Friday, November 9, 2007

Keen's Cult of the Amateur

Posted by John Stoehr on Fri, Nov 9, 2007 at 10:48 AM

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For those of you who get your weekend jollies watching BookTV on C-SPAN (like I do), you'll want to know about the Authors@Google series if you don't know already. These long talks by well-known writers and novelists are recorded and posted on YouTube and Google Video. Recent guests have included Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things and the epic Sandman comic series), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), Chris Anderson (The Long Tail) and Alex Ross (The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century).

Here's a talk by Andrew Keen who over the summer made quite a racket with his controvestial book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Pretty much anyone who bought into the whole Internet Revolution thing, the way Keen did in the boom-boom '90s, was a tidbit peeved by his jeremiad, which went overboard a bit just to make his point. He has since been traveling the country talking about his premise, getting people to cast doubt on what's largely been an uncritical cheerleading parade in the world of New Media and Web 2.0.

Back in July, I wrote an essay for ArtsJournal, posted on the blog I co-host called Flyover, about Keen's concept and how that related, as I saw it, to the decline of American newspapers, high culture's weakness amid the dominance of multiculturalism and the brain drain being felt among newspapers in small-town America.

Here's the section of the essay about Keen's book:

Much has been said about Andrew Keen's treatise on the dangers of Web 2.0, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture.

Michiko Kakutani summarizes his position in a recent review for the Times: "Mr. Keen argues that 'what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.'"

She continues her summary: "In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will "live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising." This is what happens, he suggests, 'when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.'"

And: "This book, which grew out of a controversial essay published last year by The Weekly Standard, is a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the 'wisdom of the crowd.'"

That last bit about "the wisdom of crowds" is veiled reference to the influential 2004 book by James Surowiecki called The Wisdom of Crowds. In it, the author argued that decisions are often better made by the many than by the few. But it's also a reference to the utopian fantasy of the original Internet pioneers who envisioned a technological "democratization of the world: more information, more perspectives, more opinions, more everything, and most of it without filters or fees."

But crowds are often not wise, Keen writes. Slavery was very popular for instance. Group-think can also lead to questions of identity and intent. Take Wikipedia. It's been held up an a model of democratic accumulation of knowledge even though it is highly susceptible to fraud and hoaxes by contributors pretending to be someone they are not.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Mark Caro of the Chicago Tribune. In a recent column he noted the current transformation taking place in the relationship between art and the people who make it.

Caro, paraphrased on Artsjoural, writes: "'Years of paying your dues and trusting in the system are so yesterday ... Everything seems to be a lot more democratic these days, and that's good, right?' Well, no, not necessarily. Pricking the 'expert' balloon might feel good, but the fact is that audiences aren't qualified to pick Broadway leads, most self-produced rock songs are crap, and many performing arts just can't even be attempted without years of training."

At the same time this was being discussed, Roger Scruton, the British philosopher and writer, published a book, called Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, defending the high art of Western culture.

Starting in the 1960s, the beginning of the same the same historical period in which Dana Gioia noted the decline of the value of high culture in commercial enterprises like TV, there was a growing sentiment among intellectuals that low and popular culture should get the same treatment as high culture. This treatment influenced an entire generation of intellectuals and by the 1990s, we see something quite different emerge: multiculturalism.

I'll quote reviewer Bryan Appleyard in the Times of London at some length because he writes so well:

"In the 1990s was the appearance of a generation to whom the idea of blending high and low came as naturally as breathing. They had absorbed the idea from media studies or any of the humanities courses that had been invaded by the French. Structuralism and then deconstruction were ideas that had emerged from the French universities. They could be applied to almost any discipline and, although they were impenetrably complex in detail, they delivered a simple message to the students: that all human artifacts could be deciphered through the same critical procedures. As a result, there was as much to be learnt about the world from a can of beans as there was from Wordsworth's Prelude. To deny it was to assert old 'imperial hierarchies of meaning' that had, the students were told, been utterly discredited.

"This went way beyond anything intended by (Bernard) Levin or (Clive) James. They applied high-art standards to what had previously been seen as low art. James liked Randy Newman because of their common understanding of song through Verdi. That elevated Newman to the high-art pantheon, and that was the whole point. James was simply saying that high art did not necessarily dwell exclusively in the old categories. Who could disagree? But the structuralists abandoned the terms 'high' and 'low' completely, and in doing so, they in effect tossed out the term 'art.' That left a gaping hole. What word could be used to describe all this stuff? A big tent was needed to encompass this mountain of beans, poems, clothes, operas, pop songs, graffiti and game shows. The tent, the word that plugged the gap, was 'culture.'"

Bottom-line: Culture used to be literature, opera and art. Now it has more of an anthropological notion, what Appleyard calls a much bigger tent. Problem is that Big Tent of Culture is riven with contradictions and because everything is relative, the big-tent version of culture is in serious danger of becoming meaningless.


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