|I. A Whiff of the Aura
Contemporary visual art is a marginal undertaking. Like most traditional forms of Western high culture - theater, opera and orchestral music, and so on - serious new art has been relegated for a long time to a few centers of population large enough to allow a support system of patronage by wealthy elites. In smaller centers these arts may get propped up by government funding but the results do little to dispel the rumors of their demise.
The truly vital forms of contemporary culture - film, recorded music, and literature - are rooted in older arts which they have largely replaced. In each case, the new form was distinguished from its precursor by being multiple and repeatable. Theater gave way to film, musical performances gave way to recorded music, and storytelling gave way to writing and, eventually, printed books.
Each of these evolutions was marked by anxiety about the fidelity of the new multiple form to the nuances of its "authentic" parent. Eventually, each new form developed formal techniques which compensated for any such lack. The cinema, by allowing an entirely new vocabulary of the controlled and edited gaze of the camera, quickly moved away from the static and spatially limited conventions which it had inherited from theater. Recorded music, which once had to advertise its "hi-fidelity", eventually perfected studio techniques which were impossible to duplicate in live performance.
The shift to multiple production also allowed an enormous growth in consumption of the arts involved. The twentieth century saw the development of a multifaceted "mass" culture with thousands of competing styles and genres. In the United States recorded music was a fifteen billion dollar industry in 2001. By contrast, the American marketplace for new visual art is estimated to be just over one billion dollars per year despite a vastly higher cost per piece, and its audience is tiny.
This decline in the relative importance of visual art occurred because technologies which would allow the creation and distribution of compelling and sophisticated fine art multiples took much longer to develop. Processes like lithography and photography were widely viewed as poor substitutes for painting, and despite their early promises of affordability have been largely recouped into the existing system of wealthy and institutional collectors.
This marketplace disavows their multiple nature by insisting that they be confined to limited editions, thereby investing them with a whiff of the "aura" of authenticity which German critic Walter Benjamin famously ascribed to paintings and other original works. Even today, visual art remains centered on modes of production and distribution which emphasize unique objects (or even unique arrangements of otherwise multiple forms, such as video installations), ensuring that its audience remains small and elite.
II. John Cage and Snoop Dog
Danish semiotician Louis Hjelmslev coined the term lexis to refer to a socially determined "unit of cultural reception".
For example, films, literature and music have been received as videocassettes, books, and compact disks. Since they tend to be inexpensive, most households in the western world have extensive collections of these artforms. By contrast, visual art is usually only represented by a few posters, prints or coffee table books - and these are not recognized as art in the same way that a DVD may be thought of as a film. Rather, they are seen as reproductions.
The publishing industries which produce and circulate films, literature and recorded music are part of what is commonly referred to as the information economy. For Western culture, the development of this economy has marked a shift away from the great cities where the arts were once centered towards global networks. Any work distributed in such a network can be experienced (potentially) at any of its points.
Although usually understood as the realm of mass media and popular culture, the information economy encompasses alternative, academic and experimental production as well. John Cage's music and Snoop Doggy Dog's music will both be available everywhere in this grid - but in volumes which might range from a few thousand copies to many millions.