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Friday, July 25, 2008


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John B.

First-time commenter here; be kind . . .

Benjamin was concerned with the issue of Mechanical Reproduction as devaluing Art's 'aura," as you mention; Q-Tip (and Anderson), though, both seem to be talking about--and expressing ambivalence toward--Mechanical Production. The computer, the digitalizing of sound, makes it possible for anyone to make music--this is especially true of the sort of music that Anderson and Q-Tip make--that is, the means they employ in making it.

Put another way: before The Computer Age, artists always held a sort of high ground relative to critics: The unspoken portion of the dismissive statement "Everyone's a critic" is that not everyone is an Artist. Now, computers begin levelling the ground between between artists and critics (intriguing that Q-Tip sees musical competitors as "critics"--as though they offer through their own music an implicit judgment on his music: If they liked his, they wouldn't be making their own).

As for the questions you raise toward the end, I think the artists' concerns about all this are more existential than material in nature--judging by their words, that is.

As I've thought about this, it seems that writing, more than the other arts, seems largely immune to technology's democratizing of the art-making process. The imaginative manipulation of language can't be digitalized. Yet.


John B, Interesting comment. I'm glad you did so, not only because you're saying something smart, but also because it led me to your blog. Fascinating entries.

You're absolutely right about my "mis-use" of Benjamin here, but it's almost a fitting misuse if only because there's something in Q-Tip's comments that point toward a distrust of any technology which democratizes input, be it the creation of "art" or the creation of "criticism" (itself an art). I find it fascinating the way this same apprehension is always raised with any new medium, but especially with those that level the tools being used, in a relative sense.

And while I think you're write that it's difficult to "digitalize" writing itself, providing the tools through which everyone can voice their opinion in a form that stylistically looks legitimate and "professional" does have its affects. Indeed, I thought this was the direction that Q-Tip was taking us: when everyone can write criticism and publish it on the same spaces, everyone takes their voice to have equal weight. And while that statement does have its appeal, I do wonder if there isn't something to be said about maintaining ways to value some forms of criticism over others.

John B.

Thanks for the kind words.

You said:

"Indeed, I thought this was the direction that Q-Tip was taking us: when everyone can write criticism and publish it on the same spaces, everyone takes their voice to have equal weight. And while that statement does have its appeal, I do wonder if there isn't something to be said about maintaining ways to value some forms of criticism over others."

I see what you mean here. I'd just say by way of response that in the end (thankfully) a critic's ego does not in and of itself determine the value of his/her work. Whatever it is that leads an audience to decide whether something is "good" or "bad" still exists beyond the control of that ego. So, the technologies may be democratizing, but there still remains intact the machinery (itself democratized by the 'Nets) that collectively determines membership in the aesthetic aristocracy. But as for my own place as a critic, I'm under no illusions: I concluded independently of Harold Bloom that Blood Meridian is on a very short list of Great American Novels, but I know whose having said that carries more weight.


Several things occur to me as I read this:

*One of my favorite insights of the past year came from your Vanderbilt colleague Bill Ivey, whose Arts, Inc. made the excellent point that mass media changed how humans related to the arts and ended the era of the "citizen artist."

So all of us grew up with a cultural concept of art and artists that is based on the idea of a star heirarchy (and, imho, on a great deal of marketing). And my favorite explanation of THAT comes from William Gibson (Spookworld):

In the early 1920s," Bigend said, "there were still some people in this country who hadn't yet heard recorded music. Not many, but a few. That's less than a hundred years ago. Your career as a 'recording artist'" -- making the quotes with his hands -- "took place toward the end of a technological window that lasted less than a hundred years, a window during which consumers of recorded music lacked the means of producing that which they consumed. They could buy recordings, but they couldn't reproduce them. The Curfew came in as that monopoly on the means of production was starting to erode. Prior to that monopoly, musicians were paid for performing, published and sold sheet music, or had patrons. The pop star, as we knew her" -- and here he bowed slightly, in her direction -- "was actually an artifact of preubiquitous media."


"Of a state in which 'mass' media existed, if you will, within the world."

"As opposed to?"

"Comprising it."

And THAT is a very interesting intersection indeed: It's a world in which MASS media COMPRISES the culture while NETWORKED media exists outside of it, yet not outside of it, commenting on it.

And yet this networked media commentariat isn't necessarily so much a meta-conversation as it is a randomized cloud of nano-conversations.

Do those nano-conversations take the magic out of the art? One might better ask, where did this sense of "art" come from? What are its goals? What's the relationship between artist and "audience?" Is an audience just an audience when its members can take your work and remix it into a new creation? And then what's your relationship to the mashup offspring of your original?

*I've warmed to Laurie Anderson's comment about drawing out of the same box of crayons, which is not to say that I've come to see it as "right." It IS to say that Anderson's observation synchs very nicely with Seth Godin's core idea: What counts is what's remarkable, and nothing shifts faster than the line dividing original and remarkable from derivative and lame.

I like Anderson and her "Personal Service Announcements" and her "Only an Expert" song, her innovative attitude and her sharp persona. But to be remarkable is to stand out from the crowd, and what the networked media revolution has revealed is that there are hundreds, thousands of people who embody much of what Anderson represents. That's not a big deal if you're writing for Xark, but if YOUR ENTIRE CAREER IS BASED ON BEING REMARKABLE, then that's an issue.

In other words, if you buy the Bill Ivey idea that people can get as much out of CREATING art as they get out of CONSUMING art, even if that packaged "professional" art is of a higher quality, then sharing the crayons is an unmitigatedly good thing for "the people formerly known as the audience."

Is it as good a thing if you're Q-Tip or Anderson? Which is not to say they're elitist or reactionary, but is to say that they come from a naturally different perspective.

The implied question here is this: If we lack a system that rewards our best artists, won't our culture suffer a great leveling?

I think that's the wrong question, as it assumes networked media is what's undermining the connection between rewards and quality. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present you the RIAA, Clear Channel Communications, Hollywood and the "books" section at Wal-Mart. Nothing could be more "mass" than these mass media conduits, and yet nothing could be more broken in terms of delivering quality and substance.


Right, Dan, and I think this goes back to an earlier conversation here about Joni Mitchell's "Do you want to be an artist or a star?" Someone (mistakenly) commenting that one can be both.

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