"Table of Contents"


   Experiencing the Humanities

   A Web Textbook
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15. The Future of the Arts


Chapter Fifteen of Experiencing the Humanities

by Richard Jewell



There are several notable events and movements in the world of the arts that will be important for their future. Three of these are as follows:

electronic arts 

artists as professionals 

interactive art

The "electronic arts" are TV, video, computer arts, and related activities. They are new in history.

"Professional artists"--those paid to be artists--have been few in number until the 20th century. Our higher standards of living have created a whole social class of paid artists (as already noted briefly in chapter two concerning the new creative social class).

"Interactive art" is a kind of art in that audience and art object or performance interact with each other. Interactive art in the future may increasingly dissolve the boundary lines between audiences and the art objects or performances they view.

Electronic Revolution

Marshall McLuhan, a social commentator, developed a viewpoint in the 1960s that the most important influence of TV (and now of computers and videos) is not the contents of what it shows, but rather its affect on the way we see and feel.

What McLuhan said is that where communication at a distance is concerned, our modern TV/computer generation communicates by seeing more than one piece of information at a time on a screen. Instead, a screen has many visual points of reference. McLuhan says this is very different from how pre-TV generations communicated. They used mostly oral communication: sharing words by radio and telephone and, before that, by writing and reading texts--which tend to be created and used with "oral" thinking--a flow of words and sounds--in our heads. This flow of words and sounds involved one sound at a time. However, an image from a TV or computer monitor involves many images at a time.

Of course, we still do use texts, radios, and phones, just as in pre-TV years. And, as McLuhan points out, many of the uses of visual electronics may just amplify the old way of oral communication, one sound and one small specific image at a time. However, the point McLuhan makes is that our TV/computer generations also are, increasingly, learning to use a different form of thinking. In our TV/computer age, we communicate more by visual thinking--a flow of multiple images in our heads--than by just oral thinking just one sound at a time. 

This means, for example, in the arts, that the difference can be between, on the one hand, hearing someone describe a person or scene, and, on the other, seeing a monitor image of the same person or scene. The oral description takes much longer; the painting shows multiple images or parts in an instant. And if we place both types of thinking the result can be even more powerful, especially if the visual image comes alive in time: we are then seeing multiple moving views of multiple images.

Some arts will be less influenced by this change in thinking, such as writing or music (with no images). But other types of arts already have become dramatically affected, such as paintings and oral, written stories that can now be made, instead, as a series of interrelated images in video--hence movies. And many art forms with visual components can now be shown to thousands or millions of people in video rather than be confined to a few thousand, at most, who must visit the site where the work of art is shown. As a result, our society--and our artists--are becoming increasingly sight-oriented thinkings. McLuhan argues that our generations think more in images, however fleeting or fast, than did most of the educated people who grew up before TV.

This means that the visual arts--and art forms that can be turned into visual images--likely will receive more attention now and in the future than ever before. And art forms that rely on oral communication, such as creative writing and music--will have more of an unspoken but more emphasized visual background component to them--i.e., their creators/composers will use more description than before in stories and have more images in mind when composing music than in past centuries.  Society's change to a more image-dominant way of thinking also likely will mean, given the nature of TV, computers, and video, that for the first time in history, the art forms combining sight and sound may become the dominant art forms. In many fields of art, TV/computer images and videos may do for millions of us what only live performances used to in previous centuries.

In addition, we have reached an age in history when we now can sculpture light itself through TV, computer, and video monitors, and show color and line moving through time. We also can show abstract representations of light, color, line, and sound in interaction with each other. Some artists already have worked in these directions, and the 21st century and beyond may see the first groups of great artists in this abstract or expressionist medium.

Three-dimensional electronic transmissions called "holographs" also now exist, from laser and other technological inventions. These holographs may, in people's living rooms, gradually replace two-dimensional TV, computer, and video presentations on two-dimensional screens. Someday far in the future, we will have holographic (three-dimensional) videos.

Another version of three-dimensional electronic transmissions is "virtual reality" or "artificial reality." It is a form of computerized reality that is being worked on by such groups as the Pentagon for human control of robots working in outer space; and by VPL, a licensee of the Nintendo power glove, for simulated three-dimensional computer programs using 3-D helmet-glove sets for computer games, architectural models, and surgical training. The helmet has computerized visual images that "allow" one to see an image three-dimensionally, and the computerized glove allows hand control of the three-dimensional image. As these are further developed in the 21st century and beyond, they will become increasingly popular in business, with gamers, and in a number of leisure-entertainment fields. This will merge over time with five-dimensional 3-D holography, creating newer and easier methods for artists to create holographic works of art.

Professional Artists

The development of the electronic revolution and the increasingly greater wealth of many countries has allowed artists to become not only acceptable but also necessary to society--and as such, a professional class or group.  In many societies and cultures in the past (and in a large portion of the undeveloped world in the present), the artist was looked upon as useless and costly to society: unable to grow food or lead those who do, and unable to form a proper family that worked for its living and fit in with a society in which almost everyone performed an immediate, practical function. Throughout history, in fact, artists have been unaffordable to most individuals and most of society. In fact, it almost always has been the richer classes--royalty, priests, and sometimes a small but developing middle class--who have supported the fine arts and artists. And usually these richer groups of people had much less money, patience, and willingness to support the fine arts than our society does today.

A lesser-known class of "public artists" (those who developed their art by appealing more directly to the public)--e.g., strolling minstrels, artisans who crafted pots and silverware, and village storytellers--worked for just enough pay in food and money to survive, moving from village to village. These artists helped develop public art that, over a period of time, has come down through many generations to ours in the form of ancient fairy tales and legends, old songs, and a history of fine craftwork.

However, in societies where a strong middle class exists--such as in our own developed countries or even in parts of ancient Greece or Egypt--people have been able to spend more money and time on the arts. Artistic activities such as watching TV, reading books, listening to music, and attending arts events become a significant part of such societies' activities. When art is so significant, the artist becomes a respected professional who is looked upon by the society as one of its contributing workers. Creativity becomes a commodity for which some people are well paid--and to which many more people aspire.

We may expect in years to come that as leisure time in the form of television, movies, music, and other arts becomes increasingly valuable, professional artists in larger numbers may begin to achieve the respect and pay that educators, government workers, and religious workers now receive. This changed status of the artist as professional is producing more people interested in the arts as a profession--and more interest in the arts themselves.

There also is a continuing dilution or "popularizing" of the arts, a process of making artistic pieces more appealing to more and more people. Critics of these changes say that we are becoming sloppy in who we call an "artist"--for example, they argue that professionals are making too many poor movies, paintings, videos, and other forms of popular art just to appeal to people's money rather than a true sense of deeply felt "high art." And that such artists actually are just craftsmen and craftswomen who make money by capitalizing on artistic trends. However, this has always been true. In the past, poor storytellers and mediocre singers would go from village to village, telling stories of fairytales and of works of art like the Iliad and the Odyssey to audiences that could read neither the written word nor notations on a sheet of music. In those times, poor copiers of great paintings would copy them onto simple pots and baskets in order to make money. The only difference between then and now is that as the audience and money for art has increased, so have the number of poor copies of art developed along with good art. 

In addition, as has happened throughout the ages, good art is not always recognizable in its initial setting of time and place. It is useful, perhaps, to remember that many works of art were not recognized as such--or were recognized as merely of entertainment value only. Among such artists are Shakespeare, Dickens, and Van Gogh; works of art such as Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky; and art forms such as plays, rock and rap music; and comics as graphic novels. All of these historical patterns will continue to be just as true in the future of the arts, with a similar percentage of the population--and a much larger number of individuals. Often, what seems today's simple leisure-time entertainment can develop into tomorrow's great art.

What does all this mean for future artists? The situation is, at once, encouraging and troubling: encouraging that great art can continue following new and even radically different forms; however, troubling for artists who want to make a living from creating art that may or may not be saleable. Being an artist will continue for many to be a precarious profession. In addition, there will long continue to be some who are successful enough to be full-time artists, some who can only be part-time, and some who will make no money at all. Popularity of the artist--with or without quality--is only part of the reason. Other reasons may include whether an artist's creations must wait until a future generation to be recognized as excellent art, whether the subject matter (rather than the artistic qualities of a work of art) is appealing or unappealing, and a number of other qualities.

However, what is clear is that more people are making more art with each new step forward in society in leisure time, and as a result, society has a larger number of excellent artists and art productions from which to choose. If the history of art and artists in society is any guide, this will continue to happen as society itself becomes gradually wealthier for purchasing art and/or with more time on its hands for creating and collecting art. And with this increase in wealth and time will come an increase in the importance of and respect for the artist and his or her product in our society.

One of the ways in which the profession of being an artist is changing has to do with both the increased number of artists and the greater acceptance of (and financial payment to) artist. With more artists and more money for them, professional artists are, increasingly, forming groups to help encourage and solidify their place in society. There are many professional organizations of artists, now from national to local levels, much like professional guilds for the different types of workers were started in late medieval ad renaissance times by middle class craftsmen and middlemen to improve their lot and share knowledge. Similarly, some artists' organizations, such as in the Hollywood, work together to establish pay levels for themselves; and some organizations, such as many local and regional painting and writing organizations, develop seminars and courses for community members developing their artistic abilities.

In addition, more artists than ever are collaborating on works of art, especially in fields such as theater and its offshoots of movies and TV/video programs where there always has been a certain degree of collaboration. Even now, for years, SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and film’s National Board of Review provide an award for “Ensemble Acting.” Two great examples of this are Crash with Don Cheadle and Sandra Bullock, and (before such awards were given) Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, both of which had a large number of popular and well known actors in their time. How much of their acting was interactive—among them as actors and with the director—especially when well-known actors sometimes are given more freedom to develop their lines and action? Likely, as more ensemble performances are developed and the authoritarian rules of auteur vs. actor become richer and more subtle group interactions, instead—when practice for performances becomes more social event than rigid production—we will see more interactive art develop among artists. We can see this trend, too, in rap music when one artist is "featured in" another artist's video. It also exists among the teams of digital artists who, together, create animated films. In addition, the tradition of collaboration between editor and writer has long been important in the world of fiction writing, as have collaborations in popular music between singer and songwriter, singer and backup musicians, and singers in bands that collaborate to create and develop their songs. 

Collaboration does not mean a loss of quality, just a greater variety of quality--and with more artists working, collaboration becomes a greater possibility or even a greater need to making money and sharing it. Artists are working together more, imagining combinations of different art events and activities, and becoming, in general, more social than they were able to in earlier centuries when there were so few of them. As a society, too, we are becoming ever more social, ever more knitted together, and artists are engaging in this future trend, as well.

One final condition of the future for professional artists relates to the use of immersive, five-sense holographic art that someday will develop. Artists developing such art will, increasingly, need to be ever more attuned to--but also resilient regarding--emotional and physical sensitivity. How many senses--and how intensely--can an artist evoke in holographic art before an audience becomes uncomfortable? How much can the artist himself or herself stand to develop without going crazy? What will happen in society (and to artists) engaging in edgy five-sense holographic art? What limits will society create, especially for art that invokes "forbidden" feelings and experiences? 

And one final warning to artists, and perhaps to all of those who want their art raw and untamed, is the rise of two other classes of professionals: art organizers and art critics. The organizers are those who make a living leading arts organizations, museums, musical groups large and small, and arts events. The critics often are newspaper, television, and online journal people who critique art. In the early part of the 21st century, most of these people are, or have been, artists themselves, and so they are sensitive to both the tastes of the art-buying public and the sensitivities of artists themselves.

However, as the profession of art increases in number of people and the amount of money that changes hands, both leaders and critics may become a business class of their own with ever less knowledge of what artists actually do. This has already happened, for example, to much of higher education, in which leaders are no longer former teachers but rather a professional class of businessmen and women.

As this happens with art, art will become increasingly money-oriented with less attention to high quality and innovation. One already can find phrases relating to this: the "music industry," "Broadway hit makers," "Hollywood," and similar money-oriented business groups.  On the one hand, the future of art does, in fact, depend in important ways on organizations bringing more more wealth to artists. However, on the other hand, a good future for art also must often rely on small, groundbreaking, stereotype-upending artists--as individuals and in small groups--for art to flourish best. While large organizations can help bring more money, they also can make art more about money and less about creativity. creativity.

Interactive Art

"Interactive art" is art that interacts with its audience. One example is of actors and actresses who talk with their audience during a play. Another example from literature is of children's story books that require readers to fill in the names of characters or other parts. Interactive video is a third example.

"Interactive art" is art in which the audience interacts with performers or the work of art itself, thus affecting the outcome:

1. audience interacting with 
2. performers or work of art 
3. affecting results

Interactive art is relatively new in the world of the arts. There always have been performers such as magicians and traveling performers who have involved audiences in their performances. But only in recent historical times have critics of the arts seriously continued discussion about whether interactive art is true art.

Is interactive art true art? Can a play, a story, or a video display be considered true art if someone has fiddled with it other than the original artist? Is not such art really more like a craft or game instead, or just an exercise or experiment--not real art?

These questions are important not only because more art is becoming interactive, but also because they help us define some of the deepest meanings of what art is and how it is perceived by by a person. In addition, questions about interactive art may very well define some of the great battles in art of the future--battles that younger generations of artists are only beginning to fight now. This is because those who define art also often decide who will get the money and freedom to work as an artist. If interactive art is not considered a true art form, some of our best creators of this art form may find themselves unable to continue serious work. Interactive art may be, in fact, one of the most important forms of art to be fully born in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In a way, it is possible to argue that all art is "interactive." Take a painting, for example. Doesn't a painting require the eyes of the viewer to perceive the colors, lines, and shapes of the painting. This leads to many interactions of subatomic particles of light traveling between painting and viewer.

However, this type of interaction involves only the first of the three parts of our definition above. Only the viewer is doing any real interacting. The painting is not reaching out to the viewer in any way.

It is more arguable that the sculptural arts are interactive. We walk inside buildings, stroll through flower and rock gardens and smell or touch things, and we touch sculpture if at all possible since it is meant to be experienced by touch as well as sight. We seem to do all kinds of interacting with the sculptural arts.

However, these types of interaction still involve only the first of the three parts of our definition above, even if we do use more senses than just sight with the sculptural arts.

The stage arts often are thought of as the place or occasion for more truly interactive arts. Actors and actresses sometimes will talk to audiences and listen to them. In some stage performances, especially, perhaps, history plays, comedic routines, and performances of magic, audience members actually are invited up on the stage.

Another art form, 3-D movies and books, is similar. It is still developing. In the latter part of the 20th century, 3-D movies still were a specialty niche with narrowed, claustrophobic image size and only semi-consistent 3-D in any one shot or scene. It also worked better on nature or strong depth-of-scene shots than on close-ups of people. However, soon after the turn of the century, digital technology made 3-D movies much better. They are becoming increasingly popular. In the future, we may see the development of theaters with physical effects, as well—seats that rock, tilt, and vibrate—movies that already exists in some theme parks and even in one- or two-person “ride” machines in large malls. At least one theater also has experimented with delivering smells to audiences. We’ll likely also someday have tasting and touching devices in theaters. What if such devices, along with current experiments with multimedia art—such as a sculpture with music and videos—were added to museums, musical performances, and even TVs? Homeowners could change smell, taste, and touch cartridges just as they do now for printer ink. Ultimately, the technology will exist for plugging wires from our holographic TVs into nodes on our bodies. When that happens, our entertainment centers may be our own brains, with wires to them downloading all of the images of a work of art--using all five senses--directly into our heads.

Yet it is still arguable that such interactions are not fully interactive. The audience does interact directly and immediately with the performers and the work of art. However, is the result or outcome of the work of art really affected? Almost anyone could be chosen from the audience; the role is already firmly set for this audience member, and he or she is in no true way the creator of a part of the work of art. Even so, this kind of play, this kind of work of art, is defined as "interactive art."

Newer forms of art that are more fully interactive have risen in recent times. The electronic age has brought them. We now have wildly colorful video programs that are games with various developments possible. We have light display units and flexible sculptural units (e.g. a series of closely gathered pins) that react to the touch, warmth, or shape of people's hands. We have painting or drawing sets and story making books that allow for an infinite number of possible developments. Someday, if three-dimensional transmissions--holographs--become more common for TV, computers, and videos than two-dimensional video-screen monitors, we will have TV, computer, and video pictures that we can actually walk inside of and participate in.

For example, there is a scenario often used by hard-science fiction Nebula Award winner Jack McDevitt. He explains how "videos" will become holographic movies in which a viewer can choose to view his or her 3-D movies (a) in the  traditional way or by having a character change to look, act, and speak like oneself or another person the viewer knows; or (b) with the viewer placing herself into the action, seeing it from a character's position in the events and hearing her own voice deliver the actor's lines. McDevitt's scenario of 3-D use with external or internal insertion of oneself likely will cause a significant shift in our people interact with their art: the options will elevate love of art both because of the thrills it delivers and the safe exploration it allows. This, like McLuhan's revolution in thinking from oral to visual, likely will create a revolution in thinking from merely oral/visual to an immersive five-senses version of thinking, imagining, and dreaming. 

What about interaction between artist and audience in the actual creation of a work of art? This may be harder to foresee. The time-honored division between formal audiences, who want to hear or see great art by an individual, versus leisure audiences who just want to have a good time probably never will disappear. The traditional, formal nature of high art developed by one person (or a small group of them), which is then presented to a mostly passive audience, probably never will disappear. However, other forms of truly collaborative art likely will develop. Someday, for example, will thousands of people join online, individually, to play their clarinet, trumpet, violin, or guitar in a mass online concert for an audience of millions? What would happen if hundreds of non-professionals took turns creating a work of art online or in person, one stroke per person, or if dozens took turns providing a new chapter or new paragraph to a developing novel? Artists already are experimenting with such art collaborations.

However, the more common interaction between artist(s) and audiences may develop more as Charles Dickens-like scenarios. Dickens famously wrote many of his novels in serialized form, one or two chapters per month, for penny magazines. He often would not write a new chapter until he’d received responses about the previous one, which led him to introduce new elements of plot, character, and description for the next chapter based on reader comments on the most recent. Producers of major movies do this now, using test audiences to first determine what works not just for endings but in other elements of a movie. This has always happened—mid-process input—among some highly-social artists and their friends, especially in the critical reading of short stories, novels, and scripts by writing clubs.  With financial and aesthetic incentives so important and with people becoming increasingly more social, could we develop sculpturing clubs, music-writing clubs, and group-painting clubs?


In conclusion, all these new influences--electronic arts, the professionalization of the arts, and interactive art--may radically affect the future of all the arts. The changes likely will unfold slowly over decades or even centuries of time. These new influences may redefine the nature and meaning of the arts in important ways. At the same time, increasingly larger numbers of us will have more frequent access to the fine arts. Hopefully the 21st century will be a time when the arts can become readily available not just to people in the richer countries, but also to all people throughout the world.


Exercise 1

Write down your favorite kind of TV, computer, or video art. Why is it your favorite? How does it make you feel and think? What would it be like to see it or experience it in person--describe the sensations.

Exercise 2

How do you think your parents or grandparents viewed artists--people who said they were painters, writers, musicians, etc. How do you view them? How do you think they should be viewed in the future?

Exercise 3

Write, in rough-draft form, one or two pages of notes or directions for an interactive stage play, holographic computer program, or written story or video with multiple possible endings that you would enjoy creating. Briefly write an explanation of why you set it up the way you did.

Exercise 4

Write down three or four other types of art discussed in this book that are, in your mind, the most interactive of the art forms. Explain in a sentence or two how or why each may be considered interactive.

Exercise 5

What would you like to see in the future of art in society? What would you like to see in the way of new forms of art or further developments of old forms? Write a half page on each question.

Textbook URL: http://www.umn.edu/home/jewel001/humanities/book/0contents    
Most Recent Revision: 17 July 2015
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 1987-1996 by Richard Jewell.
Contact the author: www.richard.jewell.net/contact.htm.