Back when I was a theater major in college, the first class of the semester started with a question, “What is Art?” It’s the Zen koan of uber-intellectual cultural critics, and of course many students tried to answer earnestly (my favorites: “the lie that tells the truth” and “life with the boring parts cut out.”) And we see very practical examples of this playing out today in terms of things like pop culture (Is James Cameron’s Avatar art?) and video games (Is Word of Warcraft art?).
Thanks to technology, there’s a new koan in town, “What is an Art Audience?” That is, do you have to put on a top hat and tails and sit in an auditorium to be viewing art? And of course, if you’re tech-savvy enough to be reading this blog (which comes to you through a series of tubes that you can download on an Internet), you know that the answer is “no.” And the National Endowment for the Arts is learning this too: “…over the past year an estimated 47 million [people] chose to watch or listen to music, theater or dance performances online at least once a week.”
One of the positives of this is the access perspective. If you can’t afford and/or don’t have the time or transportation to get to live art, it’s fantastic to be able to view it online. Even if you have to pay for it, it’s going to be a lot cheaper than a mezzanine seat.* It certainly helps get around the costs and liability of field trips by public schools.
Obviously, though, there are a million questions here. Is it the same experience, in terms of education and inspiration? Can you monetize it enough to compensate for the decline in live audiences? How does this affect locally-produced vs. nationally produced work? And, of course, how do you count “attendance” (for grant purposes, etc.)? But these are all questions that television networks, film studios and record companies (how quaint that we still call them record companies) are also dealing with in one form or another, so it’s not new territory. There is a lot to learn by looking at those changing business models, and hopefully the arts can catch up.
*Unless you actually charge different rates based on where the camera angle is…like, if you pay for nosebleed seats, the camera is further away, and if you pay for orchestra seats, you get a great view.