The past five days have been Digital Learning Week here at the Financial Times. Like any business that’s trying to look further than the end of its nose, we are trying to guess the future. It doesn’t always sound like a comfortable place to be. Between gorging on TweetDeck, muttering to your Google glasses, and submitting a fingerprint to gain access to your own telephone, we seem to be heading for a fundamentally different world. A world that is good for the speedy dissemination of news and the seamless accumulation of diverse viewpoints, but not so good for attention spans and anyone with a squint.
What will the impact of this be on our cultural lives? Amid the seminars and the training sessions, I went to the opera on Monday night. The Royal Opera House was kicking off its new season with Puccini’s Turandot. It was, in the context of my week, a comforting occasion. The opera dated from 1926. The production dated from 1984. Long time-spans. There was a sense of permanence about the place. People dressed up, drank champagne, compared the voices of the protagonists with those that they had heard before.
There was a hefty tenor, a wispy slave girl, and a steely soprano in the title role. The princess’s three ministers – Ping, Pang and Pong; political correctness be damned – cajoled and cavorted with energy. None of the characters showed any signs of psychological complexity, but gave it their all. The Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura, as the slave girl Liu, did that miraculous opera thing that happens all too rarely: infused a perfectly ridiculous scenario with real feeling through her sumptuous singing. The set was spectacular, if slow-moving. The ovations of the audience were lusty and sincere.
This was a part of London’s cultural scene that we know, and some of us love. As familiar to us as the Sunday afternoon trip to the art gallery, or the viewing of a much talked-about new film, or the quiet night in to catch up with a compelling TV series. All of these require sustained spells of concentration, relative sensory isolation, and inwardly directed thoughts. The old paradigm of cultural consumption reigns supreme.
Yes, I am aware that you can watch TV and tweet your reactions to the programme at the same time (not if you’re watching good television, I would reply). And that digital art, iPad painting and the streaming of lectures are making some inroads into our cultural lives. But they are still far from the mainstream. Listen to our daily conversations: they are full of the best films, exhibitions, TV programmes we’ve seen, just like they were when I was growing up.
The odd YouTube clip crops up, as trivial diversion. But there is a palpable thirst for something more substantial. I was in a Digital Learning Week seminar when news broke of Miley Cyrus’s colourful new video “Wrecking Ball”. It was presented as an example of something that was trending off the chart. But I struggled subsequently to have a meaningful exchange with any of my colleagues on the matter. To trend is not to have true traction.
The arts need to reassess their role in society. After so many decades of basking in the avant-garde, leading thought revolutions, changing values and behaviour, forcing people to question themselves, they now have the opposite role. An evening at the opera, or the cinema, or the theatre, is where we go to escape from the terrifyingly fast-moving world that is overtaking us by the day. Culture is becoming the refuge of the digitally brutalised.
Of course no arts institution would own up to this role. It cannot afford to, any more than a journalist would admit to writing copy on a typewriter. It must try out new ways of presenting art forms, appeal to fresh audiences, shake expectations. But that’s a big ask. Our perceptions of what is possible have already been so subverted by the technology of the past decade that art doesn’t have many more ambitious places to go.
Just look at the ROH’s current promotional campaign, and its eye-catching poster. “Experience the real thing,” it says proudly, aware that the twists and twerks of our daily business are far more fantastical in scope than what can be put on stage. (“The real thing” was a slogan for Coca-Cola in the 1960s, when art was so radicalised that a sickly soft drink could be marketed as a reality check.)
Look, too, at the house’s Deloitte Ignite festival, conceived five years ago as a way of bringing contemporary art and its followers into the building, but which this year has retrenched into familiar territory. The celebrations over the anniversaries of the births of Verdi and Wagner, fronted by those reassuringly cerebral figures Stephen Fry and Simon Callow, are a way of reconnecting with the house’s traditional themes and audiences. It is finding that to be apart from, rather than part of, the contemporary arts buzz is neither cowardly nor ignoble.
In a world where communication is becoming near-instantaneous, and in which the most profound insights are mashed, courtesy of TED and its legacy, into 18-minute segments of furiously demotic exposition, there are few places in which to sit still and gather our thoughts. Art is at its weakest when it seeks self-consciously to be the wildest ride in town. It has a much more important role than that now, as the guardian of our deepest reflections.
The Chinese minister Ping, joshing with his pals Pang and Pong, put it best on Monday night: “O China, O China, who now starts and leaps restlessly, how happily you used to sleep filled with your 70,000 centuries!” China, now a global superpower, hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep for a good while. The wide world is the wired world, and who knows where we’re heading?
To hear a podcast of this column, go to www.ft.com/culturecast
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden