From the beginning, Culture Ramp examined the ongoing transformation of our encounter with the arts. To take but a single example, you can see that interest develop over the course of several articles (starting with “The Church of Nostalgia” and continuing through “Make Yourself at Home“) about the changing status of movie-going as a social activity. Of course, any living art form will necessarily undergo constant flux, along with the social rituals that attend it. These days, our social encounters with cinema are just as likely to hover around Netflix updates and the “second screen experience” as they are with the box offices of movie palaces. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the net result is a different culture, and we shouldn’t take that lightly. Our consideration of what we’ve gained should be balanced against an exploration of what we’ve lost—and our memories tend to be so short in that regard that it sometimes does resemble an exploration rather than a reflection.
One thing we seem to have lost in the meantime is a kind of sociability. The explosion of digital technologies has pushed our arts into a virtual space I’ve called “the pocket world.” In doing so, they’ve made it possible to boil audience sizes further and further down. Many arts that were once observable only in the undifferentiated mass of an audience have now adapted themselves to the model of the novel. We may use social media to connect to others, but our encounters are becoming increasingly more private. Even novels have grown more insular, now that it’s possible to conceal what you’re reading with an e-reader.
The result is that we now have to be much more deliberate about how we bring artistic experiences into the public sphere. By connecting us through the strange artifice of the hashtag, social platforms like Twitter help us make up what we lose in not attending movies with actual strangers. Those who argue that a short-form format like Twitter restricts discussion to bog-standard are missing the point—the greater part of its appeal is the evidence Twitter provides that you’re sharing the experience with others, allowing you to briefly transcend many of the social barriers that normally keep us strangers. It’s the sort of connection we once would have gotten from attendance at a movie theater, and that’s fine. Circumstances have changed; movie theaters have changed, and show little indication of going back. But we should be aware of the temptation to let that social media alternative serve double duty, not only allowing us to build audiences across time zones, but also standing in for more vital and involved modes of sharing.
Again, the point is not that these changes are intrinsically bad, but rather that many of them require us to work harder to build a shared culture. We’ve grown remarkably adept at plucking what’s “viral” from modern art and entertainment, fashioning it into a broadly recognizable slang. Perhaps the most recognizable contribution The Dark Knight Rises made to popular culture, for example, is Marion Cotillard’s example of how to suddenly slump into death. In point of fact, the movie instigated a tide of articles exploring its politics, but most were shouts in the night, receiving little discussion or even rebuttal. For all its effectiveness at allowing us to give evidence that we are an audience, our media has grown notably less useful as a tool for translating that shared status into a cultural conversation.
And conversation is very much the point. It is one of the processes by which we turn our personal, mostly subjective experiences of a work of art into a more enduring culture. In America, at least, the zenith of such conversation was likely the 50s and 60s, when arts and culture criticism touched society more directly than it has in nearly any other era. It was abetted by a gold rush of periodicals, like Cineaste in film and The New York Review of Books in literature and just about everything else. Critics like Pauline Kael not only appealed to the masses, but also conversed directly with the artists about whom they wrote, influencing both.
Arts criticism was something like a vast salon. Now it’s more like the tiny pocket discussions that people form as the party dies down. Part of the reason, as I argued in a pair of early pieces (“Critical Distance” and “Critical Rootlessness“), is that we as a society have lost the sense of what criticism can achieve. At the nadir, we tend to think of critics as judges passing verdict on a work, but the possibilities outlined in “Five Critics” suggest that criticism can reach for more. At its best, it becomes a tool that empowers audiences greater agency in the deliberate construction of culture. Conversation is the hinge on that tool.
The internet has been a leveler in that regard. By allowing a platform to people who would not have previously found a place at the publishing table, it has expanded the potential scope of the cultural conversation we’re capable of having. In as much as it heralds the emergence of new, previously marginal voices, that disruption is to be celebrated. At the same time, it has diffused that conversation, so that major themes can emerge only rarely and with great difficulty. It has made deliberate culture more elusive; our conversation is more about what is happening to our culture, rather than what we can do to make it better.
At dispute here are a number of ways of viewing the relationship between a work, its audience, and the critical venues that mediate between them. For a while leading up to the growth of the Web, the dominant view was that artists were active professionals, critics were public taste-makers speaking from their own bully pulpit, and the audience was passive save when it voted with its purse. After the Web took hold, that view found itself in direct competition with the premise that we could all inhabit any of those roles we chose, shifting between them at will, and that, moreover, equal access meant that our pronouncements could attain equal weight.
It is a signal irony of an era obsessed with “engagement” that the view championing cultural equality ended up lending itself to less engagement. Sure, professional web sites allowed comments on their pages, but mostly as a kind of pressure release valve. And, yes, nearly anyone can create a blog and broadcast their own work and opinions, but in doing so we have dispersed conversation across tens of thousands of sites of varying degrees of accessibility. Discerning the conversation in all that din requires a great deal of effort, and if we rely on the reader—who may or may not see the societal value in criticism—to put forth that effort, we may be sorely disappointed.
The critical challenge going forward will be to find ways to draw that polyphony into a comprehensible discussion. A technological solution may be pending, but until then, we’re thrown back on sheer conscientious effort. That means, first of all, going out of our way to draw connections between our own criticism and that being offered up by others. It means responding to the still quiet but articulate voices hovering in the periphery, pulling them into the conversation, grappling with their contributions. The portion that any given professional will be capable of including will, of course, be small compared to the whole, but the effort still builds toward the sort of vibrant cultural conversation we once sustained. Long may it last this time.