Monday, March 28, 2011

Participatory Culture: Trend 4 of 7 for the Future of the Arts

This is part five in an ongoing series of posts on 7 Trends for the Future of the Arts. Originally published (and partially reprinted here with permission of the publisher) in the book: 20 Under 40: Reinventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. I'm presenting selections from each trend, and you can follow the whole post series from here. If you are interested in these arguments, check out and think about purchasing the book here.

Trend 4: Participatory Culture

This sense of disintermediation has expanded into what is called participatory culture. Audiences can now easily participate actively in the art they consume, and expect to be able to do so. This is an historic return to the way art used to be practiced—by and for all. Ancient cultures valued communal art making and practice, with the arts integrated into community activity.

For too long, however, art has been placed on a kind of altar—to become a painter, a musician, a dancer or a filmmaker one had to learn “the rules” and follow the canon. Sure, punk rock existed, but to make “fine art” music, such as classical music, one had to learn an almost secret language. One had to take dance lessons, learn ballet, and compete. One had to go to film school and spend a lot of money on equipment. Art was no longer something to be produced by everyone, but something that one had to aspire to learn perfectly. And because it was hard, art became something that was largely consumed.

From today’s perspective one can see that the one-way street of art consumption was an historic aberration, and one society’s good to toss. Audiences no longer want to just consume their art—they want to be involved, to engage in the conversation around art and creativity and perhaps participate in its production. Technology facilitates the human need to connect, share, and participate—and this is great news for the arts.

Through digital technology and sharing culture, legions of people now have access to entire recording studios for free, cheap cameras, and programs to teach them any instrument imaginable. These digital consumers don’t think of themselves as amateurs, but as creative beings, contributing to culture. Each of these individuals now feel a greater connection to the arts and will likely explore more within their interests. In film, the YouTube mash-up creator may begin to seek out classic cinema, or avant-garde works because they now understand it better and feel a connection. They are participating with the arts, searching for a dialogue, and it is incumbent upon existing cultural institutions to tap into this energy and change how it operates to allow for a more participatory arts experience.

Organizations must address this shift in their programming and outreach and even in how they create and curate their shows. They will need to let the audience become more than just spectators. This doesn’t mean that all arts experiences must be participatory, as not all audiences desire the same levels of interaction, but rather that greater levels of interaction should be possible for those who increasingly expect such participation. While some arts organizations are beginning to experiment with programming that involves the audience, or that at least makes the experience more participatory, such as bringing the audience into rehearsals or having them add to a musical performance with their cellphones, the field as a whole should make every effort to make their experiences more participatory.

The value in some of the most successful web businesses today, companies like Amazon, Craigslist, Google, and Wikipedia, derives from the participatory contributions of their users. Users of Amazon gain insight into prospective purchases from the reviews left by other consumers. This value accrues to Amazon, it becomes a more trust-worthy site, but comes from the participation of its users. Facebook, one of the fastest growing companies online today, builds almost all of its value from the participatory activities of its users.

This new level of interactivity, sometimes referred to as web 2.0 culture, is growing and becoming more prevalent in the interactions of most people online. Arts organizations would do well to follow the lead of such companies and incorporate more participation into their organizations, perhaps gaining more value by encouraging dialogue and audience contribution than they can offer on their own.

Up next: Trend 5: Communal Conversation Trumps Marketing.
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