I posted the text from the article as well as a link for anyone interested in exploring the New Bohemia website.
Would you be willing to give up selling your artwork?
New Media, Old Beauty
by Frederick Turner
Readers familiar with this site will already be aware that a new artistic ferment is in the air. They know that exciting artists in many forms have emerged in the wake of the decline of modernism into postmodernism, that they have begun to meet and exchange insights across artistic disciplines. They know that the artistic establishment is trying to downplay or co-opt the new consciousness. They know that the new arts possess aesthetic, cultural, and philosophical ideas that render much of the theory and vocabulary of modernism and postmodernism obsolete. They know that the riches of the artistic past are being rediscovered as artists of all kinds teach themselves--or find older mentors to teach them--the classic crafts of drawing, melody, poetic meter, storytelling, dramatic mimesis, humane architecture.
Yet the question we always get is: why is the new art not better known? Where is it to be found in the official civic institutions, in the established publications and publishing houses, on the radio, the TV, in the great theaters, the city museums? Though in architecture and city planning the new classicism and new urbanism are gaining ground, they are doing so at the cost of contempt from the architectural establishment. Where might New Yorkers find out what is going on in the new arts?--it certainly isn't in the New York Times Arts section or the New Yorker. If the reader is familiar with the major cultural foundations, the Ford, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Whitney, MacArthur, etc, the question would be "who supports the new artists in their work?" They certainly aren't getting the big grants and residencies. Yet their work is acclaimed for its beauty and relevance whenever the public is allowed to get hold of it.
The problem is an old one: the gatekeepers. They kept out the French Impressionists, they kept out the early Romantics, they burned early Renaissance humanists at the stake, they got rid of Jesus and Socrates. How, then, do we break through the barriers that separate the people's artists from the people?
The traditional answer has been the end run. In football, if the opposing coach has deployed all his defensive resources against a frontal attack, the answer is not to take on the defense but run around it. In military terms, it is how the Germans defeated the French Maginot Line in the First World War, and how Patton and MacArthur achieved their successes at Anzio and Inchon. The Impressionists did it with the Salon des Réfusés, the modernist painters with the Armory show. If you have been in the academy, you know that it is almost impossible to break an ossified departmental bureacracy--the answer is to create, voluntarily, an alternative center of study and ideas and discussion elsewhere in the institution, which attracts faculty and students by the excitement of its ideas and the liveliness of its discussion, until the old structure becomes increasingly isolated and paranoid. Nobody enjoys being there any more; its power, great on paper, becomes irrelevant in fact; it is left high and dry without adherents; at which point it turns into an irrelevant relic. Finally it shrivels and dies without ever having had a chance to crush its enemies in a head-to-head confrontation where its greater coercive resources might count. In Eastern Europe in 1989 the same thing happened--nobody interesting, creative, or energetic was left in the old Communist tyrannical bureaucracy, and it fell by its own weight.
But for this to happen in our culture, the public must know what is going on; but presently the public is content in large part to believe the gatekeeper elites of the arts sections, swallow its distaste for the repetitive "innovations" that it is fed, accept that it just doesn't understand, and go on buying what it is supposed to buy. If the old media, over which the establishment has full control, were the only means of linking the public with the art they need and deserve, then the case might be hopeless. But--and here is the point--when the times have called out loudly enough for new media, human technology has often responded with a revolutionary new instrument of communication, free from the coercive control of the gatekeepers, an "underground" "beneath the radar" form of publication and discussion that becomes the carrier of a new culture.
For the ancient Greeks, that instrument was writing. For the Renaissance, the instrument was printing. For us, the technology that offers itself to circumvent the monopoly of an entrenched and moribund culture-of-the-present has appeared, as if on cue. It is the internet.
Not that it will be easy to make it work for the new cultural movement. In fact, like writing and printing before it, the internet is fairly old technology--not essentially different from the telegraph that Ulysses S. Grant used to communicate with his generals and the fax machine that Parisian stock speculators used in the 1850s to get commodities information in advance from Marseilles. And we are very far from envisaging what it can do in the future, especially in the realm of cultural production and dissemination. It took at least a hundred years for the presses of Gutenberg and Caxton to begin to fulfill their promise of radical transformation in society: until then they merely speeded the work of hand copying, and made pornography and sacred Latin texts available for their respective clienteles. Many more years had to pass before such legal, economic, and conceptual instruments as copyright, publishing houses, critical periodicals, bookstores, public libraries, freedom of the press, libel laws and so on would permit the profitable literary mass market that nurtured the works of Dickens, Emerson, Tennyson, the Brontës, Longfellow, Balzac, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, and Hemingway. As with printing, we must invent new institutions and new habits of life to put the internet to its best cultural use.
We have not yet settled the profound issues of intellectual property, credit, and editorial selectivity raised by the internet. I believe that authors of books, paintings, music, architectural designs and the like may have to sacrifice a great deal of the security, income, and credit that was provided by copyright.
Making a living out of ideas, words, visions, melodies has never been been easy and has historically not been as simple as selling a book, record, print, bronze, or painting. Before printing, it was almost impossible for a writer to sell a book in any meaningful sense.
Even as late as Shakespeare's time such poets as Philip Sidney "published" their poems by writing them out in ink and sending them to their friends, who would then circulate them like internet jokes often without attribution.Printing fixed the content of a book to its physical manifestation on paper, and enabled a publisher to piggyback the author's royalty, together with his own profit, onto the cost of materials and manufacturing. But the internet, as everybody knows, is a place where information is infinitely reproducible without cost and is not dependent upon the medium of its embodiment.
We may have to reinvent the way in which inventors and artists and thinkers get credit and financing and a living from their work. We will be helped in this by a feature of new media that we have already glanced at its ability to make old knowledge newly available. We can learn from the past. One thing we learn is that though the process has always been a bit haphazard, people have been able through indirect means to get rewarded for their work. Chinese poet-artists would not get paid for their poetry or landscape ink paintings, but on passing a poetry exam would receive official posts with stipends. A good writer in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries in England could not mass-market a book but could get a curacy in the Church of England or would become a secretary to a minister of government. Writing, though its quality obviously depended on its author's genuine artistic commitment, could act as a sort of advertisement or marketing device for the talents of the writers themselves.
In music, painting, sculpture, architecture, drama and dance similar issues arise. Music, as we know from the Napster affair, is even more vulnerable than literature to the changed conditions brought on by the internet; where once only a noble court could afford fashionable music, now anyone can get it virtually free. The plastic arts have yet to meet their own full crisis, when nanotechnology enables us to make exact replicas of three-dimensional physical objects, but already photography has profoundly shaped the notion of visual copyright and the principles of originality. The performing arts have of course been challenged by film, video, and now such innovations as Jenny-cam; but perhaps the charisma of personal presence--the one thing that is not reproducible will keep them vendible and profitable in the old travelling-players kind of way.
But despite these alarming and ballpark-altering issues, I believe the promise of the internet in bypassing the moribund modernist-postmodernist order is so huge that it may well be worth the risks and sacrifices. I am myself more and more inclined to put my own work up on the net and just let people copy it if they want. Other authors and artists I know in the "natural classical" movement feel the same way. If we go ahead, we will be returning in some ways to a more ancient "gift economy", but without the security of the old village system of personal obligation and reciprocity. In the village my neighbor might buy me a drink or give me a bag of apples for a good poem; but a stranger who reads my work on a website feels no such obligation. Nevertheless, in the long run our own personal loss may be more than compensated by the transformation in the culture that may come as a result--and the new culture may be more hospitable to how we wish to live our lives.
Already it is becoming clear that many of the major book publishers, swallowed by huge media conglomerates seeking for "content" to pad out their enormous information storage and transmission systems, have almost lost any sense of what good writing is beside finding and promoting established big names and topical obsessions. (The university presses, which might have offered a real alternative) are for the most part organs of the odernist-postmodernist establishment. The same sort of thing could be said of established record companies, museums, theaters, etc. Perhaps really good artists and writers are deluding themselves if they think they would ever "break in" to such a system, or that they would be successful if they did. Who would really like to be published by the National Inquirer? How different in content, really, is the fiction and non-fiction list of many of the major New York publishing houses? Meanwhile there is an increasingly educated and restless audience yearning for high-quality artistic and cultural material (as evidenced, for instance, by the spectacular success of certain unpublicized indie films). In this highly unstable context, one change might precipitate a revolution.
Suppose most of the really interesting artists, poets, storytellers, musicians, designers and so on simply gave their work away on the internet. There would be a crisis; people would be able to get higher-quality cultural material for free than they would get if they paid for it. It would be a kind of cultural "dumping"--the practice of selling good-quality products at less than the market will bear so as to undercut and bankrupt the market leaders. Indeed, I believe this phenomenon has already begun; scientists now regularly bypass the costly and sometimes hidebound paper periodicals with announcements of their discoveries, and such websites as Fred Ross' Art Renewal Center receive thousands of hits from art-lovers who are not spending the time going to the Whitney or the Museum of Modern Art. In popular music, good new groups became successes by bypassing record labels and giving the addictive product away for free. The liveliest debates in poetry are going on over the internet, where good new poems get passed around at lightspeed, sometimes shedding their author's name in the process. (The shedding of the name is paradoxically a sign of the health of the system.) If the middleman is adulterating the product, perhaps he should be eliminated.
At this point the strengths of the old system would turn into devastating weaknesses. The laws of copyright, that defend the old system, have recently become both more restrictive and more legalistically enforced, as the conglomerates scramble to lock up content for their information machines. What this means in practice is that a section of cultural production, stretching back to the time when a work enters the public domain, is closed off by its expense. This leaves to us, of course, the enormous cultural riches of the past, and any new artistic creation in the future. For the strategist of the new emerging natural-classical culture, this offers a beautiful slogan: the past and the future are ours; let us leave to the old gatekeepers the present, silenced by copyright, eviscerated of real meaning by the decline of modernism; and let us create a new world instead.
Three objections immediately present themselves against this plan: money, credit, and selectivity.
The first objection can be stated thus: if artists and writers simply put their work up on a super internet, which could reproduce with superior production values the qualities of the original, how would they get paid for their work? Of course one might reply that true artists, like poor Van Gogh, can't help doing their magic while they starve, whether paid or not.
Though callous, this argument preserves social utility in that society will get the art it needs at bargain prices. But starving artists may well make art so full of despair and alienation and psychological damage that the fruits society gets from them will be poisoned ones. Indeed, I believe that many of the cultural ills that followed the Romantic movement, when artists were no longer protected by guilds and aristocratic patronage, can be traced to this pathology.
PUBLIC DEMAND AND CRITICISM
We have already glanced at one answer: the Chinese or Church of England system, in which artistic and literary gifts were explicitly recognized as qualifications for clerical or administrative office. Chaucer, Donne, Milton, and Swift were important servants of the state or church. Van Eyck was a top Burgundian diplomat and spy; Leonardo was top brass in the military establishments of Milan and Florence; Goethe was a statesman; Bach, a high funcionary of the church. In China, Li Bai was an imperial administrator, as were Du Fu and Wang Bo, major poet-artists of the Tang dynasty.
At present the American university and college system already performs many of the functions of the old church and state in supporting artists while they work. The problem here is that, isolated from public demand and criticism, faculty artists cannot be truly judged for the quality of their work, and their selection and retention falls to peer review, which in the arts is notoriously corruptible by itself. As a result academic art has remained largely stuck in the mire of late modernism and postmodernism, which reassuringly provide a set of formulaic criteria for judgement that are at least shared by the various campus factions. Worse still, since faculty are now being judged increasingly by default on their popularity as teachers, it is in their interest not to alienate students by making them learn difficult disciplines like drawing and meter, and so those disciplines decay. Even more alarmingly, as Frederick Feirstein points out, faculty artists come to regard as a norm for artistic content the thoughts and feelings of adolescents they teach--their rebellion, their desire for novelty, their conformism, their love of oversimple answers, their narrow temporal horizons.
The internet can help solve this problem by opening up faculty artists to the general public. Hits and citations, together with a system for evaluating them such as the sciences use to judge the importance of scientific articles, could well be a much more reliable measure of an artist's merit than being chosen for publication by some old boy network or ideologically PC juried show or "younger poets series".
Still, the real book, the live musical performance, paint and canvas, bricks and mortar, remain essential foundations for a forum of electronic art. They are like the real resources that back up a paper currency. Here I should point out that new media do not in any way threaten the true venues for the arts. In fact they often enable a more traditional form of communication and representation to achieve a much greater artistic perfection. The greatest achievements in the oral art of drama, for instance, came right on the heels of spectacular advances in literacy and written communication--that is, in classical Athens with Greek tragedy and comedy after the widespread use of writing, and in Elizabethan England, where Shakespearean drama could flourish before an audience fascinated and informed by the printed word. Lovers of film feared that TV would destroy their medium; instead, TV, by taking over the coarser functions of film, freed film to become art. Photography could do the same thing for painting, as the recent Metropolitan Museum Eakins show demonstrates. The small magazine or printing press, devoted to first-rate poetry, will not be replaced by the internet, but will become both the repository and the gold standard of internet literary virtuality..
The second main objection to the internet concerns the the issue of credit. If information is infinitely reproducible, how can authors and artists get, if not the cash, at least the credit for their work? As I have already hinted, a certain anonymity is itself the sign of a healthy grassroots artform. Can the two ideals be reconciled--recognition when it is due, and a robust interest by the public in the quality of the work itself, irrespective of the notoriety of its maker? As it happens, the internet is the perfect medium in this regard, as any teacher knows who has had to track down a suspected plagiarism. The very technique that the student used to find his purloined material on the net is even more easily used to catch him--just paste into Google half of a sentence from the suspiciously elegant assignment and up pops the origninal, title, author, and all. It would be very easy to create systems for doing the same with visual forms or chord sequences, so that as long as the original core document is online, its anonymous circulation can always be easily tracked to to its maker. Even ideas can be retraced, as I have found, by a judicious choice of key words.
Even if appropriate ways are found to recognize and support artists in an internet-mediated cultural future, there remains a further problem, the third main objection to the open-frontier gift economy of the arts I am suggesting. The problem is that of selectivity, choice, and quality. If the current gatekeepers are bypassed and their regime shrivels up like the old Soviet empire, who will help the public winnow through the immense volume of self-proclaimed artistic production in all genres? Bad art, like bad money, drives out good. 500 cable channels give us more choice, perhaps, but less quality per choice; if we want good food we go to a restaurant with a picky and elite chef, not to a supermarket. One reason people have stopped reading new poetry, listening to new serious music, or going to contemporary art shows or plays is that so much of what they see is mediocre or worse, and they do not have time to sort through the dross to find the gold.
But here again the answer emerges by itself. If there is no monopoly or cartel of gatekeepers, good gatekeepers will themselves emerge through a sort of free market evolutionary selection. The internet has already proved itself efficient in this role. Google, for instance, like a hugely successful species, has evolved to become the indispensable general research tool in a few short years. Favorite websites quickly establish themselves with surfers, and the link system leads us with increasing attraction to the hubs where the best material is gathered. Strangely, the process is more cooperative than competitive, or rather it is fully both at once; for lesser sites are the very paths by which the greater are reached, and the greater sites refer the surfer out to the lesser.
CHANGING CULTURAL LANDSCAPE
What follows from this is that there is now both a huge necessity and a huge opportunity for first-rate editors, curators, connoisseurs and critics, who are willing to put their talents at the service of the arts. Like the artists themselves, the editors must expect to work with little initial compensation, but with the possibility of creating major reputations that will sooner or later translate into material reward.
If we take the plunge, then, artists, editors, critics and curators together with art-lovers and connoisseurs, we have the chance of radically changing the cultural landscape and ushering in a new era of the arts. Some far-sighted individuals have already put their time and talent on the line, creating websites that help the public find the valid art of their own time. I have already mentioned Fred Ross's Art Renewal Center. Arthur Mortenson, with his Expansive Poetry and Music Online, and Terry Ponick, with Edge City Review, are doing a remarkable job. The Poetry Porch should also be mentioned. And the Newington-Cropsey Foundation is preparing its own website, which will extend the extraordinary mission of this magazine into cyberspace.
The movement needs, finally, a multidiciplinary directory and grand central station for this whole virtual city. And there is already a candidate for this role: NewBohemia, René Gruss's remarkable website, which is attempting not only to create direct links with all the "natural classical" era enterprises throughout the arts, but also to be the place where major real events, such as shows, concerts, book releaeses, architectural competitions, etc, can be planned and coordinated.
A whole new world of cultural activity is now opening up, and who knows how it will develop, or even whether the great obstacles that stand in its way can be overcome? Perhaps the existing postmodern establishment will be able to crush or coopt the movement; perhaps there will be a grand détente, and the change will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. René Gruss, with his characteristic originality, argues that the work and adventure of bringing the changes to birth are in fact the story--the narrative of rebirth is itself part of the content of the new cultural era. Thus everybody involved in the movement, including almost by definition the readers of the American Arts Quarterly, is making history now and is engaged in one of the creative events of the human story. Gruss urges us to make records, photographs, memoirs of the conversations and meetings, the Derriere Guard events, the email exchanges, lunches, agreements and disagreements, because they will be the substance of our own cultural history and invaluable materials for future scholars and historians. How valuable it would be to have diaries or sketches of Homer dictating his poems to a scribe, Giotto preparing a fresco, Gutenberg deciding with his engraver how the first movable type should be fitted in with its illustrations, or how musical notation should be translated onto the printed page.
It is an exciting time for real artists and art-lovers, requiring risk and courage. But the rewards are great.
Frederick Turner is the Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, and the author of
"The Culture of Hope" - The New Birth of the Classical Spirit.
He is also the author of sixteen books of poetry, criticism and fiction and a leading theorist of restoration environmentalism.