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The vanishing visibility of physical culture and what this means

ByReuben Fox McClure

Apr 24, 2018

The technological advancements of the 20th century brought with them an overhaul in the way culture was created, received and distributed, with change being marked in very visible tangible ways. Different decades are immediately synonymous with specific objects of culture: vinyl records, VHS tapes, MP3 players each act as the icons of its era’s cultural sphere.

Our era, however, is perhaps to be the first characterised by an absence of physical and visible culture. Our art, music and film are not consumed as a public, physical phenomenon, nor can modern culture be associated with specific objects and places. The Guardian recently ran an article discussing Netflix’s “new world order” as a creative force within the film industry, a steamrolling rise to power that threatens to shut the doors of physical cinemas. Alongside a host of other streaming services, Netflix’s success in its domination of TV and film entertainment has granted it the resources to be a prolific financier of high cinema. The catch, however, is that Netflix refuses to allow the films it finances to play in cinemas — besides its premiere, a film with Netflix financing it won’t make it to the big screen. The verdict on this radical shift is polarising. Whilst the ordinary film fan is empowered by having the often pricy affair of regular cinema attendance reduced to a simple subscription, cinephiles see Netflix’s actions as plucking the lifeblood out of the art. By removing film from its rightful home on the big screen, cinema is allegedly severed from its intended form.

A similar phenomenon of absence is looming in the art world. Earlier this year, The New Yorker met with American artist Sandford Biggers who spoke of the risk of declining gallery attendance as social media, specifically Instagram, becomes the platform of choice for viewing art. Meanwhile, another inadvertently anti-gallery movement is similarly developing on the other side of the easel. Through such platforms, artists of all status are able to virtually exhibit their art to a huge scores of art aficionados and most importantly, buyers. By exclusively using the internet as the means through which to sell their art, aspiring artists are able to circumvent the established system of expensive gallery fees and high commission rates. Instead artists deal directly with the buyer, and, by doing so, leave galleries devoid of the very content of their existence. Like the films financed by Netflix, the artworks themselves still actually exist. What is changing, however, is the the culture that receives them; artwork of all types can no longer be physically found in the public domain. Film and art have become private experiences, leaving the cinema and the gallery empty.

What are the implications of this movement of culture away from the physical and the public, if any? A more established case study is that of the digitalisation of music. The technological shift and digitisation of the medium has seen the disappearances of both the album and the notion of owning music, alongside the obvious removal of physical music from the mainstream. Criticisms of such a change, however, are more often than not sentimental in nature and ignore benefits of digitalisation such as convenience and greater accessibility for artists. Crucially in this instance, the shift has and does not have dire implications simply because the particular relationship between music and physicality is a consumer choice. Alongside the digitalisation of music has risen a complimentary appreciation for physical music, as seen in rekindled interests in ‘old’ mediums such as vinyl. As such, the way we experience and enjoy music effectively remains the same.

This is in contrast to the shifts occurring in the art and film worlds, where it is the wider public who are deprived of the choice of being able to embrace culture as physical. Materialism does have its value; we are physical entities and the relationship between art, physicality and essence can be discussed at length. Social media doesn’t stop people enjoying art just as Netflix doesn’t stop people enjoying cinema, and there’s great weight to the claim that 21st century democratises culture by pulling it away from the physicality that can be hidden behind ticket booths and gallery walls. As has aways been, the flux of culture continues to surprise, but an awareness of its causes, be it the bottom line, the unrelenting march of technology, or simply mere human preference, is a bold reflection of what that culture actually means to us.

Image: Amy Vaughters via Wikimedia Commons

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