Will our children read books? Is European culture doomed? Will all the arts reach us via a screen? n
Sunday 09 April 1995
In fact, five years before the millennium, and despite the advent of multi-channel, 24-hour TV and multi-screen movie theatres, it can be said that only two cultural forms have decisively ?? how do you die undecisively?died in the last 100 years - music hall and the letter - and the second of these was killed not by television but by the telephone, before, in the strange way of these things, being somewhat restored by the invention of the fax machine. So the cultural story of the 20th century - an epoch of electronic invention and mechanical radicalism - has, unexpectedly, been that of the durability of traditional and, particularly, printed forms.
Therefore, looking forward, we should be aware of pessimism's poor record at the betting shop. The book, for example, seems as obvious a candidate for redundancy now as it has since the middle of this century. Where people once assumed that tele-literacy would finish reading, they now point to computer-literacy as the executioner. Yet the book, to an extraordinary degree, has made an accommodation with its visual rivals.
The majority of Hollywood projects derive from novels: often trashy ones, it is true, but British television has consistently raided the classics library and now, bizarrely, so does Hollywood: with Wharton and Alcott TICK already on screen and Austen and Hawthorne to follow. And not only do movies and television series descend from books but, almost routinely, they return to them. Nearly every screen product has its tie-in book, whether the source text or a specially commissioned softback novelisation.
The simultaneous presence in the current bestseller lists of a book of W H Auden poems quoted in a movie didnt that particular book collection follow movie quote? and Quentin Tarantino's script for one of his films suggest that the reading instinct - the desire for the viewer to follow the visual experience with a print one - is even more tenacious than it appeared. Both are examples of viewers going out of their way to find a tie-in.
The threat to the conventional book in the 21st century is, though, subtly different. Where the first challenger was alternatives to reading, the current one is different ways of reading: CD-Rom, computer disk, Internet, recorded books. The smart money would bet that the standard home or library reference book is going the way of the D-for-Dodo, simply because new technology can make information more visually appealing. But, with regard to fiction, it seems a reasonable assumption that the portability of the standard book, and aesthetic feel that established readers still have for it as a product, will confound pessimism in the next century as it did in this one.
Writers, however, will need to be aware of the increasing range of forms in which their work can be exploited, either by themselves or by others. Writers will need to think - in a business if not a creative sense - not just of readers, but of scanners, down-loaders, viewers, listeners, accessors. Current concepts of copyright and marketing - particularly the cosy Net Book Agreement, which fixes British book prices - will have to be adapted to these new ways of reading.
The arts most vulnerable to change, at least in Bntain, are television and theatre. This is because both depend on artistic state subsidy: a political idea which must be regarded as highly unlikely to see out the century. The effect will be the increased commercialism of both television and theatre, with both becoming more and more like the current American models. The casualties will be new theatre writing and the riskier classical repertoire and high-quality television journalism and drama for a general audience, although the latter ??LAST? or last two? may survive on cable subscription to the middle classes. The rise of television in the 20th century may not, as feared, have killed the book, but the rise of television in the 21st century will kill television, at least as the British have known it.
The visual arts are perhaps the area of culture most vulnerable to change and fashion: in no other discipline is the sense of "movements" so concrete. If the 20th century has been the story of modernism and post-modernism, then the question is what post-post-modernism will be. In literature and theatre, there has already been a return to conventional narrative, but an equivalent prediction for visual art - a comeback for traditional representation - is complicated. Painting is another of this century's slightly unlikely survivors - many thought the camera would bring down the shutter on it - and its successful coexistence with photography may in part have been achieved by an insistence on the possibilities of abstractionism and deconstruction.
With regard to the tone and concems of culture, the present century has been the one in which the European voice was drowned out by the American voice: most notably in cinema, television and fiction-writing. The next century, it seems likely, will be the one in which the white American voice is superseded by the non-white American voice; black and Hispanic particularly. In removing American art further from its European roots and shared concems, this may have the effect of reducing American domination of European culture and reviving the homegrown product: a development which European political union may also advance.
The 20th century, as we have seen, was startling for both the emergence of three new mass cultural pursuits - television, cinema and computers - and yet the survival of the existing ones. This is the big question for the 21st century. Do we now have our full cultural hand? Might it expand further? Or will there be a shakedown, a showdown between old and new?
n The average Briton watches 25 hours 45 minutes of television every week.
n During one three-month period in 1993, 33% of the population went to the cinema, 19 per cent to the theatre, 19 per cent to a museum or art gallery, 8 per cent to a pop concert, and 7 per cent to a classical concert or the opera.
n Up to half of the world's 6,000 languages are no longer being learnt by children; by 2100, there may be as few as 300 left.
n 88,780 books were published in the UK in 1994, compared with 57,000 in 1988.
n There were 114.4 m admissions to UK cinema's in 1993 compared with 65.7m in 1983. 242 new films were distributed in the UK in 1993.
n In 1985-86, 1,590 students began university or polytechnic creative arts courses (including dance, drama and music); in 1994, 6,300 did.
n Writers should either study copyright and contract law or engage an agent who is well up on them. The ways in which owners of basic written material can be screwed are ever-increasing.
n Writers and artists should try to resist producing works on millennial themes. There are already several thousand in the pipeline.
n Consumers should hang on to their books. If the conventional reading- device is replaced, books will rise in value both as rarities and when the inevitable retro-chic revival occurs.
n Consumers should also save up their money. The price of reading will come down, but the cost of opera, theatre and television-watching will rise as subsidy recedes.
n Consumers should have children. If the new viewing technologies prove as opaque to the older generation as the video recorder did, you are going to need help.
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