Our Young Digital Artists

Here’s something most of us can agree on: New Zealand culture is far more vibrant than the arts coverage of our major media organisations suggests. According to a study by Creative New Zealand, 80% of New Zealanders attended an arts event in 2011 (8). If we widen the range to 2008-2011, that figure rises to 95% (9). 87% agreed that “the arts are good for you”; 80% felt that “the arts help define who we are as New Zealanders” (16).

Good news, then: The arts in New Zealand are fairly strong, and, as the surveys from 2005 and 2008 suggest, they have been for a while now.

But while our attitudes to the arts might not be changing, the way our young people participate in the arts certainly is. As the authors conclude,

Around four in every five (83%) young people that we surveyed said they have used a computer to create their own art in the past 12 months. Digital art has emerged as the artform that young people most want to be more involved with (9).

To put this in perspective, if we consider the population as a whole, the figure that has “used a computer to create an original work of art” drops to 22% (15).

It’s common for older generations to see digital arts practice as a kind of fad and to dismiss terms like “remix,” “tweak,” & “mashup” as nothing more than new media buzzwords; but these figures give some substance to the hype. According to Creative NZ, more kids want to ‘mix & mash’ than act, or paint, or write. Far from being a fad, it seems more accurate to say that online remix culture is on its way to becoming the dominant mode of cultural expression in Aotearoa.

[Manny’s Story, by Casey Carsel, which won a Special Judges Award and Student Prize in Digital NZ’s Mix & Mash 2011. Licensed Creative Commons Attribution]

It’s also worth noting that with the rise of e-books, online video streaming and digital music, all artforms will soon be digital, one way or another. This will make it much easier for New Zealanders to share, remix and reuse their culture. This has the potential to transform both the production and consumption of New Zealand art, as the capacity to spread artworks ‘virally,’ coupled with free editing tools, enables what we might pompously call the ‘democratisation of culture.’

After all, imagine if 80% of New Zealands attended an arts event not once a year, but once a month?

Pompous or otherwise, the figures from CreativeNZ suggest that the next generation of New Zealanders will not see ‘culture’ or ‘art’ as the rarefied domain of specialists and professionals (most of them foreign). They will expect their culture to be both available and reusable.

Of course, none of this can occur while our culture is locked under All Rights Reserved — at least not legally. At the same time, experience tells us that legal barriers are unlikely to stop young people from engaging in their artform of choice. What they are likely to do instead, as Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig spent many years pointing out, is turn our young people into ‘pirates’ and ‘infringers.’

With this in mind, it’s clearly important to teach our young people about the enormous range of works already under a Creative Commons licence or in the public domain. But it’s also important to expand the range of contemporary works available for sharing and reuse. Our young digital artists need to be able to engage with artworks from their own culture and society, so that they can join our artists in, as the Creative NZ report put it, “defining who we are as New Zealanders.”

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