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Information in Formation: Repositioning Artists on the Crest of the Third Wave

by Jeff Gates

Keynote Address, delivered to the National Conference of Arts Administrators, Anchorage, AK, October, 1996

The name Alvin Toffler has been turning up in the media of late. Some may recall him as the coiner of the phrase "future shock;" and others may have heard him quoted by Newt Gingrich. Whatever the connection, Toffler and his model for the changes taking place in our society hold strong implications for artists and our place in the emerging culture. If, as Ezra Pound once said, artists are the antennae of society, then society at large has a lot to learn from how artists are using the new technological tools.

As educators of artists, then, we are finding ourselves in the middle of the changes which are occurring in our discipline and in the ways we teach. It's the wild, wild West out there and there's a new sheriff every day. New technologies are announced every day and it's non-stop work to determine whether our students will benefit from new machines, whether we can afford them and how these things will alter our curricula.

But I'm not here to discuss budgets and the rapid rate of hardware obsolescence. That's what you get paid the big bucks for. As an artist and a teacher, I'm interested in the social consequences of new technologies: how artists will fit into these new cultural shifts and how we can prepare our students for the changes that will only accelerate in the minutes to come.

text To paraphrase the axiom which states: the 3 most important words in real estate are: location, location, location; the 3 most important words in the late 20th Century are: context, context, context. In this Info Age, the lines drawn to distinguish ideas like "left" and "right," and "right" and "wrong" are blurred. How can we make best sense of these shifting paradigms and pass it on to our students?

Let me start by extending Toffler's ideas as he's postulated in his book, "The Third Wave," to include the changes that have taken place in the roles artists play in society:

Toffler discusses three major social shifts in human history: the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions. In the agricultural age, isolated, self-sufficient communities not only grew all their own food, but produced everything necessary for life. Artists, as object-makers and ritual leaders, played a central role in village life, with a direct impact on both the economic and belief systems.

The Industrial Age marked the invention of labor- and time-saving devices during the 19th century: steam power, railroads, and the internal combustion engine to name just a few. With the help of these machines, more goods could be produced than one community needed. Therefore, new markets were sought for the excess. Artists, too, became producers of goods to be bought and sold in a new arts marketplace. The processes of artmaking and of being an artist became secondary to the objects which were bought and sold. Our place moved from the center of society toward the edges, in guises ranging from manufacturer to malcontent.

In this country, around the mid-1950s, a shift to an information-based economy began with the increased use of television and computers and the development of networks to transport information to its "markets." In recent years, this change has accelerated as faster transit forms have developed and knowledge itself has become a marketable commodity.

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© 1996 Jeff Gates. No reproduction in whole or in part may be used without prior consent of the author.

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