marcus westbury

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When boundaries become blurred

March 24th, 2010 by marcus


IT USED to be simple. Professional artists made high-quality works and punters bought tickets, bought paintings, turned up at shows and generally showed their appreciation. Now the boundary between amateur and professional – between creation and consumption, between artist and audience – has become incredibly blurred.

Both the National Endowment for the Arts in the US and our own Australia Council have recently released audience surveys that show the same thing. One trend is surging above all others: the internet is growing almost exponentially as a tool for creative participation.

It is becoming both the most significant means by which the public are engaging with and exploring the traditional arts and the fastest-growing means of creation and distribution of new art and creativity itself.

The passive audience is dying and the traditional idea of the professional artist may be going with it. The main-stage professional and the suburban amateur are crossing over. Take the expectations of audiences as a starting point. Once the onus used to be on an arts company to provide background material and educational resources to bring the audience up to speed. Today this material is everywhere.

Self-education is a powerful tool. A quick Google search for a fringe festival show I saw in Adelaide last weekend gave me the option of looking at thousands of reviews, comments, listings and discussions – not to mention a few social media recommendations from friends. For a classic work with a sense of history, the internet is like Brodie’s notes on steroids. It provides not only a broad overview, but the chance to delve deeper into specific angles, controversies and obscure areas of interest.

Of course, a little knowledge is also a dangerous thing. The downside of the internet is that it is full of factoids, context-less bits of knowledge, self-perpetuating myths and often-repeated mistakes.

Yet there is no escaping the fact that arts audiences are increasingly demanding a much higher level of engagement. They want more than to simply see a show. They want the behind-the-scenes story, the narrative, the drama, the process. Projects such as the website allow fans behind-the-scenes access if they pay for new recordings and compositions. Everyone from avant-garde companies to reality TV shows allow the public to select material, curate shows and choose cast members.

The line between amateur and professional is dissolving. Once upon a time you could draw the line financially – if you got paid, you were a professional; if you didn’t, you were an amateur. Today it’s not uncommon for people who consider themselves amateur crafts people, musicians or photographers to be selling their work around the world while many professional artists still struggle to make a living.

Once I would have been surprised to find someone who had written something that had been reprinted in a foreign country, made something that had been sold internationally or done something that had been reported in an overseas newspaper. From amateur young creators who are technologically savvy, I increasingly I expect it.

It’s not about technology, it’s about distribution. Distribution is cheap, as is sharing knowledge. Finding audiences is cheap. People who would have once laboured in obscurity are now connected to networks of customers and feedback. Your grandma may have knitted beautiful things but today it’s just as likely that her grandson is crafting beautifully designed cards and selling them online, all while working as a lawyer by day. It may not be for the purists, but this surge of creativity and participation is an unambiguously good thing. Creativity is a part of the human experience. It is something we should all strive to do. A society with a strong culture of curiosity and creativity will always be healthier than one full of passive consumers and a creative elite.

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