I was only able to stay for the morning sessions of TEDxMichiganAvenue, because my son was graduating from Illinois State that evening. But I've followed the Twitter hashtag, and read some of the blog posts about the speakers that came after me. And from what I can tell, many of the speakers seemed to touch on a similar topic: participation.
All of us seem to have soaked in the whole crowdsourcing, Clay Shirky here-comes-everyone-cognitive-surplus theme that currently dominates many discussions of how the web is changing our expectations about, well, just about everything. I have to admit, I'm sold -- I think there is a major change happening, and I think that Shirky is the one who tells the story in a way that is most relevant to the arts.
But I'm curious as to whether people in the arts are really getting it. We keep talking about using the web for marketing, using Twitter and Facebook and various apps to "strengthen the relationship with the audience," or using Twitter for a back channel conversation during a show. And all of those things are important, and could lead to some interesting experiments, but I don't think they get to the center of this revolution -- or "reformation," as Ben Cameron said in his TEDx talk about a year ago. He said that the central questions being asked were "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?" There's the real crux of the matter.
There will always be spectators and performers. The question is whether the performers (and the playwrights as well) are going to continue to be separate groups. Will most artistic experiences continue to consist of an art-commodity created by artist-specialists and sold to consumers? That certainly is not the model being discussed by Shirky. Whether "lol cats" or YouTube videos or independent films created with equipment purchased with a credit card, people want to not only consume, but create as well. And the question is: will artists learn to share the stage with them, will they sit down and let amateurs stand up, will they work alongside them to create and tell stories?
In all of this discussion about "strengthening the arts" in America, I don't hear anyone asking the question "for whom?" And the reason I don't hear it, I have a feeling, is that we are all holding on real hard to strengthening the arts for the artists -- it doesn't even occur to us that the category artist-specialist may end up shrinking to make room for an enlarged artist-amateur category, as the people-formerly-known-as-the-audience demand to participate, not just observe.
Are we ready to share? Not only to share, but to facilitate and encourage?