A few months back (and I can't recall where), Dan commented on a small portion of an interview he conducted with Laurie Anderson when she was performing in Charleston. If I remember correctly, Dan was asked Anderson about the excitement of new media and how it opened up avenues of artistic expression to more people, providing greater tools for DIY art.
Anderson's response, you could tell, was somewhat disappointing to XARK’s fearless leader. She observed that while there were certainly positive aspects, most of the work seemed less interesting. When we’re all pulling our crayons from the same box, she noted, the work is bound to become somewhat less interesting, somewhat more homogenous.
One of the reasons I found her claim so interesting is that, like Dan and a lot of other folks, my tendency has been to celebrate the increasing access people have to a variety of tools as well as to a wider range of information. Here was an interesting oppositional angle, coming from an “artist,” no less: if we give the same tools to everyone, what makes any particular “artwork” or any particular statement, interesting?
While there are a number of satisfactory—or at least interesting—ways to answer that question, I want to tilt the conversation in a slightly different direction, a direction that I hope to explore with Dan in a fuller fashion later. Here, I want to ask, because new media not only provide us with new tools for artistic expression but also with new ways to express our assessment of art (or any ‘product’), how do we value the judgments themselves?
There’s an interview with Q-Tip in the August 2008 issue of Spin (p.90) this month that might help highlight this question. Q-Tip expresses concern that, because technology allows everyone increasing access to both music and to the artist, neither seems quite as “special” as it might have in the past. Harkening back to Walter Benjamin’s overquoted observation that art loses its “aura” (uniqueness in space and time) in an age of mechanical reproduction, Q-Tip is claiming that both art and the artist lose something when they are as accessible as the web enables them to be.
The interviewer, sensing something interesting, then pushes the following exchange:
Q. As an artist, how do you feel about that [technology making things accessible]?
A. I think it's a shame, because everyone becomes a critic. You see something at the bottom of everything that says, 'What's your comment?' And everyone has to offer their opinion and comment. Then there is internal warfare between the commentators with their comments. Rollins69 said something about the new Lil Wayne song and who did the beat. Then SarahWoo58 will be like, 'No, he didn't do the beat, this guy did the beat.' To me, that drains the art. All of a sudden, the imagination just passes. Whereas predating the Internet and predating videos, you had an active imagination. You would hear sounds and then get mental pictures of what these sounds felt like to you. It engaged you and made you more invested in it. It made you want to get tickets to the show, buy the album, put the poster on the wall. Now, it's sensory overload."
I find myself fascinated by this comment for a number of reasons. First, just when I expect Q-Tip to complain that the “Leave a comment” sections are problematic because they turn everyone into a critic (and I do think this is where he’s going), his examples are technical (“Who made the beat?”) rather than aesthetic (i.e., “This is the strongest recording in 10 years”). While there’s certainly an interesting conversation to be had about aesthetic criticism, I’m confused about what could be the damages caused by arguing over factual questions.
Secondly, Q-Tip moves from examples about fans arguing over technical issues to an observation that such a discussion “destroys an active imagination.” Does access destroy active imagination, or does it encourage a more active set of questions as one realizes that one has an outlet for these thoughts. I think the latter.
Third, and finally, his final move is the one I find the most confusing: here, we see a transition from a concern with the “destruction of active imagination” to the fact that fans are no longer as invested in an artist and therefore no longer purchase material goods, no longer want to see them live. While I understand that access changes our relationship to goods and people—and a long line of cultural and media critics have made this claim and explored multiple threads of it—I’m not quite sure it changes our desires to see live shows. “Free” access to music might alter our desire to pay for it, but I doubt it alters our desire to watch a live performance.
Ultimately, I suppose, my interest here is less in the answers to all of the questions and contradictions I pose above (although I am interested in those) and more with the fact that we witness—in Laurie Anderson’s comments and in those of Q-Tip--a somewhat surprising animosity toward digital access, and critical commentary. I wonder: what motivates it? A desire for artistic uniqueness? A longing for a stable set of critical rules? Sadness at the demise of active imagination? Or, more crassly, a concern with the loss of material wealth?
Or perhaps we skip right over thinkg about what motivates the artist and ask the more important questions: what changes do we ourselves witness? and how do we value those changes?