What Art Forms Reflect the Culture You Want to See?

Yesterday an interesting video crossed my path that I ended up viewing last night

It’s a biography of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the most famous Buddhist teachers to come to the west after the invasion of Tibet. He is a major figure and yet very problematic for some people, and the film is wonderful for not shying away from the problems and yet not adhering dogmatically to any defense either.I do not study in his lineage and yet have read many of his works and always been intrigued by his practice, so I enjoyed the film very much.

For non-Buddhists or people not familiar with his work, the video may not hold that much interest, but it isn’t the main point of this post. This post stems from a single line in the movie attributed to Trungpa: “To change a culture, you must change its art forms.”

Now I don’t know if this is “True” but it resonated strongly with me. I have been variously at times a student, critic, viewer and producer not just of individual art pieces but also of various art forms (painting, writing, film and music being my main passions) and of how these forms both reflect (and create) our relationships, to culture and art, to commerce and modes of production, to society, to each other.

For instance

  • I think the swings back and forth between “folk” and “mass” are fascinating.
  • I think understanding how the introduction of cheap video cameras and user-controlled distribution mechanisms contrasted with the studio model of movie making is important to understand, as is what happened to music when the mass production of guitars (and then amplification) became available.
  • Or how radio as a means of distribution changes how we relate (to the music, to each other, to advertising and the music “business”) compared to p2p or iTunes, or how sitting in a movie theatre structures our social relations compared to sitting in front of youtube.
  • “happenings” as one of the origins of “new media”
  • Or “art in the age of mechanical reproduction” in general.
  • And on and on and on…

So the idea that to “change a culture we must change its art forms” got me thinking – what art form should I be pursuing to bring about the changes I hope for? Which made me want to ask YOU the same question – what art forms are YOU pursuing, and how do you see them reflecting or causing the changes you want to see?

There are no wrong answers, and I personally have an incredibly liberal definition of “art” and in no way want to restrict it, as so often is the case, to that which the academy or the professionals deem to be so. Indeed I accept “living one’s life” as a valid art form. So whatever form yours takes, I think it’s a fascinating question to ask ourselves, as it not only asks us to reflect on our practices but also on the world we hope to see and how the two are connected (or at times, sadly, not).

Love to hear your thoughts/see your work – SWL

4 thoughts on “What Art Forms Reflect the Culture You Want to See?

  1. sleslie Post author

    It strikes me that a few examples might be helpful too. Well here are two that really resonated for me:

    – you likley already heard about JR and the face2face project through his (IMO well-deserved) TED prize. But it was a follow-on to the original face2face project that really blew me away. I can only find this one image of the project, but in essence, when he took the idea of the original project to a village in Kenya, they said “great, we like the idea, but what we REALLY need are roofs for our homes” and so he produced the large posters in a format that could be used as roofing material.

    – the other example is from TV, of all places. But an art form is for me more than simply the end product, and it was the way in which David Simon approached “Treme” that blew me away. Instead of this simply being a show “about” post-Katrina reconstruction, it was a show “as” post-Katrina reconstruction – he made a huge effort to track down and employee local musicians who had been displaced and put out of work by the disaster, and help them re-establish their careers (and indeed just have a livelihood) by featuring them on the show.

    For my own purposes, I am trying to think through how some of the aspects of these approaches that appeal to me can play out online; what “forms” can respect the local, the individual, challenge the creator/viewer divide but not be solely critique. Ze Frank regularly provides inspiration in this regard. And possibly hints at part of the answer – that “my” effort needn’t be so couched in the myth of artist as lone actor, individual genius, but instead reflect a 21st century networked interbeing

  2. Clint

    I don’t know if this comment is going to move the convo forward as it doesn’t really answer the question as to what am I doing, but the last line in your comment triggered a memory of a couple of art projects that I think are very interesting examples of the collective power of the 21st century networked interbeing.

    The first is the 10,000 cents project (http://www.tenthousandcents.com) in which the art (in this case a $100 bill) was created by an anonymous network of workers using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. I thought this was a fascinating art project as it hilighted both the potential power and pitfalls of living in a networked world where we each contribute a small piece to something to create something larger. For me, the pitfall that this work illustrates is that, if each of us (represented by each anonymous Turk worker) are contributing to the network in the forms of comments, blog posts, likes, retweets – all those social signals and data points we create as part of our digital footprint that are being collected by others – then we are ultimately contributing to the capitalist creation of wealth for someone else (represented by the finished product – a $100 bill) AND that we are doing so without even knowing that we are doing it. To me, this is how Facebook, Google, et al work. So, I see this a a not too subtle metaphor for how wealth creation happens in the contemporary media ecology.

    The second example is the Kutiman Thru You video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tprMEs-zfQA) which is made up of found YouTube videos that are remixed to create something new – a shining example of the type of world we live in and something that would have been very difficult to achieve before. No deeper analysis of that one, other than it is a cool illustration of art created as part of being a 21st century networked interbeing :). Which might be considered an emerging art form that I get really jazzed about – networked art, perhaps?

    1. sleslie Post author

      Clint, awesome, appreciate the time it took to read this long rambling post and the time you took to reply. It does help, every little bit does, as I’m not casting about for the “right” answer, just sharing my own noodling and wanting to stimulate conversation with others. Just like this!

  3. John David Smith

    It seems to me that Trungpa Rinpoche might have asked a somewhat different question: “What do you want to say that suggests different art forms?” In some ways he himself always started with very traditional forms, like flower arranging. Then he pushed the limits mercilessly.

    And from another direction I think that Grant McCracken might suggest that conscious choice has real limits in Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, A Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football–Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). http://isbn.nu/978-1422143292 .

    I think the culturematic idea is that you try lots of “stuff” and learn from what happens. Afterward you say, “Oh that’s changed the art form.” Here’s a little quote about the retrospectoscope on p 237:

    “Think about measuring innovation as you would an investment portfolio, where you are concerned with the total return rather than individual stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. The key is not to measure each project individually and then declare victory or defeat, but to measure total investment over a period of time compared to total output. This pools high- and low-risk projects and encourages people to take canny chances.” A. G. Lafley and Ram Charan, The Game-Changer. How You can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation (New York,: Crown Business, 2008), 212.

    Trungpa Rinpoche would probably have said it very differently. But the gist is don’t fuss about falling on your face. That’s easy to say and hard to do. :-)

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