The audience for the arts is declining, according to a recent study by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. Attendance at live performances, museums and galleries dropped 15 per cent between 2002 and 2008, and the downward trend holds for all age groups and most educational levels. The predictable reaction: calls for enriched arts funding. However, the fact is that the arts are doing better than ever, as new technologies secure them a place at the heart of everyday life.
Art and technology are ancient partners. Our ancestors created an amazing new technology more than 40,000 years ago when they first drilled holes in hollow bones to sound musical intervals. Manufactured oil paints in tubes freed 19th-century painters to take their easels outside and seize upon natural light and colour, giving us Impressionism. Without the elevator, there would be no skyscrapers and no modern city architecture - who wants to climb 89 flights of stairs?
Strangely, though, we tend to see art as threatened by the newest technology, whatever it happens to be - computers and mass media are the culprit of the day. Why is arts attendance in decline? Instead of going to the ballet or the art gallery, we stay home to play video games and surf the Net. Indeed, Canadians spent $2.1-billion on video games and equipment in 2008, up 23 per cent from 2007, and the Canadian Internet Project found that Canadian adults average 3.2 hours per week on video games, compared to 1.7 hours per week on arts events.
But that's only half the story. The Canadian Internet Project also found that 40 per cent of Internet users download videos and 56 per cent download music, most at least once a week. Watching movies and listening to music are (along with playing video games) "almost defining activities" for Internet users under the age of 30. Reading is up among young Americans because they're reading more online, and photography and filmmaking are up a remarkable 25 per cent since 1992, with a boost from digital imaging technologies.
Times of rapid technological change push us to ask, what are the arts? Privileging books, live performance and gallery displays risks overlooking new realms of artistic creation. Music now saturates daily life through recording, radio and the iPod, and because it's now easier and cheaper than ever for musicians to record, mix and deliver their music to an audience, the diversity of musical offerings has reached all-time highs. Photography and filmmaking are more popular than ever, but what's really remarkable is that photographers and moviemakers can reach a potentially enormous audience through sites like Flickr and YouTube. Bypassing the galleries and movie studios encourages diversity: Flickr hosts communities of photographers who reject the aesthetic ideals endorsed by the art market, and YouTube has spawned entirely new genres like Machinima and trailer mashups. Engagement with the arts is down only if we confine the arts to the gallery, theatre and concert hall.
Computers are fundamentally machines that collect inputs and transform them, through software instructions, into different outputs. Artists have exploited this to create works that react to the actions of their audiences (the inputs), changing how they come across, how they look, or what they mean (the outputs). The elegant and simple Sustained Coincidence by Montreal artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer lights up a series of light bulbs to ensure that visitors to a gallery always cast overlapping shadows. By enlisting the more or less co-operative movements of its audience, it yields an uncanny and thought-provoking experience. In works like these, playful interactivity is material for making art.
Now think of the Wii console in your rec room. Video games engage our minds and bodies. But if interactivity is artistic in Sustained Coincidence then why not in BioShock too? Video games can exhibit creativity, convey important messages, express and explore emotions, elicit pleasure, even display beauty. Maybe no video game has reached the heights of the Brandenburg Concertos or War and Peace, but every art has a popular side as well as a highbrow, avant-garde side. We value Dmitri Shostakovich alongside James Brown, ballet alongside club dance, Lawrence of Arabia alongside Slumdog Millionaire, and maybe Sustained Coincidence alongside The Sims.
Embracing the new is no reason to spurn the old. It would be good if audiences flooded back to the ballet and opera, for the ecosystem of the arts is sustained by a diversity of artistic practices and audiences. All the more reason to cheer the diversification of the arts into our homes and even our rec rooms.
Dominic McIver Lopes is professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia.