Davos08: Conversation v. performance

Last night, I got to go to a cultural dinner with a dozen artists scattered around the room: pick your person, pick your medium. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was at the table behind; Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, writer and director of the wonderful film The Life of Others to the left; theatrical artist Peter Sellaras to the rear; musician Peter Gabriel limping (on a broken foot) from over there.

I grabbed a chair at novelist Paulo Coelho‘s table because I’d heard some of his story of interacting with his community of readers at DLD and wanted to hear more (and I’ll call him to write a longer post soon). I was having a ball but then the dinner shifted to presentations from the artists, starting with Catterina Fake, who showed how she enables art from everyone on Flickr. Some of the talks were good, some weren’t.

What really struck me was the contrast between conversation and performance. Of course, we value performance from artists. But given the opportunity to converse — on a blog or at a dinner — we have a richly different experience: probing, questioning, responding, learning. Is conversation art? Well, of course it can be. I don’t mean to say one is better than the other, but once the artist stands before an audience, it can become an act of showing off. It becomes, almost by definition, self-conscious.

Now clearly, artists can’t afford constant conversation. But note that more and more, artists are using their art to promote their appearances — note Madonna’s new representation deal that puts concerts first and Peter Gabriel’s argument that pirated CDs are marketing for concerts. It’s not just a matter of economics — the record business falling apart — but also of a new relationship between artists and fans, who seek more of a personal touch, more of a relationship. Coehlo, in return, also seeks a relationship. That is why he blogs.

In an era when media, including art, are becoming dominated by the internet, we need to recognize the impact of the idea that the internet is less about content and more about relationships. Is art at its heart content or a relationship, a conversation?