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Reflections on digital technology, government and the loss of cultural space to entertainment.

by Jose Latour, about 3 years ago

The problems that Canadian culture confronts, in my opinion, are identical to those that the cultures of many other countries meet head-on. One issue that almost everyone accepts but it is insufficiently explored, or never mentioned, is that numerous forms of entertainment have displaced and occupied a huge part of the space that literature, the arts and classical and neo-classical music, opera and theatrical productions occupied a hundred years earlier. To provide a rationale for that point I find it necessary to (1) extend the analysis beyond Canada and (2) go back in history.

In the late 19th century, in numerous countries culture consisted of literature, music, painting, theater, sculpting, and ballet.

Access to culture, however, was very limited. In continents such as Africa and Latin America, and in vast areas of India and China, 90 percent or more of the population was illiterate, so works of literature were read only by the educated. Spectators in concerts of mostly classical music, the opera, and theatrical productions were a small fraction of the residents nearly everywhere; the U.K., France and Italy were exceptions.

The concepts of entertainment and culture blended, except in sports and racing.

Soon after, advances in optics gave birth to photography and cinematography, visual arts now. Scientific work on the propagation of electromagnetic waves resulted in radio broadcasts. Sound recording made grow by leaps and bounds the popularity of music and opera. Television transformed entertainment.

The cultural world today, its challenges and its future, are inextricably linked to digital technologies and impacted by entertainment. Numerous forms of entertainment have displaced and occupied a huge part of the space that literature and the arts and classical occupied a hundred years earlier.

Limiting the definition of reader to a person who is literate, it is undeniable that at present the world has more readers than ever. The world population is 7.4 billion whereas in 1900 was 1.6 billion. According to UNESCO, only 758 million adults over 15 are illiterate. But it may be fair to ask two burning questions that nobody I know can respond.

What percentage of literate people would rather read a book than play videogames, participate in social media, watch or practice sports or watch movies and television? How many young, literate people would attend a Beethoven concert when the same day, in some close by venue, a famous celebrity will sing and do acrobatics for two full hours surrounded by scantily clad dancers as multicolored lights revolve and plumes of smoke occasionally erupt?

If it is true that the vast majority of literate people prefer that sort of activities, or watching games and movies, to reading books, we could try to guess what reasons have caused that displacement. Perhaps some are technological, others monetary, and whether or not publicity and advertisement are factors to be considered.

Money is not a good measure of artistic merit. But practically everything has monetary value and in market economies numerous professionals are paid according to how profitable they are, including authors, singers, actors, athletes and performers such as conductors, pianists, violinists, etc. Doctors and nurses, teachers, policemen, firefighters, et al are exceptions. Failing to examine the role of money in the present state of cultural topics could make this reflection lacking.

In the decline of reading among literate individuals, money doesn’t appear to be a problem. The majority can afford the price of most books; public libraries loan them to those who can’t buy them. In fact, books are inexpensive if compared to the prices of tickets to concerts or sports events. The quality of the fiction published may turn off some readers.

The works of deceased literary geniuses doesn’t seem to form part of the syllabus of secondary schools in most countries, which may be one factor of the decline of readership. Rarely are new editions of their titles published and marketing is inexistent.

EBooks don’t seem to be a discouraging factor. Many who learned to read in physical books find the screen difficult, even abhorrent, but most ebooks are also printed in hardcover and softcover editions, so at present ebooks have little or nothing to do with the decrease in the consumption of literature. On the contrary, probably ebooks attracted young readers as much as J.K. Rowling did with her Harry Potter series.

Epublishing, in contrast, has the potential to be as disrupting to traditional publishing as digital technologies have been to the print editions of newspapers and magazines. A few good-selling authors have declared their intention to only publish their new works in digital form for as long as advances and royalties for conventional books remain at their current levels. Some authors who had never published books in printed and bound paper have found fame and made considerable money epublishing their works. Defining long-term as 25-30 years into the future, it seems possible that the majority of books will be epublished by then.

Concerning classical and neo-classical music, museums, ballet performances and theatrical productions, one could compare box-office revenue. An example may give us a clue.

In 2016 Hamilton: An American Musical, the second most acclaimed show in Broadway history, grossed 89.5 million from January to November 13. The football team New England Patriots played 18 games in the 2014-15 season and its net revenuewas US 523 million. An average of 29 millions per game. In 3 games that team registered more net revenue than Hamilton’s gross throughout ten and a half months.

On a planetary scale, if someone could add to football’s the net revenue of professional basketball and baseball teams in the U.S and the net revenue of hockey, soccer and rugby teams, boxing promoters, car racing and other sports in the entire world, in terms of money sports would defeat all cultural expressions in the world by an incalculable rate, perhaps 1,000 to 1.

That is why a small number of athletes make 20 million per season and 20 million more in endorsements, but salaries between 5 and 15 million per season are par for the course.

Certain actors get paid 10-15 million and some have made two and three films in one year. Criticism of this reality often overlooks the fact that for millions of people in Canada, and for billions in the world, the price of a ticket to a concert of classical music or a ballet performance is unaffordable but the price of a ticket to watch a movie is not.

Some popular television comedies pay actors one million per episode; a season has ten episodes. A few comedies have carried on for ten seasons.

Maybe only a handful of authors of books ―in the J.K. Rowling league― average one million dollars year after year for ten or more years, including money coming from movie and television adaptations of their work. The most prestigious award a writer can be presented with is the Nobel Prize for Literature. In monetary terms, the Nobel is US$1.2 million. We don’t see writers endorsing shampoos or perfumes so maybe not one makes money from endorsements.

Researching the box office receipts and net revenue registered by concert halls, museums, opera houses, ballet and theater in just one country is extremely time-consuming and would make this paper excessively long. If others could do it we would have a better idea of the monetary dimension of the displacement from culture to entertainment that has been happening for decades. But even without supporting statistics, the displacement is an irrefutable and irreversible fact.

Perhaps the role of publicity and advertisement is more important than we realize. The publicity and advertisement campaign for the last Harry Potter book started six months before release date. It was amazing. I had never seen such a media blitzkrieg for a book. Probably the cultural impact of J.K. Rowling in increasing readership, like the number of copies sold and the profits publishers made, have no precedent.

Nowadays, the promotional budget of a movie that cost 100 million to make probably comes to half the production cost when what worldwide stakeholders spent in local promotion is added up. If a publishing company advances $200,000 to a good-selling author for a novel, perhaps it spends between $30,000 and $50,000 in promotion. First time authors get advances between 10-15 thousand and the promotional effort used to consist of sending free copies to critics and keeping fingers crossed.

Even the publicity campaigns of new titles by best-selling authors are minuscule if compared with the money spent in the promotion of sport events, movies, television shows, etc.

Government support or the lack of it can accelerate or retard cultural progress. Creating ministries, hiring staff and passing laws and directives doesn’t create culture; they are factors that can make a contribution to their evolution, or obstruct it.

All governments confront financial limitations and culture is not among their first priorities, nor should it be. National security, education and healthcare, infrastructure and economic growth have higher priority than culture. It seems that most writers and artists understand and accept that, but not all.

National, federal and provincial governments in numerous countries channel some of their financial contributions to culture through non-profit organizations. It seems, however, that in North America and most of Western Europe the private sector dominates the cultural sphere. Since businesses must be profitable, measuring how lucrative a work of art is the first consideration; its cultural importance, in many cases, is not the deciding factor.

The prejudices of many of those in the arts and in literature prevents them from grasping that business, after science and technology, is probably the third most important force that propels mankind forward. Among businesspeople, the perpetual search for higher profits makes them overlook or deny the social consequences of feeding cultural garbage to the masses. But that contradiction is irresolvable.

The possibility of government-owned publishing companies that publish low-priced editions of past masters could be studied. But public publishers must not publish living authors. The reason for that restriction is that, inevitably, in many countries, states and provinces, conservative ministers of culture will discourage the publication of the works of liberal or progressive authors, and liberal ministers will discourage the publication of works by conservative authors. Although thinly disguised, literary censorship has happened in the past and will happen in the future if the conditions for it are created. Privately-owned publishers, on the contrary, will publish whatever sells. University presses seem to strike a middle course and as such should be supported.

Pumping more money into privately-owned publishing companies and non-profit organizations would be a positive step. But some sort of supervision should ensure that the bulk of the resources that each company or organization receives ―60 to 70 percent― go to projects submitted by creators and the remainder to office staff and management. It seems as if in the past the proportions suggested here were reversed.

Another idea worthy of exploration is to clearly say how some money is to be spent. For example, if two millions are assigned to National Ballet of Canada the donor should demand that one million is to be spent inviting, paying for roundtrip transportation and providing snacks to children under 15 living in poor neighborhoods whose parents cannot afford to buy them tickets to go to ballet performances. That suggestion could be extended to opera and theatrical productions.

This paper is nearing the 2,000-word limit I imposed on myself. Others will decide whether some of its considerations are useful or if it is total garbage. I want to thank Access Copyright for asking authors to send their opinions as writing this unburdened me of a lot of worries and ideas that had been at the back of my mind for many years.

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