Sunday's Daily News Life & Arts article on the Rasmuson Foundation Gallery of Alaska raised numerous semantic questions over how to differentiate between what is real and what is otherwise.
On one hand, devotees of the online world known as Second Life take their "avatar" personas seriously and point out that one can acquire and deploy assets in the cyber world just as one can in the real world, which Second Lifers call "First Life."
On the other hand, no Second Life avatar will ever grow a single potato to feed the folks at Beans Cafe or cobble a single pair of shoes to give to someone who has worn out his or her footwear. They might purchase such from income earned through Second Life activities; but to be actually helpful, the purchases will be made exclusively in First Life, suggesting that it's the only life that truly exists in the empirical sense that the hungry and ill-shod understand.
But much of art falls into non-empirical realms. Charles Dickens' words are real things; Tiny Tim is phantasmagorical. I can measure a dancer's leap, but not the emotional thrill of witnessing it - unless someone invents a "thrillometer." I can hold a score with music encoded on it as notes on a staff, but I cannot touch the feeling the music may impart when played. Hearing sweet song or a stirring soliloquy is real insofar as acoustic waves are measurable, just as the virtual snow at the Rasmuson site is real insofar as pixels on a screen can be quantified. Yet those physical realities are not what attract, disturb, excite or comfort us - that step requires imagination.
Imagination is, I think, what creates the buzz for Second Lifers and makes it worth their while to spend hours roving through what a First Lifer considers ephemera. The experience is not analogous to real world hiking, fishing or gardening so much as it is to reading a novel, hearing a symphony or viewing an artwork. Not only abstracts; representational art is also globs of paint arrayed to place the projected mind in a kind of Second Life proximity to landscapes, objects or human faces that aren't really there in the measurable, weighable First Life.
One finds few examples of art truly changing the world. Analytically, it may reflects changes wrought by evolving technology. Insofar as art does foster some realignment in thinking or behavior, its effect seems to be slow and subtle - and most recognizable when it comes in unexpected partnership with technology.
Case in point: the moment when the artsy craft of wood-block printing led to movable type - arguably the most important development of the last millennium.
Will the internet world of Second Life be able to make the kind of impact on scientific understanding, politics, religion and, yes, artistic expression that Gutenberg did? How might that happen? Has anyone encountered examples?
If you have thoughts, leave comments here.