Monday, July 23, 2012

PressPausePlay - a short reflection on a film about the creative climate

PressPausePlay is a documentary that I caught this weekend about the digital revolution in the arts and culture. It's from directors David Dworsky and Victor K√∂hler, and if you dwell on the same stuff I do, you might want to check it out. It's mostly dedicated to celebrating the accessibility of digital media, and trying to get a grip on the changes it's bringing about. They got some interesting people to address this topic... Moby, Robyn, Hot Chip, director Lena Dunham, Napster daddy Sean Parker, and authors like David Weinburger and Andrew Keen.

It's free on their website, if you wanna just go take a couple hours right now. Go ahead, I'll wait here and drink my soda.

Okay, so... buried in the unrelenting optimism about the future, there is some anxiety in PressPausePlay, and honestly, the interviews that speak to this anxiety are the most interesting of the bunch. Doomsday prophets are always kind of captivating, giving voice to our fears, and the few interviewees who really sounded freaked out about the whole thing are actually kind of existentially reassuring. At some point, one of them says, "Every artist I know is scared by this," which is actually really nice to hear.

I think the anxiety comes from a very specific question, and a few of the interviewees approach it from a few different angles. The question is... how are we going to get along and keep culture in shape if the system of filters and gatekeepers has collapsed? And I think it's a really valid question, and the only real answer is, "Wait and see?"

When I say "gatekeepers," I mean a lot of different things. First of all, there are the simple resource scarcities of yesteryear, something that's often called a "barrier to entry." Once upon a time, filmmaking was so expensive that you needed to know people... producers, other filmmakers, or very wealthy family members... to get anywhere near the industry. Second of all, there are the credible critics, people vetted by major publications, armed with graduate degrees in the arts and publications in journals, who were hired to tell us all what was really the good shit, and what was just shit. The days of blogs have severely damaged the landscape of professional reviewing and criticism, and the incredible surplus of new work is overwhelming the ones who still have any cultural clout.

This all makes it very hard to confidently differentiate between brilliant work and crappy work. One of the documentary's talking heads said that we may be getting to a point where all the good work is drowned in the noise. Another one said he doubts the old great directors -- people like Scorsese and Coppola -- would ever have risen to the top or been discovered in the current climate. Their early shorts weren't genius, and in the current media glut, they would have been swamped to the point of frustration by amateurs competing for the same money and attention. Some of the cultural authorities in this documentary were driven to say, "Look, most people just aren't talented and shouldn't be making art." One of the most interesting of the critics claimed that this loss of sobriety in media and discourse would lead to a new cultural dark age, where cultural production rises so much that cultural literacy just falls entirely flat.

There's a question implicit in all this that nobody quite got around to asking (although some of them answered it, in a roundabout way). Whether you're really anxious about this is contingent upon what you think of those cultural gatekeepers, those filters, those critics, those barriers to entry. They are losing their influence. The question is: were they actually selecting based on merit, and thereby fulfilling a very important cultural function? Or were they actually selecting based on privilege, institutional bias, and luck? Because if the latter is true, then losing them will be one of the best things to happen to art... because even if an absolutely democratic process of selection is stupid, illiterate, and prone to distortion by advertisers, at least it's authentic. At least our art will match our preferences and our interests and desires, even if those aren't exactly high-brow or well-informed. At least our art will be a reflection of us as a collective, be that for good or ill.

Of course, between these two... gatekeepers are a positive force vs. gatekeepers are a useless burden... the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. And to be honest, I doubt the cultural landscape will ever be a flat ocean of white-noise. New mechanisms will arise to help shape the landscape of art and media, and we'll figure out how to make them work in service to culture. I guess, deep down, I'm just a dumbass optimist about the whole thing. That's fine with me. I may as well have faith in something.