Dec. 26, 2003 –
Arts in Review 2003
Those who switched on MSNBC on Dec. 14 for coverage of Saddam Hussein’s capture saw a thumbnail of the bedraggled former president of Iraq just above the crawl—a spitting image of the guy in the wildly defiant photo on The Marx Reader. America had vanquished another old enemy—and this time we got to watch the cavity searches. But it was the lack of culture-vulture accouterments in Saddam’s hovel as much as his public humiliation that seemed to hold our horrified fascination most. “You mean, he didn’t even have a cell phone?” said an incredulous Manhattan apartment doorman when he was relayed the news.
Access to wealth, goods, and comfort has always been a capitalist promise. But 2003 was the year that access itself appeared as a desideratum, a must-have commodity for one to be a full participant in the cultural economy. It was pure access, after all, that news outlets were hawking as they embedded journalists with the coalition forces invading Iraq, even if many of the real war stories were happening elsewhere.
The iPod and the cell phone that doubles as a camera or a Web browser moved out of the yuppie-toy ghetto to become standard middle-class appliances, making every Metro car a curious hive of public privacy. As a remedy, perhaps, people tried a bit of good old-fashioned social engineering: Friendster and similar networks, arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of the year, which go well beyond online dating. The services, as Spring Street Networks Chair Rufus Griscom told the New York Times, allow the “purchasing [of] access to like-minded people.”
That is, if you aren’t behind a firewall. But that won’t shield you from the Recording Industry Association of America, which sued hundreds of “substantial file-sharers” this year. Even people who are supposed to get their music for free were treated like law-breakers—just ask any newspaper music writer who was denied an advance of the latest by the Strokes, OutKast, or Jay-Z. The labels call it “preventing Internet piracy” or “giving priority to long-lead-time publications”; we call it Spin control: making sure no one first hears about your hot new record in the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Some writers resorted to listening to CDs in publicists’ Manhattan offices—not exactly the ideal reviewing environment. Neither is the night-before-deadline press screening of this week’s John Woo movie, something that’s become increasingly common in these days of studio-mandated “anti-piracy” efforts. Count among those the Motion Picture Association of America’s hapless attempt to ban the distribution of DVD screeners to Academy Award jurors: Kill Bill would have still ended up online, and this year’s Monster’s Ball would have gone Oscarless. Underseen indies weren’t the only potential victims, though: Critical discourse—read: everyone’s ability to judge the ever-increasing heap o’ cultural product—would have suffered, too. You can’t blame the suits in New York and L.A. for circling the wagons while they figure out how to make all this new technology turn a decent buck, but it’s not just the pirates they’re shutting out.
Of course, maybe that’s exactly what the entertainment industry wants: each of us in our own spider hole, wired for sound, light, and credit-card transactions—and with no one else there to counter the marketing. No, the revolution won’t be televised, comrades; the revolution will be a television. (Or, if you prefer, a “home theater personal computer.”) As long as you can pay to play, it will give you all the access you want.
—Robert Lalasz and Leonard Roberge
Copyright © 2003 Washington Free Weekly Inc.