In his article “The Age of Mass Intelligence” (Intelligent Life, Winter 2008), John Parker makes what should be an obvious argument, but is one that runs contrary to popular opinion: that the information age has actually made us more informed. The tagline reads, “We’ve all heard about dumbing down. But there is plenty of evidence that the opposite is also true. Is this, in fact, the age of mass intelligence?”
Thanks to widely distributed media, and most of all thanks to the internet, “the masses”—that’s you and me—have access to more information than ever before. Consequently, the distinction between high and popular culture is increasingly artificial. One can download Bach just as easily as Eminem. (And many of the same people do both.) Classic literature, far from being the exclusive province of those who can afford expensive books, is available in cheap hard cover editions and for free download. (See also: public libraries.) As a culture, we may kill a lot of time watching Youtube videos of cats, but more and more of us also partake of substantial fare. While privilege remains a powerful force, and disparities in the US educational system can scarcely be overstated, those of us currently drawing breath are, on the whole, more educated than any prior generation. Along with the vacuous diversions we create and love, we consume and generate more high art and discourse than our grandparents or theirs. And we commonly use our access to information to cultivate an eclecticism of aesthetics and ideas that used to be exceedingly uncommon. In short, this is the best time that has ever existed for ideas.
In case you don’t believe me that more people are taking in more elements of “high culture” than they used to, allow me to quote Parker:
Consider these straws, all blowing in the same direction. In 1999/2000, there were 24m visits to Britain’s biggest museums. In 2007/08, the figure was 40m. Between 1999 and 2001, Britain scrapped entry charges, so the increase is partly attributable to that. Still, it was a lot of people. And another factor is the popularity of blockbuster exhibitions, such as the Terracotta Army show at the British Museum–which are seldom free, so scrapping charges cannot be the sole explanation. In most of the great cities of the West, museums now dominate the lists of most popular tourist attractions. More people go to the Louvre each year than to the Eiffel Tower; in London, three museums–the Tate, the British Museum and the National Gallery–each attract more visitors than the London Eye.
In 2006 the New York Metropolitan Opera started an experiment to reach a new audience. It began transmitting opera performances live to cinemas. In the first year it broadcast six productions to 98 movie houses in America; 325,000 people watched. The second year, it transmitted eight operas to 935,000 people. This year, there will be 11 productions, 850 cinemas in 28 countries and a forecast audience of 1.2m: roughly 100,000 people per show, compared with just 3,700 at the Met itself. A few dress up in finery. Many more stood outside in Times Square, New York, this year staring at the digital displays that usually advertise Panasonic or Disney, watching the Met’s opening-night concert.
In spite of these observable trends, we seem strangely blind to the current naissance. (To say “renaissance” would be to deny the unprecedented nature of the moment.) In fact—while in this college town it is also hard to avoid snarky chatter about “overeducated” young people—one hears much about the disintegration of the intellectual fabric of our society: the failing public schools and the prevalence of inane reality television. Certainly, we need to put more of our resources where our hearts are by increasing funding to schools and arts organizations. But this bleak attitude is incongruous with other real changes occurring before our eyes. Even in our moderately sized community of mixed means, and in this economic recession, we can see evidence of increased cultural engagement.
I should admit that I have a particular perspective on this. For several years, I have lived and worked in downtown Columbia, which puts me in a position to witness the trends Parker traces in his article. I have worked at Ragtag Cinema, which is an independent theater and high-meets-popular culture venue if ever there was one. (Ragtag screened the Met performances mentioned above on the same nights as some very silly pulp horror flicks.) In recent years, it has grown from a hole in the wall to a bustling complex that has become a downtown staple. Now I work at PS:Gallery, which occupies a prominent corner of the North Village Arts District—an area that was derelict warehouses a few short years ago. These institutions did not spring up organically, of course. They are the result of the vision and persistence of dedicated people. But they also could not exist without an audience who appreciates art.
I have heard it repeated that a fixed percentage of the population—something like 10 percent—takes an interest in art. I think that quota is, at worst, based on snobbish assumptions, and is at the very least irrelevant in what Parker has termed “The Age of Mass Intelligence.” To be clear, it’s not that people are actually smarter than they used to be; it’s that increased access to information is breaking down cultural barriers, resulting in unprecedented cultural heterogeneity.
This has a few implications for an art gallery and its patrons. First of all, to anyone who remains on the fence: Art is not for people with more credentials or cash. It is for you. Whatever your perspective, you have something to add to the discourse. And secondly, this is a really good time to see art. There is so much generation, and so many fresh combinations of ideas.
The mixing of high and low, old and new, is prominently on display in the PS: autumn exhibition: M.W. Mantle’s oil paintings-cum-Polaroid snapshots; Jimmy Dahlquist’s mixed media sculptures created from the refuse of modern life; Joel’s Sager’s collaged interpretations of nostalgic items; Notley Hawkins’ high-art photographs of junk and carnivals. It’s right here, right now.
So stop watching those cat videos on Youtube, and join the discussion!