Seminal pieces of data-driven art like Google Dream's Dogs can make you nauseous, and artists should learn about money from research scientists. These were among the insights that emerged from a recent heated discussion on digital and the arts at the Serpentine Galleries.
The roundtable of 30 people, ranging from prominent artists and art institutions to private companies, was convened by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to kick off a public consultation on government policy for digital and art. (Conversation hashtag #cultureisdigital.)
Fault lines were quickly found along the role of artists in a world obsessed with startup culture, the longstanding challenge for artists to justify funding, and disruption in the arts versus Silicon Valley.
Almost every established company now pays some form of homage to the success of Silicon Valley. Whether sending hapless CEOs to coding camps, investing in early stage startups, or pushing programming processes like AGILE into inappropriate places, not all succeed. As a result, many in the arts remain wary.
“The culture of Silicon Valley churns out products where ‘done is better than perfect’,” one participant said (the event was held under Chatham House Rules). “But we cannot turn artists into product machines.”
The conversation evolved into a version 2.0 of CP Snow's Two Cultures. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture described a cultural chasm between those literate in science and those literate in the humanities. Today’s clash, “Snapchat versus the humanities”, pits the linear production approach of Silicon Valley engineers (“Solve it, ship it”) against the more organic creative approach of artists and the arts. An engineer’s problem-solving can be hard to reconcile with an artist’s critique.
Long before custom selfie filters, however, artists and cultural institutions have struggled to justify budgets. The funding problem, one artist suggested, revolves around the timeframe for success. Instead of quarterly or annual outcomes, she said success should be judged in line with her latest project, which has a 100,000-year timeline.
Another approach is that instead of perpetually struggling to show the value of the arts, artists should take on board the insights of behavioural scientists like Daniel Kahneman on loss aversion. Research around loss aversion shows that people value not losing five pounds more than they value gaining five pounds. To that end, the question should be posed as to what happened if the arts were not funded?
The greatest consensus in the room, however, fell around admiration for Vannevar Bush’s achievement for modern science with his "Endless Frontier" report to Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. The report galvanised politicians, popularised the term "Basic Research", positioned science as vital to national interests and is credited with driving a tenfold increase in science funding from the 1940s to the 1960s.
"Ever since that report and updates to it, basic research science has had steady support," one arts administrator said, with more than a touch of envy. "It was one of the few areas where funding did not drop, even during the financial crisis."
The arts today, it was generally agreed, need a Vannevar Bush.
The most heated part of the discussion, however, came around the topic of disruption.
A core tenet to the Silicon Valley gospel, disruption must be good, right? But disruption means something quite different to businesses and artists.
Business disruption follows Clayton Christiansen's Innovator's Dilemma, where a new technology or technique undermines the established way of solving a problem. In undermining old, big industries, Silicon Valley creates new, big industries that risk turning into modern monopolies: Uber for transport, AirBnB for hotels, Netflix for online films, etc.
For artists, disruption challenges the establishment, with the aim of holding a jarring mirror to society and “putting it to the man”, as one artist put it.
“If the world is defined today by open source and partnership,” the artist added, “shouldn’t the pursuit of artistic disruption today be the opposite of collaboration?”
Yet if art defines itself by the extent to which it challenges society, palette-wielding Silicon Valley CEOs may soon be elbowing their way in for government arts funding. Mark Zuckerberg's application could argue that Facebook is a massive piece of performance art built to support his Warhol-like manifesto, declared in 2010: “Privacy is dead.”