Thursday, 25 August 2011

Debate: The future of culture

Our popular debate series looks at familiar things that we often take for granted but which are threatened by change. Our reporter Charlotte sat in on the recent debate exploring culture, and the challenges it faces in the future. 

The participants were:

Robert Levine – Author Free Ride
Sam Leith – Former Literary Editor of the Daily Telegraph
Claire Armitstead – The Guardian’s Literary Editor
Chaired by Stuart Kelly, Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday

The Chair, Stuart Kelly, opened the debate by declaring that the entire panel agreed that there was a future for culture. 

How will creators create?

Kicking off, Robert Levine examined the culture business, its rises and its declines. In the past ten years the music business has been cut by half and film budgets have suffered dramatically especially those of small and medium sized movies. Book budgets also are decreasing as are cable TV and newspapers. Whilst online distribution is growing, it doesn’t pay well and Levine doesn’t believe it ever will.
All of these declines won’t kill culture but will change it, says Levine. New emerging forms of culture include blogs and multi-level video games but he cautions against crowd sourcing as the only form of innovation. 

The internet as a cultural medium

When Sam Leith took up the debate baton he announced that the internet is the greatest and most powerful medium for the communication of culture. He also claimed that there is more entertainment and more entertaining entertainment (yep it was a mouth full!) than ever before, citing the example of printed books as objects of beauty which are becoming increasingly valuable and not competing against electronic reading devices.
Acknowledging that music was the first industry to experience the negative consequences of the internet, Leith continued by noting that the internet is helping to revive communal TV viewing through Twitter and reality TV shows. Multi-player games are spaces for people to be creative and 3D is the next big thing. The constraints of the 350 page book or the three minute pop song no longer exist and Leith believes that ‘culture will find a way’.

The role of the cultural critic

Claire Armitstead argued that all art is an act of transmission. She said that the critic lies between the reader and the buyer, and that whilst this hasn’t changed, there is a new model emerging. Young people have an expectation to receive culture for free, often downloading music and films for no fee, and many people who download material will then write short critiques on websites such as Rotten Tomatoes.
She described a new phenomenon in literary circles called fanfiction. These are websites where avid readers of fiction develop their own storylines for established characters, and fellow fanfic writers comment on the newly created storylines. Armistead believes we are the generation of the self educated, that criticism is art and will never go away. 

Questions from the floor
The questions from the floor generated some interesting discussion. Regarding the relationship between state funding and the production of art Robert Levine called for wider low-level investment in new artists, to help them grow into success stories. Whilst Claire Armitstead believes that poetry needs targeted funding.
One audience member asked if we would ever leave our homes again in search of culture. In response Leith noted that there has been a huge return to public performance citing the recent rise in book festivals and music bands touring.
Robert Levine later commented that whilst people can make niche art and get it to an audience through the internet, we may end up losing mass culture reference points in the future. Leith said ‘the internet connects us all, our experience of community is changing’ explaining that although you may not know the names of your neighbours, you may have Skype friends in South Korea who share your interests.
To close the debate Stuart Kelly asked the panel – if you could change one thing what would it be? Levine called for investment in creating awareness around the cost of creating culture – that just because something is available for free doesn’t mean that it was free to create. Leith asked for audiences to be more grateful, to enjoy what we have and not lament over what is missing. Whilst, Armitstead called for greater investment in the education of children, because they are the future of culture.