Art is an Oral Culture by Ken Arnold


On View: “When Morning Gilds the Skies”, a photograph by Barbi Tinder, 2005.

We can imagine an oral gospel, stories we hear rather than read. In fact, every Sunday we hear scripture, sermons; the spoken word is at the center of Christian worship. We speak of ourselves as a biblical community, but I suspect most of us hear the Bible more than we read it. So it isn’t too hard to imagine that the written/printed word is not there. The Book of Common Prayer is less often used these days. When I “read” the Gospel as a deacon, I try to tell the story without reading, acting it out (when I’m allowed to).

Walter Ong in talking about oral culture and literacy argued that we live in a time of secondary orality, meaning that we have returned in some ways to an oral culture, or reinvented it, electronically. Think of the telephone and radio, cellphones, and the television somewhat less. The computer and the internet have taken us further into an oral form of interactivity. There are communities now on line that are as vibrant as physical communities: think of MySpace and FaceBook. I joined one in Portland last week, Community Circle, which is focused on ecological issues. Some deny that electronic culture is as viable as face culture (to coin a phrase) but when you are communicating actively on line it feels like the enabling of community.

Oral communication demands feedback in order to take place at all. Ong observes, and this is critical, that oral communication in traditional cultures is less about dispensing information than written/print communication; we have come in our society to think of speech itself as a provider of information, primarily because of our regard for the printed word. The Word of the church is spoken, not printed, but we still often think of it as dispensing information. Instead, in a reversion to the oral culture, we might think of it as in invitation to respond.

In the computer environment, there is no mediator of communication, no one to interrupt. There is also complete freedom to respond, to engage in dialog. With smaller church communities dispersed over larger geographical areas, online communication may be the only viable way to stay in touch with the whole. Note that the Presiding Bishop’s trip to South America is one we can follow on line through streaming video and virtually instant reporting.

In the same way, art is a form of oral communication, even though it is something we look at rather than hear. Nonetheless, art invites response and is often seen in community, in public (and meant to be seen that way). When Andre Malraux described a Museum without Walls a century ago, he was referring to the democratization of art; now, on line, we can see any art work at all (in reproduction of course) and talk about it with anyone anywhere.

The human commons has expanded through on line media. The church has been slow to take advantage of the possibilities for building community, telling the gospel story, and growing in strength. In Orality and LIteracy , Ong’s important book on oral community, he makes the case that technologizing the word is not something we need to fear; it is what we have to use. ~ Ken Arnold

Barbi TInder is a photographer living in Maine. Her life as an artist is profiled in Visual Preludes 2006 Resource Guide.

Ken Arnold is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. You can read more of his work here.

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