I've made it to the second round of the Art Blogging Match of Doom (ABMOD). I was quite glad to hear that at least one of the judges found me to be "right, wrong, brilliant, and infuriating." p I'm called at least two of those things regularly at home, it's nice to get the full gamut. So here is the next writing prompt:
We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?
I started out thinking about how to characterize contemporary culture. I came up with the qualities of diversity, eclecticism, and ubiquity. As I wrote in the last contest post, the Internet has provided access to so many cultural experiences that we don't even blink at the ability to see a Finnish folk singer or a Brazilian ballet. Our culture isn't local, it is global. But this diversity is not creating thousands of artistic enclaves. Instead, any given person consumes a whole range of cultural products, even within a single art form. This diversity and eclecticism is encouraged by the economics of the new digital media, that allows selling the long tail to be a viable business plan. I can sample a whole variety of poetry with little investment of my time or money, because I can locate recommendations from experts online, view samples for free, and purchase small quantities online. Heck, there is an app for that! And then I can discuss the poetry in online forums, to help my understanding and appreciation. And with smart phones and tablets, I can reasonably expect to consume my diverse cultural products whenever and wherever I want.
Once I defined contemporary culture, the next step was to show which art form says the most about it. My natural inclination was and always is to look to music. I've been trained in music from the age of four, it is my main means of fun and profit. There are plenty examples of music that demonstrate those three qualities. Despite his current troubles, Osvaldo Golijov created (with help) a work of genius in Ayre. This song cycle is incredibly eclectic, combining elements from around the world and across many genres. The ABMOD's own judge Nico Muhly is known for his eclectic approach to music as well. Andrew Bird, Björk, Bon Iver, The Clogs, Bang on A Can All-stars, all these groups defy genre labels. The pop/classical divide is not necessarily gone, but it has distinctly blurred. I can write academically about Dave Matthews Band, and be accepted by my fellow music theorists, and an opera singer can make it on The Voice or Britain's Got Talent.
There are also great examples in books and video games; theater and dance; painting and sculpture; architecture and synchronized swimming. But comments on contemporary culture, require a multi-media approach, using the languages of visual images, audio examples, and expository writing. A film character can say explicitly, "contemporary culture is very eclectic," accompanied by great examples of rap from Pakistan and hip hop version of Carmen, while eating some fusion cooking. A blog post can contain links to all these examples (watch out, I'm starting to get recursive here), and allows easy feedback from the consumer. Blogs, of course are so 2008, so Twitter says the most about contemporary culture. 140 characters to allow us to sample from a wide number of followings without a huge time commitment. Links to deeper coverage on Tumblr, YouTube, or online articles reward higher levels of interest, but with the consumer still in complete control. This says a lot about our culture.
However, I found I had serious problems answering the posed question. Art exists within culture, thus any given art form cannot act as a disinterested observer. Just as the act of observation affects the result in quantum physics, a self-aware art form changes the culture around it. And since I based my definition of culture on my knowledge of art, it seems circular to then use that same art to comment on the state of culture. So while I think social media is an art form that says a lot about the state of contemporary culture, I don't think any given form can give an accurate picture by itself. It's sort of the artistic version of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.