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Laptop Arts and Culture: Exploring Big Ideas and Great Art during a Great Recession

February 22, 2009

Looking for things to do when you are unemployed, underemployed, or just plain scared of spending money?

If you can afford to stay connected to the Internet, you now have access to a vast repository of enjoyable, intriguing, and edifying cultural content.  And a lot of it is free, cheap, and/or legal.

As mentioned here recently, science fiction author John Scalzi recently put together his own comprehensive family entertainment package for less than $100 per month with things like Netflix, Rhapsody, and a public library.  Scalzi’s list is a good starting point, but there are many cultural resources available for less than, say, the $20 it costs for the privilege of entering the Museum of Modern Art.

Cultural enrichment can be free or low-cost, especially if you look beyond “blockbusters.”  Today, there is more enlightening material available more widely than ever in human history.  From highbrow to lowbrow, and everything in between, there is an explosion of expression… more than any one person could digest in a lifetime.

Now is the time to explore that long tail of cultural production other than the biggest and latest thing.

From Project Gutenberg’s electronic editions of classic literature to historic music performances on YouTube, the most enduring works of our culture are suddenly the most accessible.  The Library of Congress has been steadily digitizing its treasures of American history, music, and culture…  it’s all free at the American Memory website.

For more contemporary fare, there is a flowering of creativity and energy to be found in podcasts, online video, ebooks, blogs, etc.  The only problem is how to start drinking-in this ocean of expression.

A great place to look for digital gems is the outstanding website, Open Culture, which is indexing these free cultural riches.

Which brings us to another advantage of the digital age… the ease with which people can share discoveries and insights with others.  Blogs, aggregators, and magazines can help us search out the best and most interesting content on the Internet.  Online social media provide unprecedented opportunities to converse with others who share idiosyncratic enthusiasms.  It is a wide open frontier for growing knowledge and experiencing art, and it is almost always free for the taking.

Where does this advice leave booksellers, public media, performing arts companies, arthouse movie theaters, and museums?  Anyone who can afford it should patronize and support these institutions as much as possible.  They are far more valuable than the nominal fees they charge.  Still, many of these institutions are adapting to the current environment.

Many museums have dropped admission charges entirely.  One way of engaging in cultural activities that would be otherwise out of reach is to volunteer on their behalf.  Who knows, maybe helping out for free could lead to a new career?

The arts and the humanities have always been sources of consolation, rejuvenation, information, or distraction in tough times.  Reading in history, matching music to mood, satisfying long-deferred curiosity… these are all important activities for mental and spiritual health and for a practical understanding of the world we inhabit.

As our Great Recession continues, these seemingly ephemeral things will only seem more important.  Thank goodness they are more available now than ever before.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2009 10:37 pm

    Bravo! But let’s not leave off the Prelinger Archives ( where you can duck and cover and not get the clap and do a million other things inspired / exhorted / harangued by the disposable media of yesteryear. Sorry to sully your high modernist sheen here, Andrew…

  2. February 22, 2009 10:58 pm

    Good one! They have an onerous registration system, but this is pretty cool too…

    Watching D-Day “live” right now…

  3. February 23, 2009 4:26 pm

    Hi Andrew! I’m in your web writing class — I enjoyed this online even more than the one you posted in class — all that interactivity!! plus being able to explore your other posts — “see” you tuesday

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