As galleries and museums, churches, opera houses and concert halls around the world remain shuttered for months in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 there has been nonetheless an explosion of art, music, dance, theatre and every conceivable combination thereof – and all of it is on our screens.
Our screens have brought us art (and its sometimes less respectable relative, ‘entertainment’) since their inception. Indeed beyond movies and TV, born in the bosom of the video screen, the proliferation of computer, Internet and mobile device has meant a steady migration of art with a perfectly respectable ‘real life’ into our projection theatres, our homes, our cars and even our pockets. Predictions of screens causing the inevitable demise of live performance, live gallery-hopping and theatre-going in the face of the ease and economy of home consumption, like the similar accusation leveled at recordings in their time, have appeared exaggerated and even quaint – perhaps until right now.
COVID-19 is endlessly compared to past larger, global-scale pandemics, and though indeed there are virological, epidemiological, and economic similarities to be drawn with the Spanish Flu and even the Black Death it stands alone in outbreaks of its scale and penetration in having emerged in the modern world of media. No aspect of our professional, political, social and personal lives stood untouched by media before 2019’s novel coronavirus, and none could expect to survive a major disruption unchanged by the impact on those media.
What ‘happens’ to art when it is placed in the box? Borrowing an aspect of the virus that has lately placed it there for many of us and despite its decades-long path, it is still inherently novel. To those of us who love art, and indeed also those for whom it is a curiosity, we feel well that distant and costly works of genius, skill and inspiration can be shared so simply and inexpensively in our lives, especially while darkened by confinement, fear and suffering.
Yet we understand that transmission of an art work, as in René Magritte’s most famous painting, is not the work itself, it is a representation of the work mediated by the act and mode of transmission. Self-evident in visual art this is no less true of music, especially so often stored and shared through the skeletal mp3 audio file format.
It may mostly be understood that art shared electronically is not like ‘seeing/hearing it live’, as we apologists for live art love to point out – but for many is it nonetheless ‘good enough’? In The McDonaldization of Society (1993), sociologist George Ritzer suggests that in the latter part of the 20th century the socially-structured form of the fast-food restaurant became the organizational force representing and extending the process of rationalisation into the realm of everyday interaction and individual identity. Ritzer was commenting mostly on us and our society, but I ask, is not also necessarily in evidence in our relationship with art?
Like many of my colleagues I have been active during quarantine in the production and diffusion of music and media intended to fill an acknowledged vacuum, but I am occasionally troubled by wondering how long that vacuum will persist, filled with increasing competence and success through the miracle of technology. Whenever ‘normal’ returns, might we find our art remains comfortably, cheaply and eternally ‘in the box’?