Can the Arts go digital?

Lydia McKelvie | Staff Writer

As a self-described extrovert and major museum-lover, the idea of social distancing has been more than a little challenging to wrap my head around. Not only am I stuck inside for the foreseeable future, I’m also stuck in my hometown, which has little to offer in the ways of arts and culture. So, I’m attempting to answer this question out of necessity: Can the arts go fully digital?

So much of our daily interactions are being turned digital. Of course, there has been an ongoing process of digitizing and individualizing entertainment for years. The expansion of streaming services has caused countless institutions of live entertainment to attempt live-streaming in order to compete. This digitization has not been without resistance. Broadway theaters, for example, have been much slower to pick this up, resulting in hundreds of bootlegged full-musical videos posted online by avid fans. Even in the wake of this crisis, Broadway shut down and cancelled performances, as opposed to the Metropolitan opera, which is offering free live streamed performances.

Much of this resistance stems from a fear of becoming completely obsolete in a digital world. If the performance is digitized and available anytime to anyone, what makes it special anymore? What I would ask instead is this: Can the live streamed performance replace the real thing? Can it account for the experience, the extravagance, the electricity of the live performance? I would argue that it cannot. There is nothing quite like getting all dressed up and going to the symphony or theatre or opera live. There are acoustics specific to the space, there is an energy specific to being in the same room as the performance that the recorded version cannot capture.

However, that is not to say that the digital cannot have a place in performance art. It can be instrumental to the pursuit of accessibility in the arts. The fact is that not everyone has the means or ability to attend these kinds of performances live, but they still want to interact with this type of art.

Museums around the world are also trying to recreate their experiences digitally, with the hopes of increasing viewership and accessibility. Google Arts and Culture, for example, is a platform which hosts hundreds of museums’ collections and street-view style digital tours. However, what is special about Google Arts and Culture is that it is not just trying to replicate the in-person experience, but it is expanding on it by using tools specific to the digital medium. It offers online interactive exhibitions, incredibly high resolution images for up-close viewing and specialized guides to museums’ collections that would not be available in a usual museum setting. Is it the same as going to a museum in person? Of course not. Nothing really replaces seeing the art in person and experiencing the curator’s vision for the works as a group. However, that does not mean that the digital experience cannot be fulfilling in itself. Each experience has strengths and weaknesses specific to their different purposes.

I believe the arts can go digital, but we have to accept that they won’t be the same. This does not necessarily herald the end of the traditional artistic experience. If anything, it could be the beginning of a new, more accessible and interactive age in artistic engagement. However, I truly believe that people still want the in-person interaction with arts institutions and that they know there is something special there. Besides, in times like these I am grateful that we are in this digital age and that I can continue to engage with the arts, even while socially distancing.

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