Tom Coates’ insightful and focused article “Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of (Nearly) Everything“, and the followup by Tom of bbCity, have come at just the right time for me. For the last few weeks I have posted several short pieces on the social impacts of cultural profileration and the democratization of creative technologies, mostly concerned with music, but also touching on visual arts. What follows is a work in progress, an attempt to find a centre for some apparently disparate, but deeply related ideas about new and old technologies, the collapsing professional and amateur divide, and notions of cultural value or “quality.”
The democratization of technologies means that non-specialist practitioners (I won’t use “amateurs” because it does sound pejorative, but unlike some others, I am not accusing Tom of “kicking us in the guts” for using it) can create, edit and distribute digital images, music, text, and video cheaply and without enormous technical expertise (but, as Coates points out, this expertise can be gained more easily today than in the past through the use of online information networks). As we can guess from the behaviour of the wilfully obtuse and cranky print journalists’ move to stereotype blogging as a poor imitation of “real” journalism (see Kuboid for examples), the “mass amateurisation of everything” appears to threaten the monopoly on production previously enjoyed by specialists. I don’t see this so much as a literally economic threat however, but rather as a threat to social and cultural capital: a threat to the scarcity of expertise and authority. Thinking along similar lines, Matt Welch, in the time-honoured “fair and balanced” tradition, prefers to see bloggers as “alternative” journalists who may challenge and ultimately enrich the profession. In any case, it is clear that a view of bloggers as merely amateur journalists aspiring to professional status is an impoverished one. Bloggers and bedroom DJs may well stay “amateur”, as Clay Shirky writes, but there is something more interesting going on as well.
I would argue that the specialist art worlds move (again, consciously or not) to contain this threat by making distinctions between their own mastery of the technologies and discourses of production and the ‘mere’ consumption or unthinking use of them by consumers: you can see evidence of this even in some of the comments following Tom’s article. By insisting on their active mastery of technologies, the specialist producers disavow the their own status as consumers, while continuing to lay claim to the all-important characteristic of innovation (which, more often than not, entails the consumption of new technologies).
Some of these “strategies”, or less accusingly, patterns might include:
1. Insisting on the irreconcilable quality differences between consumer and high-end professional hardware and software tools; consumer products (cameras, synths, editing software, soundcards) characterised as simple, easy to use, cheap, but limiting, pedestrian, low quality results.
2. Lofi is King: minimalist aesthetics (e.g. constructing a project studio around one piece of software or hardware, and exploiting its “full potential”, hand-coding webpages, insisting on simple (un)design); the reversal of obsolescence (e.g. analogue hardware synths, pinhole or polaroid cameras, super 8 film)
3. Demonstrated command of the science/technological expertise/professional practices of sound, text, or image production, and insistence on its necessity for quality output.
4. Specialist artists abandon stylistic features that have been taken up by “consumer-producers”; familiar avant-garde moves towards the obscure, cryptic, unreadable, and intellectualisation of work
5. Insistence on uniqueness (e.g. never use a preprogrammed synth patch, a Blogger template or a Photoshop plugin without tweaking, hacking, or transforming it first)
6. Invention of new genres as critiques of source genres e.g. experimental drum’n’bass, refusal of 4/4 metre to prevent danceability (cf. Bebop vs. swing).
7. Playing the early adopter card, displaying historical, as opposed to (barely, in my case!) working, knowledges; emulating the techniques of retro classics (I not only like their early stuff, I can make sonic/visual references to it that insiders will get).
In the blogging context, web developer/journalist Adrian Holovaty’s comments about the “one-big-siteness” of weblogs (found via plasticbag.org) contain at least a couple of these:
I believe in my heart that people should come up with their own publishing methods. Frankly, it’s boring to surf the blogosphere and see so many sites using the same, tired weblogging tools. The same basic templates, the same “post a comment” form, the same URL schemes… It’s almost as if they’re all small parts of one huge site.
There’s also the Crutch Factor. I dislike cliche blog publishing systems for the same reason I favour hand-coding over using Dreamweaver […snip…]
Of course, I have a deep appreciation for how these tools have enabled hundreds of thousands of non-Web-developers to broadcast their ramblings on the Internet with minimal effort. But I have a much, much deeper appreciation for people who have taken the time to write a system for themselves. And as far as I’m concerned, people who do Web development for a living yet don’t use a custom-built weblogging system shouldn’t be trusted.
Emerging Art Worlds: Beyond the Professional/Amateur Divide
Viewed in their own terms, and not disparagingly from within the fortified worlds of established artworlds, what are the forms and functions of the new art worlds growing around non-professional practice (blogging communities, bedroom DJs, amateur photographers)? What are their systems of cultural and aesthetic value, i.e. what makes a good personal blog in its own terms?
Questions of Value
With so much stuff “out there”, the question remains for the most democratic of us: how are we going to sort through it all to find our regular reads or favourite listens? Now that the broadcast model of the internet is dead, now that the producer/consumer and professional/amateur divide is history, we need to find better and better ways to create our own cultural “nodes”, to build and maintain quality social networks based on shared interests and values (or mutually interesting values–hooray for diversity), without letting them proliferate beyond the point of all usefulness (see Tom’s Guardian article). There are interesting times ahead.
Follow-ups: Creative Networks: Smaller, Better, Smarter