I am a cultural omnivore, one whose daily commute is made possible by attachment to an iPod — an iPod that contains Wagner and Mozart, pop diva Christina Aguilera, country singer Josh Turner, gangsta rap artist Kirk Franklin, concerti, symphonies and more and more. I'm a voracious reader, a reader who deals with Ian McEwan down to Stephanie Meyer. I have read the Twilight tetralogy. And one who lives for my home theater, a home theater where I devour DVDs, video on demand and a lot of television. For me, "Law & Order: SVU," Tina Fey and "30 Rock" and "Judge Judy" — "The people are real, the cases are real, the rulings are final."
Now, I'm convinced a lot of you probably share my passions, especially my passion for "Judge Judy," and you'd fight anybody who attempted to take her away from us, but I'm a little less convinced that you share the central passion of my life, a passion for the live professional performing arts, performing arts that represent the orchestral repertoire, yes, but jazz as well, modern dance, opera, theater and more and more and more.
Frankly, it's a sector that many of us who work in the field worry is being endangered and possibly dismantled by technology. While we initially heralded the Internet as the fantastic new marketing device that was going to solve all our problems, we now realize that the Internet is, if anything, too effective in that regard. Depending on who you read, an arts organization or an artist, who tries to attract the attention of a potential single ticket buyer, now competes with between three and 5,000 different marketing messages a typical citizen sees every single day. We now know, in fact, that technology is our biggest competitor for leisure time. Five years ago, Gen Xers spent 20.7 hours online and TV, the majority on TV. Gen Yers spent even more — 23.8 hours, the majority online. And now, a typical university-entering student arrives at college already having spent 20,000 hours online and an additional 10,000 hours playing video games — a stark reminder that we operate in a cultural context where video games now outsell music and movie recordings combined.
Moreover, we're afraid that technology has altered our very assumptions of cultural consumption. Thanks to the Internet, we believe we can get anything we want whenever we want it, delivered to our own doorstep. We can shop at three in the morning or eight at night, ordering jeans tailor-made for our unique body types. Expectations of personalization and customization that the live performing arts — which have set curtain times, set venues, attendant inconveniences of travel, parking and the like — simply cannot meet. And we're all acutely aware: what's it going to mean in the future when we ask someone to pay a hundred dollars for a symphony, opera or ballet ticket, when that cultural consumer is used to downloading on the internet 24 hours a day for 99 cents a song or for free? These are enormous questions for those of us that work in this terrain. But as particular as they feel to us, we know we're not alone.
All of us are engaged in a seismic, fundamental realignment of culture and communications, a realignment that is shaking and decimating the newspaper industry, the magazine industry, the book and publishing industry and more. Saddled in the performing arts as we are, by antiquated union agreements that inhibit and often prohibit mechanical reproduction and streaming, locked into large facilities that were designed to ossify the ideal relationship between artist and audience most appropriate to the 19th century and locked into a business model dependent on high ticket revenues, where we charge exorbitant prices. Many of us shudder in the wake of the collapse of Tower Records and ask ourselves, "Are we next?" Everyone I talk to in performing arts resonates to the words of Adrienne Rich, who, in "Dreams of a Common Language," wrote, "We are out in a country that has no language, no laws. Whatever we do together is pure invention. The maps they gave us are out of date by years." And for those of you who love the arts, aren't you glad you invited me here to brighten your day?
Now, rather than saying that we're on the brink of our own annihilation, I prefer to believe that we are engaged in a fundamental reformation, a reformation like the religious Reformation of the 16th century. The arts reformation, like the religious Reformation, is spurred in part by technology, with indeed, the printing press really leading the charge on the religious Reformation. Both reformations were predicated on fractious discussion, internal self-doubt and massive realignment of antiquated business models. And at heart, both reformations, I think, were asking the questions: who's entitled to practice? How are they entitled to practice? And indeed, do we need anyone to intermediate for us in order to have an experience with a spiritual divine?
Chris Anderson, someone I trust you all know, editor in chief of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail, really was the first, for me, to nail a lot of this. He wrote a long time ago, you know, thanks to the invention of the Internet, web technology, minicams and more, the means of artistic production have been democratized for the first time in all of human history. In the 1930s, if any of you wanted to make a movie, you had to work for Warner Brothers or RKO, because who could afford a movie set and lighting equipment and editing equipment and scoring, and more? And now who in this room doesn't know a 14 year-old hard at work on her second, third, or fourth movie?
Similarly, the means of artistic distribution have been democratized for the first time in human history. Again, in the '30s, Warner Brothers, RKO did that for you. Now, go to YouTube, Facebook; you have worldwide distribution without leaving the privacy of your own bedroom.
This double impact is occasioning a massive redefinition of the cultural market, a time when anyone is a potential author. Frankly, what we're seeing now in this environment is a massive time, when the entire world is changing as we move from a time when audience numbers are plummeting. But the number of arts participants, people who write poetry, who sing songs, who perform in church choirs, is exploding beyond our wildest imaginations. This group, others have called the pro-ams, amateur artists doing work at a professional level. You see them on YouTube, in dance competitions, film festivals and more. They are radically expanding our notions of the potential of an aesthetic vocabulary, while they are challenging and undermining the cultural autonomy of our traditional institutions. Ultimately, we now live in a world defined not by consumption, but by participation.
But I want to be clear, just as the religious Reformation did not spell the end to the formal Church or to the priesthood; I believe that our artistic institutions will continue to have importance. They currently are the best opportunities for artists to have lives of economic dignity — not opulence, of dignity. And they are the places where artists who deserve and want to work at a certain scale of resources will find a home. But to view them as synonymous with the entirety of the arts community is, by far, too shortsighted. And indeed, while we've tended to polarize the amateur from the professional, the single most exciting development in the last five to 10 years has been the rise of the professional hybrid artist, the professional artist who works, not primarily in the concert hall or on the stage; but most frequently around women's rights, or human rights, or on global warming issues or AIDS relief for more — not out of economic necessity, but out of a deep, organic conviction that the work that she or he is called to do cannot be accomplished in the traditional hermetic arts environment.
Today's dance world is not defined solely by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or the National Ballet of Canada, but by Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange — a multi-generational, professional dance company, whose dancers range in age from 18 to 82, and who work with genomic scientists to embody the DNA strand and with nuclear physicists at CERN. Today's professional theater community is defined, not only the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, but by the Cornerstone Theater of Los Angeles — a collective of artists that after 9/11, brought together 10 different religious communities — the Baha'i, the Catholic, the Muslim, the Jewish, even the Native American and the gay and lesbian communities of faith, helping them create their own individual plays and one massive play, where they explored the differences in their faith and found commonality as an important first step toward cross-community healing. Today's performers, like Rhodessa Jones, work in women's prisons, helping women prisoners articulate the pain of incarceration, while today's playwrights and directors work with youth gangs to find alternate channels to violence and more and more and more. And indeed, I think, rather than being annihilated, the performing arts are poised on the brink of a time when we will be more important than we have ever been.
You know, we've said for a long time, we are critical to the health of the economic communities in your town. And absolutely — I hope you know that every dollar spent on a performing arts ticket in a community generates five to seven additional dollars for the local economy, dollars spent in restaurants or on parking, at the fabric stores where we buy fabric for costumes, the piano tuner who tunes the instruments, and more. But the arts are going to be more important to economies as we go forward, especially in industries we can't even imagine yet, just as they have been central to the iPod and the computer game industries, which few, if any of us, could have foreseen 10 to 15 years ago. Business leadership will depend more and more on emotional intelligence, the ability to listen deeply, to have empathy, to articulate change, to motivate others — the very capacities that the arts cultivate with every encounter.
Especially now, as we all must confront the fallacy of a market-only orientation, uninformed by social conscience; we must seize and celebrate the power of the arts to shape our individual and national characters, and especially characters of the young people, who all too often are subjected to bombardment of sensation, rather than digested experience. Ultimately, especially now in this world, where we live in a context of regressive and onerous immigration laws, in reality TV that thrives on humiliation, and in a context of analysis, where the thing we hear most repeatedly, day in, day out in the United States, in every train station, every bus station, every plane station is, "Ladies and gentlemen, please report any suspicious behavior or suspicious individuals to the authorities nearest to you," when all of these ways we are encouraged to view our fellow human being with hostility and fear and contempt and suspicion.
The arts, whatever they do, whenever they call us together, invite us to look at our fellow human being with generosity and curiosity. God knows, if we ever needed that capacity in human history, we need it now. You know, we're bound together, not, I think by technology, entertainment and design, but by common cause. We work to promote healthy vibrant societies, to ameliorate human suffering, to promote a more thoughtful, substantive, empathic world order.
I salute all of you as activists in that quest and urge you to embrace and hold dear the arts in your work, whatever your purpose may be. I promise you the hand of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is stretched out in friendship for now and years to come. And I thank you for your kindness and your patience in listening to me this afternoon.
Thank you, and Godspeed.
How can the magic of live theater, live music, live dance compete with the always-on Internet? Ben Cameron offers a bold look forward to a world where live arts matter more than ever — to link humans together at a primal level of shared experience.
Ben Cameron runs the arts granting program at the Doris Duke Foundation, focusing on live theater, dance and jazz.
Ben Cameron runs the arts granting program at the Doris Duke Foundation, focusing on live theater, dance and jazz.