Essay: Technology changes how art is created and perceived


It used to be so simple. A book had an author; a film, a screenwriter and director; a piece of music, a composer and performer; a painting or sculpture, an artist; a play, a playwright. You could assume that the work actually erupted more or less full-blown from these folks. In addition, the book, film, musical composition, painting or play was a discrete object or event that existed in time and space. You could hold it in your hands or watch or listen to it in a theater or your living room. It didn’t really change over time unless the artist decided to revise it or a performer reinterpreted it.

Well, not any more. For years now numerous observers have described the process by which the very fundaments of art are changing from the old principle of one man, one creation. Songs have remixes through which anyone so disposed can alter the original music; videos have mash-ups that use footage to reposition and change the original meaning; the visual arts have communal canvases and websites; poetry has Flarf, which allows one to generate verse from random words; , and books have collages, like David Shields’ recent “Reality Hunger,” which was assembled entirely, paragraph by paragraph, out of other authors’ words. Recombinant art is the rage.

What all these forms have in common is appropriation and a sense of rampant collaboration in which every work of art is simply raw material for anyone who decides to put his or her imprint on it, which then allows someone else to put his imprint on the imprint, which allows still someone else to put his imprint on the imprint on the imprint, and so on ad infinitum. You could call it Wiki-Culture after its prototype, Wikipedia, because like Wikipedia, it is a new form of democratic cultural construction in which everyone can make a contribution.

Of course communal culture is not a new concept. The process began a long time ago in folk art — who is the artist of the Lascaux cave paintings? — and it eventually entered the precincts of fine art with the borrowings of Duchamp, Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and others who deployed the detritus of popular culture in their work, albeit reformulated by them. If art was about life and life was now increasingly a product of mass consumption, then popular culture was a vast warehouse to be rummaged through and repurposed. That made the industrial designer of the Campbell soup can label or the Brillo box a collaborator with Warhol, Betsy Ross a collaborator with Johns, or little-known comic book artists collaborators with Lichtenstein.

Still, with Warhol and the Pop artists, there is a commanding sensibility: an artist using the larger culture for, and in a way, subordinating it to, his or her own ends. But over the last five years or so — and it is happening at a head-snappingly fast pace — the degree of appropriation and the number of collaborators has proliferated to the point at which there are not only literally millions of new art objects but also millions of new “artists” working in conjunction with one another, so that the very notion of authorship is becoming attenuated and archaic. Where people are invited to add to or edit an object, whose sensibility governs and who gets credit for the evolving creation? The most logical answer, as with Wikipedia, is that the author is the collective whole.

Naturally the Internet has greatly facilitated this process. It brings together far-flung collaborators and gives them the technological wherewithal to ply their talents jointly on objects. The Johnny Cash Project, for example, solicits fans of the late singer to share their vision of Johnny “as he lives in your mind’s eye,” by providing an image of him and a customized drawing tool to reimagine it. “Your work will then be combined,” says the website, “with art from participants around the world and integrated into a collective whole.” Call it Wiki-Art.

But if the Internet facilitates this new form of cultural construction technologically, it also encourages it ideologically by attacking the old, increasingly discredited cultural hierarchy. Traditional art was largely top down — delivered from elite cultural commissars who had always determined what art was. On the Internet, however, everything is bottom-up. Of course, long before, the Internet people were taking up their cudgels against those commissars; popular culture is itself an attack on them. But never before has that war been so broad or so effective. Now, anyone with a computer and connectivity has the means to air his voice, his opinion, his own authorship and authority.

Seen this way, Internet technology may be more an outgrowth of cultural rebelliousness than a cause of it. In a skeptical world in which authority has often failed, in an increasingly democratic world in which everyone is privileged, and, alas, in a narcissistic world in which many people feel the need to launch their egos, collaborative art is a radical rebuke that allows no one to be privileged above anyone else, no single art object to be a product of one sensibility, and no gatekeepers to tell us what is and isn’t art. In effect, Wiki-Culture sends the peasants marching on the virtual Winter Palace.

The cultural implications of Wiki-Culture are numerous and enormous. When there is no authority, only everyone giving opinions, we may have democracy but we may also lose standards. When even facts are the product not of rigorous verification, but of majority rule, we may be living in what one analyst has called a “post-fact society.” And when everyone is an artist, we may risk losing the individual artistic sensibility. It is no wonder that traditionalists are terrified.

But where art is concerned the single most important effect of Wiki-culture may be what it portends for the very idea of a tangible art object like a book or painting and what this would portend for industries dedicated to art. Take the Johnny Cash Project again. Like much Wiki-Art, it is organic and ever-changing. The work may reside on the Internet, but, in truth, there is no work — no single art object. It is an ongoing, dynamic series, potentially infinite.

Or take video games, which have not only expropriated the look of movies but also increasingly their franchise to the point where they now generate greater profits than the movies do. We know where a movie resides: on the screen. But if a video game is a kind of participatory film, a new narrative form, where does that film reside? Since the experience is different every time for every player, it is really evanescent. A play or piece of music may differ in performance, but it remains on the page. The template for a video game exists — on the disc — but where does the experience of the video game as played exist?

What Wiki-Culture does is dislodge culture from its moorings in art, history, tradition, knowledge, even time and space, and set it afloat either in the ether or in our own consciousness. Traditional culture is memorialized on the page, the CD, the stage or the screen. Wiki-Culture, which is constructed by nearly everyone and is extremely ephemeral, is memorialized, to the extent it is memorialized at all, in our heads and nowhere else. It is there on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al, and then it isn’t.

That may be why the Library of Congress recently decided to archive the collected works of Twitter — 55 million messages daily. The librarians there realized that to the extent one can concretize a culture that is so fleeting, free-floating and expansive, the Complete Twitter may come closest to doing so because it is closest to capturing the new collective consciousness. In fact, it is possible that Twitter will provide the next “Remembrance of Things Past,” a collectivized novel in 140-characters, or that some YouTube mash-up will provide the next “Citizen Kane,” even though these things barely survive outside our own reception and memory.

That is the direction toward which Wiki-Culture is nudging art. When every book, via Kindle or the iPad, becomes a raw source for the reader to reorganize and edit what he or she reads; when every song becomes a raw source for a remix; when every film or video becomes a raw source for some customized mash-up; and when traditional art itself becomes a symbol of antiquated cultural control, the collaboration is everything, the resulting object very little. In such a world, art may still exist, but we won’t always know exactly where to find it, which can be a scary prospect.