The Web 2.0 revolution is ‘decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced’ by the ‘cult of the amateur,’ wrote Andrew Keen in his controversial book The Cult of the Amateur. On the road to the universal ‘democratisation’ of knowledge, ‘the dictatorship of experts’ is being replaced by ‘the dictatorship of idiots’.
My In Box is full once again and so, for the last time, I’d like to expand the discussion on the threat posed to the livelihood of professional artists in Germany, Britain, America and beyond. It seems, as well as musicians, writers, photographers and film-makers, professionalism in all walks of life is being undermined by the digital revolution, to the point where we may no long be able to recognise quality.
So I was told by Sheila Keegan, a psychologist and founder of a business and social research consultancy. ‘The open source movement, though perhaps honourable in its intention, lacks a sense of commercial realism,’ she wrote. ‘We all have to earn a living and it is immoral to live off the work of others without rewarding their efforts.’
Keegan went on, ‘For decades, we have revered the individual thinker, the genius, whose shoulders we can stand on. Now, it seems, individual knowledge and individual creativity are being displaced by group knowledge and co-creation.’
At the heart of this development is the assumption that the group is more creative than the individual. But groups of people – as Irving Janis wrote in 1972 -- tend to rationalise poor decisions, believe in their own morality and exert the pressure to conform. Not a recipe for inspired innovation in our Brave New World. Yet as ‘co-creation’ (online communities, crowd sourcing) grows more evangelical, it’s becoming difficult to criticize the movement without being accused of being a Luddite.
Andrew Keen does not believe that the digital revolution will provide people with more viable avenues to become professional writers, musicians and film-makers. He does not believe that amateurism benefits mankind. He does believe that ‘we are teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Blogs, wikis and social networking are, indeed, assaulting our economy, our culture and our values. Web 2.0 is pushing us back into the Dark Ages.’
Some critics think Keen is scared. They say he is a ‘self-proclaimed elitist’, unwilling to collaborate with amateurs, in danger of becoming obsolete. Charles Leadbeater leads the attack with his bestseller We Think, a book which explores ‘how the web is changing our world, creating a culture in which more people than ever can participate, share and collaborate, ideas and information.’ Leadbeater writes, ‘Ideas take life when they are shared. That is why the web is such a potent platform for creativity and innovation.’
Last week the New York ‘digital media market’ guru Ken Park wrote that the coming revolution will ‘support the arts and make professional creativity thrive’. A regular correspondent responded that Parks’ future (i.e. corporate sponsorship) has nothing to do with artistic expression, and everything to do with greed, citing as an example Tescos and Amber Entertainment’s announcement of a ‘new paradigm for delivering content to audiences that is the future of the entertainment industry (sic)’.
I asked Park to respond to the charge as, like it or not, the future is being shaped by men like him. He wrote, ‘Corporate sponsorship applies the most scared of creative tenets -- know thy audience. Since when did art stop becoming communication? So much of this blog discussion and Andrew Keen’s wallowing revolves around the “artist” that it misses the true revolution of Web 2.0. It is now entirely about the audience and listening to what is important to them.’
‘The media landscape is no longer focused on the giver or artist, but instead more appropriately focuses on the “end user”’, Park went on. For him the artist of the future will listen and learn from his or her audience. ‘Today’s fractionated and segmented media landscape results in smaller affinity audiences and an artist’s wares must stand up to the scrutiny of this long-tail marketplace to survive. Or in short-hand, they must be good, by the end-user’s standards.’
So the market will decide. According to his argument, a handful of ‘arbiters of quality’ – gallery owners, studio executives, magazine editors – will no longer decide for us what is good and bad, what defines quality. The public will no longer have ‘to swallow what we were fed’.
‘The media exec decided who was professional and who was amateur and yet somehow Web 2.0 is the ruination of media? In Web 2.0 the market dictates, and in fact demands, that the content with the most authenticity and established voice within a defined affinity or niche will become a pro and get paid for their art. It is Keynesian economics meets Anderson’s long-tail at its finest.’
‘Sure there is the chance to sell out, as there always has been,’ he admits. But ‘if you are good at what you do, make content that appeals to your core audience and wield their trust, corporate sponsors will pay you to integrate their brand message into your art -- and when done well without interrupting the end-user experience... Greed? No, just good business and make no mistake about it -- art is and has always been a business.’
Park voices views which are diametrically opposed to my own. For me, art is not a business. A brand message cannot be incorporated into art. But to have the strength to work artists need to eat, which means earning a living. As traditional means of support collapse, new models must – and will – be found. For professionals and amateurs alike.