In his book, Interactive Excellence, Edwin Schlossberg writes that as artists created new works of art, they were forced to teach the audience how to use and enjoy them. Comparing an artist's product to an inventor's, the author comments that oftentimes the creation comes before any need or use for it. Alexander Graham Bell needed to create an audience for his inventions, so he searched for a way to sell his concept to an audience. He strung a telephone line from New York City to Philadelphia, put telephones at a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and broadcast the concert through his new invention. He tried to make the medium of the telephone an extension of the theater.
At that time the audience had not learned to value immediate contact with distant people. It was unimportant for people to communicate with anyone outside of their immediate locale, and so the telephone had very little purpose in anyone's daily life. Not enough people could imagine the need for an instrument of communication nor comprehend its place in daily life. It took the acceleration of events-- the introduction of electricity in homes and the affordable automobile-- to create a context in which people thought immediate conversations would be useful.
It can be said that even today, audiences are slow to change with the introduction of any new technology. "Educating the audience to fully use and appreciate new technology is often the last thing inventors consider. Even being aware that an education process is needed is usually not in inventors' minds as they rush to share their new creations."13 Schlossberg states in his book that he believes an audience needs to have a purpose for what is presented to them, otherwise the production of new creations will not become part of any popular culture.
Consider the playwright Arthur Miller's statement on popular acceptance of art: "I think it is true to say that for the most part as a nation we do not understand, we do not see that art, our culture itself, is a very sinew of the life we lead. Truly, we have no consciousness of art even as it has changed our tastes in furniture, in the houses we buy, in the cars we want. Only when it is transformed into things of daily use have we the least awareness of its vital functioning among us, and then it is only as its by-products appear in the most plain aspects of its usefulness. As an example, even while abstract art is gazed at without comprehension, if not with hatred, its impact upon our linoleum designs, our upholsteries, our drapes, our women's dresses, our buildings, our packages, our advertising-- these uses or misuses are quickly accepted without a thought.14 "The Playwright and the Atomic World" Written in the late 1950's, Miller's apprehensive look at popular culture is not unlike those of the critics of the 1990's.
So how then does a great culture recognize great works of art? How can a new movement of art or a unique style of music or new fashion of design become accepted into people's aesthetic sense of art before it becomes entrenched into the more profitable commercial designs of the products they own? In order to realize the answer to these questions, we must understand that culture is created by the relationship of audience and performance, and that excellence often proceeds popularity.
A small audience, one that is contemporary with the creation of the cultural work or artifact often defines excellence, and this new work slowly becomes popular as it is advertised or reviewed. Once on display, word of mouth and reliable reviews attract more people to experience it in performance. Today, a vast network of artists and producers creates excellence, all of them people who operate the media in some way, to an audience that is truly gigantic. Without ever having to leave one's home, audience members are able to create excellence by accessing cultural events by watching TV, listening to the radio, or logging onto the Internet. Electronic neighborhoods, forums in which a large number of individuals can meet at once on TV shows or on their computers, express their views and shape excellence from their easy chairs, never once needing to pay a ticket price or getting reservations to witness anything at all.
The growing number of books, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television and cable stations and websites have made the need to go out to learn and explore less desirable. Live performances of artistic events, while consistently produced, have suffered from lack of viewers, and they can hardly compete with the domestic comfort of home events. The growing isolation of the audience, a phenomenon in which individuals witness artistic events by themselves or in small groups (like their families), is having an impact on our social climate and is changing popular culture in ways which even experts may not accurately be able to report.
An accurate view of culture must come from people sharing their views about events with each other, by experiencing events together, and interacting to a certain degree with what they experienced. The failure to meet in larger venues hampers the assessment of particular events, and a clear picture of what is good and bad gets clouded. Fads become the rule these days it seems, for a style or fashion can not last long enough or be experienced by a large enough demographic group for anything to last long enough to be widely acknowledged.
As a result of the isolated experiences of cultural events at home, there is hunger for community. Public events have now become opportunities for people to learn from each other as well as from the performance. The need to express one's feelings or respond toward what is viewed seems more evident in today's movie theaters than it ever has before. No longer can we sit silently during a two-hour motion picture, but we have to hear the vocal remarks and utterances of audience members who feel the need to interact and disrupt our passive viewing of a cinematic event.
The vital need to interact in a public theater, just like the responses that one feels must be made while viewing TV at home, have become more common occurrences than ever before. Attention spans seem much shorter, and one's need to break the silent monotony of an enjoyable film must be done by sharp-witted jokes or remarks, which break the concentrated flow of the story being watched. The need to get a drink, buy some popcorn, make a phone call, or go to the restroom is an ever growing tendency in today's movie- going experience. This is caused, it seems, from the habits created at home when commercials come on the air, or the "pause" button is pressed, halting the playing of the rented video so that people can attend to other personal needs.
If the experience at a public event does not enable audience members to learn from one another-- if each member of society is isolated because they are getting most cultural events at home-- then there are no opportunities for audiences to improve their ability to appreciate one another, as well as the works presented. For this reason, Schlossberg believes that "audiences are not getting better as audiences."15 One possible explanation for this changing behavior rests in the need to recognize that the context of the relationship between audience and performance has altered, and one's own home has taken the place of the concert hall or public auditorium.
Communications technology, such as the telephone, has historically connected one person with another. Now with television and the Internet, one person can talk to literally millions of others. This change of context has affected the way we communicate with one another, and because of this, the presentation and style of communication have also changed. In the past, someone giving a public address would affect many people in a public square or auditorium. His voice would be expressively loud and emphatic, trying to reach the many listeners who gathered there to hear him talk. The audience sensed how effective the address was by experiencing the crowd's response to it. Now, alone in the living room or study, one can't know if what was said affected only oneself or was moving to many. An audience which senses another's presence while experiencing a live event, or talking to one another during an event about what is being seen, is to a degree an interactive experience.
While software companies and Internet providers promote new and exciting (and costly) interactive programs, and we see children playing their interactive games on the Internet, online interactivity is still an isolated activity, for the consumer playing at home is still alone. Although he may be playing with many people from all over the planet, he still is alone in his comfortable environment, where he is in control of the event.
The greater need for interactivity needs to be shared in public venues where many people may reflect and react to what they are experiencing. This type of public interactivity strengthens our culture in the arts, while computer interactivity merely changes the way we classify it.