Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Make Your Own Damn Culture: How Social Media Might Just Save The Art World

As we enter a new age of austerity, the cultural landscape is shifting beneath us and fault lines have finally begun to shake the precariously decadent pillars of our creative monotheism.  Please forgive this self-indulgent opening paragraph but it seems an appropriate way to begin a sobering reflection on the twilight of an era of obscene greed, vanity and cultural self-indulgence.

This is a crucial time in our cultural history and it has been instigated by two major developments.  The global economic recession is one powerful influence, but it is the maturity of online networks and social media that looks set to have the greatest and most defining impact.  The consequences of a new global digital culture may be felt in almost every aspect of our modern lives and there is every reason to believe that the effect on the arts might just be revolutionary.

During comfortable economic times, it’s pretty plain to see we have allowed practically all our popular forms of art become increasingly devoid of purpose and exclusive to participate in.  The last 30 years, in particular, have seen the popular arts to become the very embodiment of aspirational affluence and excess.  It would be even be easy to forget it wasn’t always this way.

To understand the particular vulnerabilities of the arts to this most recent technological shift, we have to first glance back at how our notions of the purpose and form of the ‘popular arts’ evolved.

The Classical Arts had always been reliant on the patronage of the rich and powerful.  The 15th Century banking dynasty of the de Medici family, for instance, financed much of the art and architecture that came to define the Renaissance period.  Countless revered artists, including Donatello, Fra Angelico and Michelangelo, emerged from these deep mercantile pockets, but the alchemical teat of classical patronage – which extended to suckle poets, painters and composers alike – did not conjure these art forms into being.  The crafts, mediums and concepts of images, words and music have existed since our most primitive times.  Whilst influential, these classical achievements do not fully represent the truly popular expression of the art forms of their time: these are simply the loudest and most grandiose of our cultural artefacts, intended to celebrate the power of church, state and commerce.

Far from being exclusive and refined, the arts are mined from much deeper and universal veins of existing creativity and human experience.  ‘Popular Culture’ in many ways could be read as a shorthand (or a rebrand) for a universally accessible cultural experience – and for over five centuries our primary popular art forms have thrived independently of patronage, thank you very much.  Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, Vincent Van Gogh, Jan Vermeer, William Blake and Oscar Wilde, amongst countless other visionaries, died penniless and ruined, yet all played a key role in establishing the billion dollar pop culture industries that thrive to this day.

Artists who died penniless: Charlie Parker, Oscar Wilde, Vincent Van Gogh,  
Jan Vermeer, William Blake and Robert Johnson.
Music is often recognised as the most popular of the popular art forms.  Perhaps because of its universality and ability to transcend barriers of language.  Perhaps it is simply the most accessible art form to participate in.  Either way, where popular music leads, contemporary pop culture seems to follow.  It is therefore at the birth of the modern recording industry in the pioneering early modernity of the United States, we can first see the strange shift in the commercialisation of culture that would soon engulf the wider arts.

Here again we find that advances in technology were the catalyst.  In this case it was Edison’s phonograph, a recordable medium that enabled affordable reproduction of music to wider audiences.  Coupled with developments in radio broadcasting, a vast palette of sounds - from delta blues to jazz to rousing rural hymnals to Appalachian folk - could be easily be stripped from their natural habitat and repackaged for mass consumption.

At a local level, it is a common culture – in fashion, in ritual and art - that provides a shared identity and holds a community together.  Common culture was the framework for our first social networks.  But up to this point, they had been limited in relevance to their locality.  The result of giving any of these isolated elements national or international exposure was presumably a gamble, but here, at a time when a horde of middle-class post-war teenagers were searching for their own mass identity, the results were explosive.

If the fledgling 50’s music industry was taken by surprise by the sudden and seemingly unforeseen popularity of Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock, it didn’t take them long to recognise the incredible financial potential of the mass teenage thirst for backbeat rebellion. By the time Elvis was face down in the Graceland bathroom, Rock and Roll had gone global and the first multi-million dollar cultural industry had been born.  By 2005, just four music groups controlled about 70% of the worldwide music market. Many of our beloved Independents are simply undercover tentacles of this beastly Lovecraftian “Big Four”, an unholy alliance of Sony Music Entertainment, the EMI Group, Warner Music Group and The Universal Music Group.

Culture Goes Pop!
It was at during this time that ‘pop culture’ as we know it first emerged – and the musician was the first artist to find the purpose of their craft readjusted.  It was to make money.  Whether a spokeperson, a healer, a historian or hedonist, it appeared the craft had become entirely reliant on the mechanisms of commerce, not only to be recorded and heard, but also to be formally anointed as a professional ‘artist’.  Without the backing of publicists and promoters or a label with the financial clout to press recordings and enforce repeated radio play, then the art alone became literally and figuratively stripped of value.

That value lay in the ability to assimilate, replicate and disseminate that art and, over subsequent generations, painter and poet alike were required to submit to the dark arts of marketing.

Marketing demands that the quality of art is defined by its fiscal return, it’s value therefore determined by mass popularity.  This model quickly extended to place all the popular arts in the most overwhelming position that all experimentation and evolution is cruelly stifled.  The creative became a wholly commercial concern.

Some Art, yesterday...or is it just soup?
Art was no longer something you could do, it was reformed, reshaped in the corporate image.  Ever avaricious, the forces of industry recognised the power of art as an incredible winning investment.  Why gamble on unstable dreamers, when the product could be manufactured just like any other soup can? With the ability to reward those profitable successes with promises of sex, money and fame, it was easy to line up the next willing stooge to help perpetuate the myth that culture was little more than an elaborate exercise in product placement.

And so increasingly elaborate machinery was installed in order for artists to access the recognition and riches they craved.   You could no longer just be a simple painter outside of the system and still be considered a legitimate artist.  You instead had to navigate the ever more narrowing channels of university tutelage and sales pitch, auction house and seminars, private view and dinner party.  Conditioning and expense was installed to ensure increasing exclusivity.  After all, in order to maximise audience and profit it is also necessary to control and limit the means of production.

It's Andy Warhol!
Ever the brazen brattish cousin of the popular arts, the fine art world occasionally attempted to cast its critical gaze on the very cultural industries that dominated the galleries, the studios, the critics and the investors who supported them.

The 1960’s Pop Art of Andy Warhol recognised and addressed this alliance directly.  His paintings defiantly used imagery from advertisements, newspaper headlines and other mass-produced images from American popular culture, famously including everything from Campbell's soup tins to Coca Cola bottles.  Later he applied the same treatment to portraits of celebrities and other prominent public figures, including Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.  

His narrative reconciled high and low culture and his assertion that ‘everyone could have their fifteen minutes of fame’ suggested an intention to undermine the distinction between the two.  This attempt to reappropriate the language of the commerce was initially successful, yet as Warhol attempted to prise open the doors of the art factory to all he only served to elevate the role of the artist to even higher and unassailable heights of fame.  In his attempt to embrace mass audience participation, Warhol’s screen prints, screen tests or even his motley crew of acolytes were no longer the art object, instead the art became the artist his or herself.  He got reappropriated right back and inadvertently created the role of Superstar Artist.

Explosive spectacle and money, as juxtaposed by
photographers Geoffrey H. Short and Nikolai Ishchuk
from Big Bangs, Big Bucks, the excellent & thought 
provoking 2011 exhibition from Diemar/Noble Photography
The Superstar phenomenon is a tribute to the effectiveness of the scorched earth cultural policy of building impenetrably high financial barriers.  An neat comparison can be seen in the movie industry, where the brief wellspring of new wave, independent and experimental cinema and the radicals of the 70’s New Hollywood who rushed to claim the medium from the aging studio systems, were quickly absorbed and neutered by the megabucks blockbuster.  These were movies so big and expensive that they simply couldn’t fail, with budgets so enormous that they would bankrupt a small country.  Despite the howls of outraged critics, excess was successful every time, because we are all drawn to spectacle, no matter how artless.  There is, of course, a place for awe and spectacle in our lives, but once spectacle comes to define a medium and dominate every platform, the little guy with the big idea can’t even contemplate competition.  Art becomes an abstract of itself: a gigantic, soft rock, slow motion, exploding, computer generated, Jerry Bruckheimer parody of itself – and we love it.

For cinema and Warhol alike, this reached its peak in the materialist eyesore of the 1980’s.  Here you will find celebrity artists, such as Jeff Koons, who were barely even involved in the production of their own work at all.  Koon’s reproductions of banal objects - such as balloon animals rendered in stainless steel with mirror finish surfaces - were exquisitely expensive productions, created by master craftspeople and designed to be spectacle.  The role of the Superstar artist was to be a director, a brand and to be an utterly glamorous and rich object of aspiration.

This is what a £14 million cystal skull looks like.
For The Love of God, Damien!

It’s no surprise that the fine arts have became so increasingly self-absorbed and self-referential under the academic conditioning of Postmodernism; drifting so far from relevance to the wider world that the media was in danger of becoming as impenetrable as the arcane confidence trick of the ancient alchemist or the modern day gas engineer.

This Postmodern tide reached it’s most mercantile extreme in 2007, with Damien Hirst’s For The Love of God: a £14 million platinum cast of a human skull, encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds.  In an article defending Hirst in The Guardian, Germaine Greer clearly establishes the role of Hirsts art:
"Hirst is quite frank about what he doesn't do. He doesn't paint his triumphantly vacuous spot paintings - the best spot paintings by Damien Hirst are those painted by Rachel Howard. His undeniable genius consists in getting people to buy them. Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative - revolutionary even. The whole stupendous gallimaufrey is a Vanitas, a reminder of futility and entropy.”

The outsider with wild and unique vision, but even a modest budget for materials, could never hope to compete for audiences on the level of this kind of spectacle. The artist without patronage or the support of a major sponsor or gallerist, the band without the backing of a major label or the writer without the clout of an international publishing house was almost invisible. If a tree fell in the woods and no one was around to hear it, only John Cage would be allowed to record the resulting zen koan. Anyone else would just be plainly nuts.

It was the industry that defined the relevance of art, a curious state of affairs considering the long-standing role of the underground and the outsider in defining cultural identity. Warhol’s assertion that we would all have our “15 minutes of fame” was remarkably prescient: by the 1980’s we all wanted our 15 minutes, our MTV and our bowl of M&M’s with absolutely all the brown ones removed.

Pop Goes Culture!
This bubble is now dangerously and joyously close to bursting.  Art is only relevant and engaging when it reflects our life.  First and foremost, this is simply because the money isn’t there anymore to sustain the Superstar lifestyle.  Nowhere is the effect of the economic collapse on the art world illustrated more clearly than in the recent cancellation of a planned exhibition by conceptual artist Chris Burden at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles.  Burden’s installation involved the use of 100kg of gold bricks that the gallery purchased from the Stanford Financial Group, unfortunately now at the centre of a massive fraud investigation. Now, announces the Gagosian, "the gallery's gold has been frozen while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigates Stanford." 

But even if we aren’t all going to become Superstars anymore, if this great cultural gold rush seems to be over, people are still making art.  In fact, they are making lots of it, despite the absence of red carpets, canapés and gushing praise.  In an article discussing the post digitalisation future of the publishing industry, writer Neil Gaiman again reflects on the music industry as an analog to this cultural transition: “There are fewer rock stars travelling the world in their private jets, but there's a lot more good music.”

Actually there have always been artists making powerful, engaging and thought provoking work outside of the professional workshop, but it’s almost as if we never noticed before.  The reason we notice it now, as I stated all those words ago, is because of austerity and technology.

Austerity suddenly makes the gratuitous spectacle a little less attractive and urges us to rub our eyes and look away for a moment.  During this serendipitous interruption, it’s a shock to find just how close technology has brought us together.  Suddenly we are part of an unimaginably vast common audience and – with the spectacle temporarily muted – we can actually hear each other. In online social media, technology has finally given all of us the ability to communicate, to meet, debate, connect and share freely in a way that had previously been restricted to the monied corporate gatekeepers of the arts.

It’s ironic that the arts have been freed from their imprisonment by the progress of technology that had initially been complicit in their incarceration.  During the late 60’s and early 70’s, mass reproduction of media had become affordable to the individual and this inspired a brief but enduring period of Do It Yourself culture.  Brash and aggressive punk music thrived on antisocial outsider status, defined by the rejection of mainstream popular culture and spreading to a substantial and politicised audience through a network of home taping and photocopied fanzines.  This defiance was short lived – without the oxygen of truly global marketing and denied a truly global platform, punk culture was quickly assimilated and one by one it’s surviving exponents lined up to sell out to major labels and world tours.  But now, technology has given us not only the tools of production and reproduction, but also, crucially, a networking, marketing and collaborative platform on a scale undreamed of just a few decades ago.

Lloyd Kaufman, from whose book,
Make Your Own Damn Movie,
I stole the title of this essay.

This levelling of the playing field is embodied in the concept of Network Neutrality, a principle that advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers or governments on audiences access to networks that participate in the Internet.

Lloyd Kaufman, the President of Troma Films, is a forceful champion of the Independent Arts.  While Kaufman’s own particular arts may be an acquired taste - the equivalent of loading a cannon with high concept Corman high scripts, steroids and boob jobs and firing it point blank at a day-glo wall to see what sticks – he is a passionate and eloquent advocate of Net Neutrality.  At Save the Internet, a campaign site for Net Netrality, Kaufman summarises:
“Right now, dear reader, your website, my company, Troma’s website and Disney’s website all have equal opportunities on the level playing field of the Internet. If your site or content is interesting, you can attract a larger public than Viacom, Rupert Murdoch or Justin Bieber. And, should the Internet ever prove to be a source of great revenue, then you too will have your fair share of the profit.”
Now, this is not a post-punk call to arms.  Art doesn’t need to be a prettily painted Molotov cocktail designed to smash the system.  Rather, we now face a readjustment of purpose.  There will always be a necessary place for prospective investment and spectacle in the art world – but now we have a chance to participate alongside and reclaim a new sense of cultural identity again.  Nowhere are the early glimmers of this cultural readjustment more evident than in the egalitarian organisation of social media based creatives. 

Global is the new local.  An artist’s commune or collective can now reach out to an international audience.  For the first time, every suburban dreamer or isolated rural recluse has a chance to resurrect the collaborative spirit of Warhol’s Factory or the Swinging London Pheasantry from the comfort of their own laptop.

Quirky independent collaborations such as Theresa Bruno and Krystle Shard’s Wallet Gallery, a neat social network based project to curate a show of miniature collected artworks within the confines of a leather wallet, act as catalysts to form an artist community around shared ideas, unrestricted by geography or access to particular networks or circles.

Learning to Love You More, Assignment #49
"Draw a picture of your friend's friend"
Noelien's Friend by Nina Yuen
Online platforms also enable a scope of interactivity and longevity that would have been economically unacceptable within the traditional confines of the commercial gallery.  Learning to Love You More was a website project by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher. Over seven years, from 2002 to 2009, the artists posted assignments for their global audience.  Those participants who accepted these assignments - such as “repair something” or “interview someone who has experienced war” — submitted photos, articles, videos and audio clips of their completed tasks.

This collection of projects inspired a book and was presented at venues including The Whitney Museum, The Seattle Art Museum and the Wattis Institute. In 2009, the website was acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Here, in an increasingly common inversion, it is the audience that first engage, promote and establish the provenance of the artwork, with the traditional platforms of the art industry following afterward, reduced to the status of passive observers and collectors.

Alongside crowd sourcing and audience participation, the online network can also generate cash investment in diverse proposals.  Online pledge systems for funding creative projects, such as Kickstarter, have great potential for realising more ambitious ideas.  Broad shared backing of amounts as small as $5-$10 means that investors are often engaging in patronage based on ownership of something they would like to be created rather than direct financial return.

Still from the Kickstarter promotional short for 
Emily Berçir Zimmerman's So To Speak
Consider So To Speak, an exhibition conceived and curated by Emily Berçir Zimmerman.  Her proposal was selected to be exhibited at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery in New York, but the costs entailed in shipping the four key artworks by Fiona Banner, Hollis Frampton, Melinda McDaniel and Klub Zwei to Brooklyn exceeded the exhibition's allotted budget. Through Kickstarter, Zimmerman was able to raise the additional $2,500 necessary to programme the exhibition without compromise.

As was once the case long ago, the success or profile of a creative work no longer relies on the marketing budget; instead its success depends on its ability to inspire, engage or connect with an audience. Even financial barriers can be overcome: fan funding is self-fulfilling marketing – if your big idea is strong enough, interesting enough and attracts a enough investors to fund it into being, then you’ve the reassurance that the audience is there before you’ve put pen to paper, scene to lens or chord to record.

Antony Lane, icon of fan empowerment
Just a decade ago, the average movie fan could only daydream that they would one day be able to make their own feature and open a relationship with the medium they love from afar.  But now, if you’ve the passion to bring together enough likeminded people who share your vision, it’s a possibility that’s within the reach of all.  Just ask Antony Lane, whose entirely fan funded, old school zombie movie Invasion of the Not Quite Dead goes into production this year. 

Direct backing even enables established artists to reconnect with their audience.  Once freed from their contract with EMI, Radiohead's subsequent album In Rainbows was released through the band's own website in October 2007 as a digital download for which customers could make whatever payment that they deemed appropriate - even opting not to pay at all.  With no major label backing or marketing, 1.2 million downloads were reportedly sold by the day of release.

Appearing on The Colbert Report, Ed O'Brien explained: "We sell less records, but we make more money." Colin Greenwood explained the Internet release as a way of avoiding the "regulated playlists" and "straightened formats" of radio and TV, ensuring fans around the world could all experience the music at the same time and preventing leaks in advance of a physical release.

Make Your Own Damn Culture
Art makes us feel part of the world, part of something bigger.  At its best, it evokes shared experience.  We want to be part of something, to collaborate, engage and be complicit, not simply gazing acquisitively through shop windows.  We want art to mean something because we want ourselves to mean something.  We now have the tools to share our dreams, visions and crazy leaps of inspiration wider and more eloquently than ever before.  We have an ability to connect, engage and maybe even change our world in a way that no previous generation has experienced.  We really don't have any excuses anymore.  If we don't feel that our communities and cultures relate to us, speak with us or fulfill us, then we have the power - and the responsibility - to make our own cultural alternatives.  After all, if we can’t own our own culture and if we can’t participate in it, it’s not really our culture at all.

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