ONE 8 • A Matter of Art

A Matter of Art

Can art matter in the age of the internet now that noone pays for anything anymore?

Paris 1913, and there’s a riot going on. Respectable men are beating each other up in the streets outside L’Opera. Women are fainting and screaming. In the back alleys off the Place de L’Opera, far worse things are happening. And why? Because Stravinsky’s new work, The Rites of Spring, has just had its first performance.

The work was greeted with so much horror and revulsion that it precipitated a riot. In fact, if you follow Maurice Ekstein’s theory in his excellent book on these events, the staging of that opera predicted the whole of European history for the next thirty years, right up to the end of the Second World War – and the bourgeoisie’s May 1913 riot was against what they knew was coming next.

Fast forward nearly a century, and tens of thousands of over-educated, overweight people are sat in front of computer screens chewing on doughnuts and reading celebrity junk. The contrast between the pivotal role of high arts in European culture 100 years ago and their marginality today is hard to exaggerate: it’s as if Walter Benjamin’s famous line about ‘no poetry after Auschwitz’ has been shortened to read simply, ‘nothing after World War II.’

Of course that’s wrong: but the advent of the internet seems simply to have speeded up the process of cultural destruction. Published poets, who never earned anything from their work anyway, may be allowed a wry smile as they watch all other kinds of artist lose the revenues on which they used to base their self-esteem. For the rest of us, though, the speed at which artists are disappearing now that people can download content for free is truly frightening.

A good pop record might have sold ten million copies ten years ago: now the industry counts half that as a worldwide smash hit. And it’s not just pop music. Sales of classical and jazz recordings have declined in similar proportions, whilst any of us who visit movie-theatres will be familiar with their warnings about piracy, which costs the industry billions a year and (they claim) reduces their capacity to invest in new films. It’s a matter of recorded fact that the level of investment in new movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was 60% less
than last year.

All of which means that the pattern of cultural consumption we’ve known since the 1930’s is going out the window quicker than a banker’s bonus. The question is, what’s going to replace it? Whilst there’s no easy answer, some trends are rapidly emerging that will, believe it or not, be music to the wallets of those involved in the arts.

As we’ve seen, no-one pays for content any more. So the idea of cutting a record or making a film — and soon, thanks to the Kindle, of writing a book — then sitting back and watching the cheques roll in is dead and gone. That said, people are prepared to pay more now than ever before for an experience, and especially for the experience of seeing their cultural heroes in the flesh.

Ticket prices for concerts are shooting skywards thanks both to the rising costs of going on tour and the artists’ need to maintain their income in the face of falling prices and sales volume for content such as books, films and records. More people are attending live events – right down to the humble poetry reading – than ever before.

In the early nineties, I can remember a reading given by Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott in Bristol at which he and his entourage outnumbered the audience. Nowadays, that’s unthinkable: readings by writers of the most modest reputation are attracting at least thirty or forty listeners, and I’ve heard of a lot of rooms being packed out. The truly bizarre consequence of this new-found love of the ‘live’ experience is that when people connect, or re-connect, with a work of art directly, they’re once again willing to part with cash to pay for
the product, because they associate that product with the live experience.

So it is that sales of Beckett’s plays will rocket in Edinburgh after the recent, brilliant run of Waiting for Godot. And sales of poetry books in one independent bookshop in Scotland have doubled in the last twelve months – because that bookshop has started to host live readings every week.

And there’s even better news for art-lovers: no longer can successful artists afford to sit in studios in London, Paris, New York or wherever and disseminate their genius to a hungry public via their record company or their publisher. Now — if they want to pay the bills, that is — they have to get out on the road and get in front of people. That’s why humble little Edinburgh is being visited by Bob Dylan in four weeks’ time, and it’s why Patrick Stewart debuted the aforementioned Beckett in this city. Suddenly, the cultural totem of ‘needing to be in such and such a place’ if you’re a serious artist starts to wobble. And the opinion of the consumer, in an age when
no-one reads newspaper critics any more, starts to count for a lot more.

If the internet has killed culture as we knew it, with its corrupt focus on log-rolling ahead of talent, then it’s also given birth to a more free and democratic system of production and consumption in which we all choose what we want to read, watch and listen to, unencumbered by the dictates of marketing-men and tastemakers. Even better, there’s a very good chance we’ll get to come face-to-face with the artists we admire, instead of looking at them in the pages of some glossy celeb magazine. How much more could we want?


Born in Scotland, James W. Wood was educated at Cambridge University and won a scholarship to study under Nobel Prizewinner Derek Walcott following the publication of his first volume of poems when he was still at Cambridge. His poems, articles and reviews have appeared in a wide range of literary magazines in Britain, America and Canada.