited up on the stage.

Yet it is still arguable whether such interactions are fully interactive. The audience does interact directly and immediately with the performers and the work of art. However, is the result or outcome of the work of art really affected? Almost anyone could be chosen from the audience; the role is already firmly set for this audience member, and he or she is in no true way the creator of a part of the work of art. Even so, this kind of play, this kind of work of art, is defined as "interactive art."

Newer forms of art that are more fully interactive have risen in recent times. The electronic age has brought them. We now have wildly colorful video programs that are games with various developments possible. We have light display units and flexible sculptural units (e.g. a series of closely gathered pins) that react to the touch, warmth, or shape of people's hands. We have painting or drawing sets and story making books that allow for an infinite number of possible developments. Someday, if three-dimensional transmissions--holographs--become more common for TV, computers, and videos than two-dimensional video-screen monitors, we will have TV, computer, and video pictures that we can actually walk inside of and participate in.

Audiences Help Create Art

Are interactive arts true art? Are they merely craft? Some people define art only as that which has been created by an expert artist. Other people define art as that which we all can create. Perhaps both definitions are true, for it takes not only an artist, but also a society affecting the artist, to create the final product we call art.

In other words, it takes both society and an individual to create art. Great works of art always are, to some extent, interactive works. They have been formed not only by the impulse or feelings of the artist, but also by society's influences on the artist as a person, and by society's acceptance, rejection, and expectation of the artist and his or her works of art. Many professional artists, for example, will not even attempt works of art that they think will be unacceptable to the public.

In addition, increasingly some of our literary and stage arts are being deeply affected by public feelings as the works of art are being developed. This once was true of novels, which often appeared in serialized form in newspapers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Several of Charles Dickens' novels, such as Oliver Twist, were developed as serials over a period of several months or more.  Often, Dickens wouldn't know what was going to happen a week or a month in the future, and he wrote future installments partly on the basis of how his reading audience was reacting.  In contemporary times, this happens even more frequently, especially in the artistic world of television and even the Web.  On television, for example, many serial TV shows are developed from season to season according to how the audiences react to previous episodes.  Another example is the sculptural forms of new models of cars each year.

Technically speaking, art that is affected over time by the audience's needs and desires is not labeled as "interactive art." However, as we progress into the future, we may see art forms become increasingly interactive, letting audiences influence and even determine the outcome or results.  Web art offers this promise, for groups of people, sometimes at great distances from each other, can have access to the same Web site and contribute equally to the designs and drawings there.

All these new influences--electronic arts, the professionalization of the arts, and interactive art--may radically affect the future of all the arts. The changes likely will unfold slowly over decades or even centuries of time. These new influences may redefine the nature and meaning of the arts in important ways. At the same time, increasingly larger numbers of us will have more frequent access to the fine arts. Hopefully the 21st century will be a time when the arts can become readily available not just to people in the richer countries, but also to all people throughout the world.


Exercise 1

Write down your favorite kind of TV, computer, or video art. Why is it your favorite? How does it make you feel and think? What would it be like to see it or experience it in person--describe the sensations.

Exercise 2

How do you think your parents or grandparents viewed artists--people who said they were painters, writers, musicians, etc. How do you view them? How do you think they should be viewed in the future?

Exercise 3

Write, in rough-draft form, one or two pages of notes or directions for an interactive stage play, holographic computer program, or written story or video with multiple possible endings that you would enjoy creating. Briefly write an explanation of why you set it up the way you did.

Exercise 4

Write down three or four other types of art discussed in this book that are, in your mind, the most interactive of the art forms. Explain in a sentence or two how or why each may be considered interactive.

Exercise 5

What would you like to see in the future of art in society? What would you like to see in the way of new forms of art or further developments of old forms? Write a half page on each question.

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Most Recent Revision:: 24 Aug. 2002.
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Copyright 1987-1996 by Richard Jewell.
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