Art, the Internet, and Community

In an essay for The Globe and Mail, novelist Russell Smith discusses the plight of artists in our internet-driven world. He argues that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet does not actually level the playing field when it comes to the popularity of art. Instead, he argues, the “blockbuster artistic product is dominating cultural consumption as at no other time in history.” What he means by this is that instead of the Internet allowing for the growth of small communities that value a variety of genres and and resulting in a “diverse cultural world in which the lesbian vampire novel would be just as widely discussed as the Prairie short story and the memoir in tweets,” the entertainment industry funnels their money into guaranteed hits. While I think in some ways Smith may be right, as can be seen by the millions of dollars spent on Blockbuster movies and the continuing lack of indie movies in mainstream cinemas, I think that Smith slightly underestimates the power of Internet communities. He laments the loss of TV shows and radio broadcasts that focus on books. He misses going on book tours. But instead of TV shows, we have blogs. We have twitter feeds. We have tumblr posts. We have podcasts. We have YouTube videos. We have Facebook, and email, and online newspapers, and vlogs, and online polls, and websites. While perhaps the Internet world looks different than the one Smith is used to, it doesn’t mean that this new world hasn’t opened doors or leveled the playing field in any way. Smith’s main concern, clearly, is money. What he is really concerned about is that unless you are a blockbuster artists, you aren’t making any money. Clearly that is an important issue that needs to be addressed. But I think that in many ways the Internet has created opportunities for new artists to get noticed in a way that they never could before. One of the benefits of the Internet is that there are very few barriers to access. Anyone with a public library, or coffee-shop, or internet-cafe nearby can have access to the Internet. (Of course this is not universal access, but I would argue that it is in many ways more accessible than television,radio, or even print media.) This has opened doors for artists everywhere to be noticed. The Internet has created “niche markets,” as Smith calls them. Anyone who has ever spent  time on Tumblr, for example, can tell you that there are entire blogs devoted to books, or comics, or movies, or paintings that you have never heard of and may never want to experience. There are entire Internet communities built around particular kinds of art, and the Internet is an infinite collection of these communities. These Internet communities open doors for new artists, not close them.

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