Plato’s children

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
— Plato, The Republic, Book VII

Art is a language of signs and symbols. To describe new conditions, new signs must be created or old symbols redeployed in ways that give them new meanings. Given that the world is constantly changing and that each new generation describes the world it sees in its own way, the symbol language of art must always be evolving. Language is influence.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.
— David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

One of the many brutal sequences in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange involves an exercise in aversion therapy known as the Ludovico technique. Alex, the recidivist protagonist played by Malcolm McDowell, is drugged and strapped to a chair. His eyelids are held open while he is forced to watch images of violence against a backdrop of classical music. The drugs induce a sense of nausea with the effect that, in the short term at least, he is revolted by the notion of sexuality, is unresponsive when confronted by violence, and is tortured by the music of one of his favourite composers, Beethoven. Alex is subject to state-sponsored brainwashing. His sensory responses to the experience of sitting before the movie screen are not within his own control. He no longer has agency in his own narrative.

In this latter respect, Alex differs from Plato’s cave dwellers. While they may be chained and unable to look in any other direction but forwards, they are not drugged and have control of their own eyes. However lightly, they play some sense-making role in relation to the shadow images they see projected before them. They are able to interact with those that surround them, and together name what they see (like Milton’s Adam in the Garden of Eden). They are, in however restricted a way, participants in the story. Shadows are labelled. Language emerges and evolves.

Most of us, of course, have far more agency than this in our lives. Not only do we participate, we co-create. We are complicit, for example, in the art we consume and with which we interact. Both writer and reader, painter and viewer, actor and audience member have a role to play in the creative process. Meaning is projected, but it is interpreted too, with subjectivity and context both coming into play.

Digital technologies have further clouded the waters. Take film viewing, for example. When cinema gained popularity in the late 19th century, and well on into the post-WWII period, film-going was a communal experience. This is beautifully captured in Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso. People of all ages, genders and economic backgrounds gathered together around places of worship and the local cinema. These were the centres where a sense of collective identity and community were established. Group storytelling shifted from the verbal to the cinematic. It was a more synaesthetic experience, blending poetry, fiction, folk tale, dance, song, theatre, painting and architecture into a swirling phantasmagoria of word, image and movement.

As with so much else, however, the industrial cauldron of the 20th century served as an accelerator. Technical advances were rapid, almost tripping over one another towards century’s end. There were adverse side effects, though, not least the increasing fragmentation of community, the alienation of people from people, and the replacement of meaningful relationships with digital simulacra. So, in the post-war period, cinema began to compete with television. Then VHS and Betamax followed. So too Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, online services and streaming. The role of the viewer shifted as well. A village assembled before the cinema screen in the 1920s became a family crowded on a sofa before a small television in the 1950s. That in turn transformed into the solitary commuter staring at their smartphone in the 2010s, cocooned in their headphones. Viewing became personal. It became asynchronous too, with viewers no longer tied to cinema or television broadcast schedules.

Technologies like Laserdisc also opened up new co-creative and consumption opportunities for viewers. As a film student, I was able to watch the original versions of films as screened in the cinemas, or to observe the film while listening instead to film directors like Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell describe the creative filmmaking process and their original intentions. Or to hear film academics like Laura Mulvey offer dense theoretical interpretations of the film I was watching. I could reprogramme films like Boyz N the Hood to include scenes that had been deleted in the theatrical release. DVD and subsequent technologies included these additional features and much more: mini documentaries, multiple commentary tracks, original studio and alternative directors’ cuts of films. The viewing experience became one of choice and interaction. Tools and maps were available; it was down to the individual whether they made use of them or not. Through social media, too, the community swirling around these films became global rather than local. Digital had fragmented the audience, but it had also enabled the fragments to be joined together in an ever-evolving, always-shifting network of common interests.

The opportunities to co-create, to navigate and harness the potential of networked communities, are there in the workplace too. If you only act on instruction, you are in danger of returning to Plato’s cave. If you are acting on curiosity, though, not waiting for permission, but still aligning yourself with overarching corporate purpose, it is more likely that you are moving into the realm of creativity and innovation, of learning and knowledge exchange. Even as you tread the borderlines of rebellion. Such agency is what distinguishes us from the automatons or the brainwashed like Alex.

The shapes wore away as if only a dream
Like a sketch that is left on the page
Which the artist forgot and can only complete
On the canvas, with memory’s aid.
— Charles Baudelaire, ‘A Carcass’

the walls that were
whitewashed when they were younger
have turned into
maps of absence
— W. S. Merwin, ‘Before Midsummer Above the River’

When I write I’m absent
and when I come back I’ve gone:
gone off to see if other folk
go through what I go through,
if they’ve got so many others inside them,
if they see themselves the same.
— Pablo Neruda, ‘We Are Many’