Technology and the culture of perpetual entertainment

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 6:33pm

Sammy Sussman

Sammy Sussman Buy this photo
Sammy Sussman

In my last column, I focused on the way that technology is changing the artist’s role in the performing arts. These changes are significant and seemingly irrevocable; just as the performing artist of the Renaissance barely resembled that of the 20th century so will the performing artist of tomorrow barely resemble the performing artist of yesterday. 

Less pronounced, but more significant, are the changes technology has brought about in the expectations and desires of contemporary audiences. Technology has changed our structural expectations for the performing arts. With these new structural expectations come other expectations about political association and cultural nuance.

Internet culture has inexorably changed structural expectations for the performing arts. Just as the average listener today would have no appreciation for the structural ingenuity and variance of Gregorian chant, so will the audience of tomorrow have little patience for the structural ingenuity of the performing arts of the 19th and 20th centuries. The instant gratification of the Internet leads audiences to enter performances with unrealistic expectations as to the rate at which artistic events will evolve.

The best example of this are Vines. The idea that a complex humorous statement can be made over six seconds is farcical at best. Vines train audiences to expect an instant joke instead of a complex cultural statement. Complexity and ambiguity give way to structural necessity as the restrictions of the six-second structure transform the very artistic statement itself. Humor that was once based on satirical criticism gives way to insignificant jokes based in absurdism, and the greater cultural lexicon suffers as a result.

Twitter is another great example of this phenomenon. Messages with 280 characters are now considered standard vehicles for complex public discourse. The ambiguity of a Shakespearean play, for example, gives way to the clear-cut rage of a 3:00 a.m. tweet by the Commander-in-Chief. Audience members expect the arts to conform to the simplicity of thought to which public discourse conforms. The performing arts are forced to simplify their message as a means of meeting these unrealistic meta-structural expectations.

On a purely structural level, performances today compete with audience members’ phone and the simple, instantaneous gratification that these devices bring. Performers and creators are forced to generate spectacles that match that of the Internet. Performers and creators are forced to increase the frequency of these spectacles to the point that they are more entertaining to the audience than the minute-by-minute notifications of the virtual sphere. Modern audiences cannot be expected to sit for a four hour Wagner opera as they could in the pre-Internet era — the few opera companies that attempt this feat use grand sets and flashy costumes to keep the audience’s attention.

Without sounding too much like the archetypical older person questioning the lives of younger people, I do also think it is important to question the changes in attention span that the instant gratification of the Internet induces. Is it important to be able to sit for two hours to watch a play? Are subtle aspects of the human condition lost when we all expect to be entertained every moment of our day? Personally, I find that there is something fulfilling about separating from technology for the length of a performance — I transcend my role as an incessant consumer of information to that of a questioning observer of information. But these are my beliefs and I am sure that there are countless others who disagree.

On surer footing, however, I can unequivocally propose that the most immediate result of this structural and meta-structural change is our modern obsession with political overtones and underpinnings of the art we consume. 20th century ideals of artistic merit and of evaluating art based purely on its artistic value have given way to the perpetual culture wars between liberal and conservative. Art that was once subtle and ambiguous is overtaken by art that is obvious and bold. Art that confirms one’s own beliefs is valued over art that forces one to question one’s own beliefs.

The modern audience member is constantly bombarded by the 24-hour news cycle. Technology allows for a micro-analysis both of performing artists and politics that were previously unachievable. Inevitably, the news cycle turns to the performing arts both as a means to generate new content and as a means to generate interest from those who have sworn off politics. In an era where art can be boiled down to a Tweet or a Vine, simplicity and nuance in a political message are discarded in favor of bold, obvious messaging meant to affirm the beliefs of a certain political sector.

Kanye West and Taylor Swift, for example, are two of the most recent examples of performing artists that entered the political arena. Both were criticized for doing so by their political opponents and praised for doing so by their political affiliates. And rather than receiving the vitriolic negative response that West suffered after his infamous “George Bush hates Black people” comment, both experience an increase in popularity. Swift’s previous avoidance of politics, furthermore, has made her entry into the political arena all the more poignant. On social media, fans hailed her entry into politics as long overdue. They expect Swift, along with every other performing artist, to produce political content.

The simplicity of this political content is quite astounding. Neither artist used their entrance into the political arena to generate any nuance in the national political dialogue. Neither artist used this entrance to achieve anything save an affirmation of the beliefs of a large swathe of America. In a sensationalist media landscape in which politicians and public figures are described in gladiatorial terms — “President Trump Slams ‘Gutless’ New York Times” or “Obama Unleashes on Trump in Speech” — the urge to view politics as merely waging the next battle is in this never-ending war is overwhelming.

And yet many Americans speak about the failures of our two-party political system and the winner-takes-all mindset it produces. If the 2016 election represented anything, it represented the rejection of the conventional two-party system. Technology and its extremely short narrative structure prevent us from seeing past our narrow culture wars and engaging with the performing arts as a means of questioning our own beliefs.

The performing arts are not meant to constantly entertain us or provide us with useful fodder in reaffirming our beliefs. They are a vehicle for discussion and questioning. The performing arts are meant to make us uncomfortable. They are meant to help us transcend the limitations of our own worldview and empathize with others; to agree with those with whom we would assume we disagree and walk along pathways of thought upon which we have never ventured. And this, I fear, is what is ultimately at stake in technology’s introduction into the performing arts.

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