Folk art in the digital age
Another way in which our notions of authorship seem to return to a preindustrial state in the digital age is through the re-emergence of a folk art mentality, as described by Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks:
People have always created their own culture. Popular music did not begin with Elvis. There has always been a folk culture—of music, storytelling, and theatre. What happened over the course of the twentieth century in advanced economies, and to a lesser extent but still substantially around the globe, as the displacement of folk culture by commercially mass produced popular culture. The role of individuals and communities vis-à-vis cultural artifacts changed, from coproducers and replicators to passive consumers. The time frame where elders might tell stories, children might put on a show for the adults, or those gathered might sing songs came to be occupied by background music, from the radio or phonograph, or by television. We came to assume a certain level of “production values”—quality of sound and image, quality of rendering and staging—that are unattainable with our crude means and our relatively untrained voiced or use of instruments. Not only time for local popular creation was displaced, therefore, but also our sense of what counted as engaging, delightful articulation of culture.
This is far more easily seen in the performing arts than in the written ones, as writing moved into the realm of commercial production via the printing press much earlier than music or other performance did via radio, television and the movies.
Benkler emphasizes the power of folk art to critique cultural messages and suggest alternatives, to point to the damage Barbie does to girls (and boys) in their developing understanding of gender and femininity, and to provide alternate models and conceptions. I’d push a step beyond this to say the act of authorship, creative engagement with an art or craft, can provide more than an important platform for the disputation of cultural message, but can also fundamentally alter what is possible for us, individually and as a culture, to perceive and discuss in the first place. One goal for the OADA project is to develop this theory of authorship further.
Finally, I do think it’s worth calling out an important difference between traditional and digital folk art—reach. Traditionally, folk art reached a small number of people in the immediate environment of the artist. Wider projection was a function of influence—lyrics and musical styles were passed from performer to performer, and the widest possible reach depended on the widest possible adoption of influence. The focus was on the performance, the act, rather than the “product” in the sense of a recording or a lyric attributed to (and copyrighted by) any individual.
In the digital environment, “folk art” can have the same reach as mass media. Nonetheless, digital folk art, at least at present, seems to have similar temporal and influence-based underpinnings as did traditional folk art, but with the possibility for influence and interplay on a global rather than local or regional scale. This interplay is affected significantly, however, by the ownership regimes developed to support the industrial information economy—in particular by copyright.