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One of the highlights of Cannes this year was a sparsely attended event at the UK Pavilion. Film-maker and critic Mark Cousins offered a typically personal and eclectic look at the story of film, drawing in influences from post-impressionist art to mathematics, writes Michael Gubbins.
In a year in which industry discussion has so often slipped into defensive and protectionist posturing, Cousins offered a fascinating view of what makes the art of film so great.
In a section on the cinematic in painting, one image stood out: Paul Cezanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire. It’s not just that its much-studied technique retains its emotional power but it the image was also a reminder of the dynamism and optimism that came with a period of technology-driven change at the turn of the last century.
French writer Charles Peguy suggested in 1913 that: “The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last 30 years.”
In the few short years, technology had revolutionised the way that many people lived and thought; he probably had in mind the defining breakthroughs in science and mathematics of Einstein, Planck, Curie, Rutherford, Freud, Poincare, Hilbert etc, or the beginnings of mass production(Ford), or mass reproduction of sound and vision (Lumiere brothers, Edison, etc).
From the artistic perspective, in Peguy’s home town of Paris alone, the end of the 19th century laid the foundations of modernism in film, architecture and art, with the flowering of new ideas and fresh techniques from artists of all kinds, including Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Matisse, Guimard, Lautrec, Atget, Perret, Stravinsky, Diaghlev, Melies and Gance.
The case for the marriage of art and technology during the period is well made by critic Robert Hughes’ 1980 series The Shock Of The New. He makes the case for a single creative movement, in which a critical factor was the changing relationship between people and product, and between audience and art. The Paris Metro and the Eiffel Tower still stand as public monuments to that era.
Artistic movements explicitly explored the change of audience perception of images in an age of mass-reproduction, photography and film.
A DIGITAL EPOQUE?
The idea that a new wave of digital technologies can, and will, instigate a new wave of creative genius to match the Belle Epoque has been around for more than a decade now.
Certainly, the Internet is at least as significant as those 19th century disruptive technologies, and breakthroughs in nanotechnology, GM food, genetic engineering, etc may have even greater long-term effects. Consumer designs, such as the iPod, have of course made their mark, while the unmanned drone demonstrates how far the military still drives innovation.
And yet it remains hard to identify the art forms that are truly native to the digital era: in other words, where are the ‘isms’ that define the digital epoch?
Such observations do not necessarily imply a diminution of the creative potential of humanity. It is worth noting that the creativity of the early 20th century was often based on a teleological belief that there were perfections that could be reached. The same creative forces also helped the flourishing of ideas, such as eugenics, fascism, bolshevism, etc and it is now clear that untrammelled industrial growth and a fetishisation of technology has had consequences for the whole planet.
The experience of the 20th century’s Age Of Extremes, and a retreat from the idea that humanity could or should, control their environment, is perhaps a necessary barrier to the driving ambition and creative innovation of 100 years ago.
Equally, comparisons with 100 years ago are dangerously focused on Western culture, and on white, male, bourgeois Western culture at that. The vast majority of those living at the turn of the 20th century would have had little sense of the artistic zeitgeist and would have not necessarily have recognised to much beauty in the Belle Epoque.
Creative dynamism is a driving force today beyond the borders of Europe.
THE DISTRIBUTION REVOLUTION
Nonetheless, there is a strong sense that the artistic potential of the Digital Revolution has yet to be awakened, and has certainly not been fulfilled. Instead, we have seen an astonishing Data Revolution and a rapidly emerging Distribution Revolution.
Both are presenting similar challenges: how does business, government and humanity cope with the proliferation of available content? The amount of data created today is so large that scientists are having to think up new terms to express them and the continuing accuracy of Moore’s Law, suggests that the amount of data produced daily today will look miserly in a few short years time. The challenge for so-called Big Data is how to turn data into practical knowledge.
Data is a challenge for film and media too but the bigger short-term problem has been the dramatic transformation of distribution, in terms of consumer access to content that is now beginning to turn into challenging patterns of demand.
The European Audiovisual Observatory suggested at Cannes that there are now now 3,000 EU-established VOD services of all kinds, with 447 dedicated to film, and 60 US services. LoveFilm claims to offer 70,000 video and games titles.
From the position of established industries, this explosion of content represents a big challenge. The media industries, and certainly film, have been established on scarcity models not anytime, anywhere demand. (See Michael Gubbins’ Digital Revolution report).
At Cannes this year, there was considerable anxiety expressed at a range of conferences about the impact of ‘fragmented demand’, release windows (media chronology), the possible threat to ‘cultural exception’ and ‘cultural diversity’, the decline of DVD, and of course piracy.
Each in different ways is about the negative implications to business models of increased demand. The Distribution Revolution and a democratisation of access has become institutionally defined as a problem to be managed, even if the underlying reality is that consumer demand for film and media as a whole is increasing.
Yet logically, this increase in access ought to be the start of a great creative drive. That was certainly the case a century ago, with film and photography being obvious examples.
Some clues to the necessary change in attitudes are offered by a report on the development of the creative economy in the UK (Bakhshi, Hargreaves, Mateos-Garcia).
Launching the report, co-author Professor Ian Hargreaves, of the University of Wales Cardiff, suggested that there had been a disconnect between creative ideas and business and technology companies. talked about a “standoff encouraged by that by what we lazily call creative content companies and technology companies.”
Speaking at the same event, Lord Puttnam bemoaned a “lack of vision” in universities, which were producing students who had had the necessary culture of creative questioning “battered out of them.” Creative revolutions must be about matching creative thinking and the technical resources to bring them to life.
The change of approach championed in the report will have to overcome more obstacles than skills and education, not least established industrial practices. Music, film and many other creative industries are marked out by a value chain, which sets out distinct and separate roles for production and distribution.
That does not need to be the case but the traditional production processes remain powerfully resistant to change, not least because the old ways of working have at least been able to be fashioned into workable (if increasingly flawed) business plans.
The language itself can be a psychological barrier with terminology locked into 20th century analogue categorisation of art (such as film and television) and sometimes subdivided into dated hierarchies, such as ‘arthouse’.
The promised great democratisation of art in a digital age has been both underestimated and overstated.
There has of course been a revolution in the number of people creating content that somebody, somewhere will see. YouTube claims that 72 hours of content is uploaded to its site every minute.
Social media has created opportunities for anyone to add to the vast oceans of commentary. Andy Warhol’s idea that we would all be famous for 15 minutes now seems hopelessly 20th century.
And yet there remains a gulf between user content and (to borrow an old Marxist phrase) the “commanding heights” of commercial and cultural success.
There is an argument, of course, that no one wants to storm the gates of power these days. The days of the content ‘gatekeepers’ are over and we can define our own routes to markets and audiences. Some even talk of a “fifth age of storytelling”, which will redefine the relationship between audience and content.
And art was generally commissioned or bought by a tiny elite of the rich and powerful in business or government. There are signs of cracks in the edifice, not least in the emphasis on ‘audience engagement’ and crowd sourcing.
Crowdfunding is a useful example of a growing consumer trend, whose potential has been significantly boosted, rather than invented, by the web.
There is nothing new in producing art by voluntary public suscription (rather than tax-funded support), from war memorials to the public appeals that have maintained and renovated public buildings, such as churches and museums.
It is reasonable to speculate that crowdfunding will work better in the US, as a means of circumventing the market to ensure some kinds of content is made, than in much of Europe, where public funding can support a greater diversity of content.
The point is that democratisation of access, and the stimulation of active (and interactive) audiences, should help change attitudes towards art and culture.
There are political, commercial and industrial barriers to overcome first but it is a fair bet that if new art forms do emerge, it will be when the gaps close between participation and performance and between audience and product.