Consuming the culture

Do we have to experience everything?

Picture of a gramophone needle on a record by James Sutton from Unsplash

All over the world, CDs sales are falling (except in Japan which is a strange country of confusing contrasts between tradition and modern, tied up with this almost caricature of a knot of honor, individualism, and sacrifice for the greater good). At the same time, services like Spotify are becoming more and more popular, and — surprisingly — the production and sales of vinyl records are growing each year.

Samsung ceased the production of Blu-ray players while Netflix and HBO are expanding. Cinemas still exist (though only the big, „soulless” chains seem to prosper), theaters are doing quite all right (I’ve been hunting for tickets for one show for a year and a half now, and one of my favorite plays ever is getting full house every time it’s on). There are more books written now than ever before, and I wonder who reads them since 37% of Poles declares they read one book a year (“as much as” 9% of respondents said the read over seven books a year — my Mom with her almost four hundred books she read last year is an excellent statistical anomaly then). Galleries are running new shows every week it seems, which is great for me as I recently discovered it is my jam after all.

I won’t say anything about opera or ballet since they are not my thing. Not yet, at least.

The most successful is the youngest in the culture world, consuming more and more money, but at the same time bringing in billions of dollars. Until recently, video games, treated as „less culture”, are now the most dynamic and best-functioning branch of that culture, outperforming film and music combined in terms of profits, mainly due to the growing hardware base — ubiquitous smartphones.

It seems that culture adapts — or at least tries to adapt — to the modern viewer, wants to reach the recipient when she or he has the time to receive and assimilate this culture (however shaky the experience would be — watching Rothko’s works on a mobile phone in a crowded tram ​​would at the very least give the artist stomach ulcers, I suppose).

Galleries all over the world, not only the biggest ones, have been showing more and more interesting content for years now. New York’s MoMA, London’s Tate Modern, Muzeum Narodowe in Warsaw — they all run a YouTube channel with videos about their exhibitions, as well as processes of putting these exhibitions together, about curators’ and conservators’ work, about artists or even individual art pieces.

As limited as it can be, you can watch theatre online now there are options to participate in a growing number of plays.

Opera and ballet have their moment thanks to TV channels like Mezzo.

The other side of the coin is the temporariness of the mass media and the volatility associated with it.

In the case of theater, opera, ballet, or painting, there is no problem — theater is, by definition temporary, it’s impossible to own a play or ballet performance (even if you are the author — the script itself is not the whole play).

​​And it’s very rare that all those people with mortgages, working 24/7, and living hand to mouth every month can afford to own a renowned sculpture or painting (unless the artist is a friend).

E-books are not the problem either — you pay once, and the file is yours forever, nobody will take it from your hard drive. And it will stay yours until you decide otherwise and remove it from your hard drive or cloud, or it will disappear due to the fault of our cloud service provider. But the loss is also possible when the book is physical — we could forget it on a train, or we could throw it away, we could dump it in the bathtub, we lend it to our friends who are people too, and could destroy or lose it themselves.

It’s a very different case for games, music, movies and TV series — the most mass of all the arts.

There’s no doubt that the advantage of streaming services and storing your music, photos, or movies in the cloud is the continuous availability: ​​everywhere where there are internet access and power supply. Convenience in having that level of access to media revolutionized the way we consume them, making Spotify, Netflix, HBO, or Apple Music the staple of entertainment today (destroying rental stores and limiting the options to buy physical copies in the process). The problem, however, is the continuous availability of the entertainment offered by these services.

In the case of Netflix or HBO, you get heads-up info, what and when will disappear from those platforms. Spotify — you can’t listen to some of your favorite artist’s records or even specific tracks. Disney, on the other hand, can do whatever they want.

I couldn’t find any convincing information about how Spotify manages its library and why tracks and albums disappear from this platform. Netflix and HBO are paying license fees for the distribution rights per specific platform (HBO is still a “proper” TV channel after all). Spotify pays royalties to the artists based on the number of plays they get. Disney owns their library entirely.

But what happens when we get the craving to see or hear something that was, but no longer is available? Libraries don’t usually get rid of books, and you can still go back to our beloved childhood treasure and remind ourselves what “Summer of Moomins” was like even if it’s not available in the nearest book store.

It’s an entirely different situation with movies and music. We don’t become owners or even co-owners of anything when we pay our monthly subscription. We rent the infrastructure for just that specific moment when we need that infrastructure to send us the thing we want, and the royalties for a song or a movie are only a fraction of the total cost. We don’t own these creations, we can’t touch them, smell them, and they can be taken from us at any moment without warning.

The relatively small price we pay to access mass culture legally — is that the compromise with the temporality of that access? Is this a “facebookization” of culture — at least in terms of the mass pop culture — where everything is fleeting, for a moment, and disposable?

By buying a physical object, I accept the loss of its value, which I can sometimes recover in part by selling the things I no longer want or need (and in case of art, you can sometimes get more you initially paid for said art). By renting the service of watching a movie, I accept the fact I don’t get to own that movie, and I accept the inevitability of losing access to it the moment I pay for the service. The convenience of it all is I don’t get an object that sits on a shelf gathering dust, an object I won’t get back to in the next year of five, an object I won’t have to carry with me every time I move to a new place. But I won’t know when I’ll forever lose the ability to use it again, to share with my family or friends. On the one hand, I want to limit the amount of plastic and energy used to produce and distribute the box with this or that movie or music. On the other hand, though, the fear of losing access at any time to something I paid for is turning me into a sucker.

For the convenience of not owning things, we pay the price of not owning things.

Does the transience of culture and art in the modern world suggest they are becoming marginal and have lost their importance? Does limiting (in the strictly economic context) access to culture increase its value and uniqueness? In my opinion, the fact that in a year or two, I will not be able to see any movie from the universe of this or that comic book publisher does not make me want to see it. Do I reduce the quality of human cultural heritage by not getting in touch with parts of that heritage? Experiencing art, in any context, seems to me as a privilege rather than necessity — not everybody needs to see Agnes Martin’s works in person, just like not everybody needs to see the latest popular TV series about dragons.

Maybe there’s a value in the “disappearance” of culture? This temporary access to a series or movie that delighted me in my childhood can be a blessing in disguise. Maybe it is for the better some things are disappearing from our world? It’s a pity, though, the decisions belong to unidentified showbiz people (let’s not delude ourselves) or, what’s even worse, it’s an artificial intelligence algorithm supporting big money people. Quite honestly, I’m not suffering all that much when a show on Netflix or a song from Spotify disappears. I don’t even notice when that happens. They’re getting replaced by something else I will not have the time to watch or listen to, because I’m sucked into another black hole on YT.

Besides, I have so many books to read that I may not watch anything for years.

Or I will finally have more time to paint.

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Best dad in the whole world / Philosopher / Common sense evangelist / Product Designer @Indoorway / https://jagniatkowski.net

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