The grey space in the middle that will define the 21st Century

David Bowie speaks to Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight (1999)

Pop icon David Bowie, 11 years ago speaking about the internet as the biggest opportunity, and the worst imaginable nightmare, in the 21st century.

According to David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016) a new demystification process between the artist and the audience is taking place. From his unique perspective as a British pop singer-song writer, he sees it all starting to come un-wound in the mid-1970s. A few years after his break-through LP Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Although he distances himself from the record industry in the interview, there is no denying that international record sales gave him the financial rewards that ultimately propelled his career, notoriety and wealth.

According to Bowie, a new feeling is permeating music and the internet (view interview time stamp: 9:30 – 11:30). While there was no pluralism about what we believed in the 1950s and 60s, now there are three, four and fives sides to every question.

Which Bowie believed showed that we are living in total fragmentation. A judgement that should not be taken as a prediction of gloom and doom, and may be better understood in terms of market economics. 

What the internet was gong to do to society—both good and bad—was unimaginable (in 1999). We are on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying. It is not just a tool.

“It is an alien life form.” Is there life on Mars? Yes. Bowie saw it as ‘just having landed’. And happening in every form of art, every sphere of life.

The break through came in the early part of the 20th century. It was manifested in the arts, for example, in Duchamp’s prescient insight that the work of art is not finished until it comes into contact with the audience. The work of art is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation (11:50):

“What the piece of art is about is that grey space in the middle. That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.”

According to the old philosophical riddle, ‘If a tree falls in the forest, but there is no sentient being to hear it… Does it make a noise?’ Creative work in the arts, work the carries a ‘message’, needs publicity and needs to generate sales.

What creative work has always been about is reaching an audience and causing a ‘buzz’, in order to ‘capitalize’ the product in a new and modern way. We can take as an example, the French Impressionist painters who came to prominence in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s.

Impressionism grew out of Haussmann’s Paris and garnered public attention in the decades immediately following the fall of the regime of Napoleon III. A new capitalist class had been created by well-off people who could invest their fortunes in the city and multiply it, collecting almost instant profits. The office of the Prefect du Seine would assemble the land, cut through the new avenues, and often line the new streets with walls without buildings behind them. Builders would then contract to build the buildings, thus completing the projects in a way that guaranteed that the uniformity of the streetwall would not be compromised. It became a marketing tool to assemble a box behind a window to make it seem from the street that there was an apartment there, with people living in it, during the time it took to finalize building contracts. Both the builders and the property owners were capitalists, seeking for vehicles to multiply their wealth. The residents who rented the apartments, walked in the new boulevards, and shopped in the new stores, were wage earners. They worked for a living and had their incomes sapped by rents and merchandise.

Into this scene in walked the Impressionists. Young, talented and rebellious, more interested in the new photography than in learning the painting traditions of the Academy. Abandoning the studio, they painted out-of-door in the ‘plein air’ where transient light effects brought on by the changing time of day would influence their choice, and challenge their skill at mixing colors. They came from all strands of society: rich and poor; urban and rural. But they all had the same aim in mind: selling their wares—which they did not succeed in doing for decades. Beginning in 1863, their Salons des Refusés  were well attended, but sold more tickets than paintings.

Yet, another engine of modern life was also turning: fashions change. And by the time they reached middle age the young painters were mostly financially well off. Later in life, they became both famous and rich. Yet, relatively speaking, it was but a small number that had escaped the orbit of living for wages. And a not much larger circle that had bought and collected their work. Of course, that audience, and more particularly their children and grand children, would greatly profit from the growing valuations for impressionist art. That too was a feature of the modern art market. But it wasn’t guaranteed. The entire cultural enterprise was suffused with an aura of uncertainty and impermanence. Collecting and investing were similarly bound up in the vicissitudes of making markets by bringing together buyers and sellers.

Supposedly the internet would be the medium via which a multiplicity of creative workers will reach an audience. The means by which buyers and sellers will meet beyond the bound so far imposed on market economies by time and space.

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