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Art & Perception -The Death of Culture in the 21st Century?

By Dr. Richard Niles

We’ve all heard that old Buddhist question that goes something like: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Those Buddhists were hip but I have another question for you: If a tree falls in the forest, and everybody hears it, but nobody knows what a tree is, what will they think has happened?

When artists create, they do so assuming/hoping that others will relate to their work and understand it in the way that they meant it to be understood. They rely on the existence of a culture they share with their audience—a common ground of history, literature, art, film, music, science and technology. But artists today face a ‘dumbed-down’ culture. For many years the public has been culturally undernourished by the educational system. Instead of Shakespeare or Eliot or Mozart or the Beatles, many are brought up on a diet of sensationalistic press, movies with a high body count and ‘reality’ TV.

With the music business selling generic and highly processed ‘product’, it’s highly unlikely for a truly innovative new artist to get heard at all. But if they do (on the internet), here are some 21st century questions for creative artists: If you create a work of art that is supposed to look like a hippo, and the audience who sees it has never seen a hippo, or indeed any animal of any kind, what do they see? Did you actually create a hippo or what the audience when it sees your hippo?

This raises the question of aural and visual language. Must an artist share that language with their audience in order to communicate? What can a contemporary artist do without a shared common ground? The Beatles broke new ground and created new forms by blending disparate elements in a new way. Yet they were able to make themselves accessible to the public because most people shared their references. What shared references exist now, and what scope do they give the contemporary artist for sophisticated creativity?

What can an artist do if the audience doesn’t understand their language? How does an artist cope with an audience who constantly use the word “like”? (As in, ”And, like, Justin was, like, there and it was, like, awesome.”) My 10-year old son asked a girl in a supermarket for “dessicated coconut” and she said, “WHAAAT?”

And does this situation make it necessary for artists to seek out their niche audience and be satisfied with working towards the goal of earning a modest living – because the masses have never seen a hippo?

Richard Niles standing next to a hippo.

And how many artists themselves are working without knowing of the great innovators of the past? What can a bassist achieve today if he has not studied Ray Brown and James Jamerson Eddie Gomez and Jaco Pastorius? What kind of lyrics can a songwriter come up with if they have not studied Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell?

As always, I’d be fascinated to hear your views and your experiences.