Posts about Culture

Choice and art

As a consumer, creator, and critic, I celebrate the choice and freedom our new medium-of-the-people gives us. But some fear that choice.

In one of those impossibly broad, I’ll-explain-the-world-to-you, year-end survey pieces in The Times’ arts section, Jon Pareles tackles the video of the people. It’s a fine summary of where we are but, like a newsmagazine piece, it really adds little new in information or thought. At first, he seems to celebrate this explosion of creativity. But just wait. . . .

All that free-flowing self-expression presents a grandly promising anarchy, an assault on established notions of professionalism, a legal morass and a technological remix of the processes of folk culture. And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own? In utopian terms the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.

Tech oracles predicted long ago that by making worldwide distribution instantaneous, the Web would democratize art as well as other discourse, at least for those who are connected.

But in the end, this all turns out to be a rhetorical exercise: Pareles sets up the phenom of this grand era of self-expression only to shoot it down:

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace — some played two million or three million times — tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

The entertainment business is already nostalgic for the days when it made and relied on big stars; parts of the public miss a sense of cultural unity that may never return. Instead both have to face the irrevocable fact of the Internet: There’s always another choice.

But choice is the fuel that feeds art. And the freedom to create is the match.

I return, as is my thumbsucking Sunday-survey-piece habit, to my time as a TV critic in the mid-80s, when choice — enabled with the remote control, VCR, and cable box — yielded better television. The entertainment industry had to fight harder to get our attention and could no longer forcefeed us their swill, and so TV improved. The Beverly Hillbillies yielded to Cosby and Seinfeld; Knots Landing yielded to The Sopranos.

Choice is good, not something to be lamented. Indeed, I find it ironic that a critic, of all people, should be complaining about choice. Choice is precisely what necessitates criticism.

Ah, but criticism, too, suffers fragmentation. It’s no longer possible — nor was it ever desirable — to be the one-size-fits-all-aesthetics critic because taste and choice go hand-in-hand: We all have different tastes and so we all want to choose what we like. This makes it damned hard — no, impossible — to be the critic for everyone, which is what a newspaper-for-everyone demands. No, I want critics who like the sorts of things I like to find the things I want. In other words, I want to know what my friends like. Friends whose taste we know, trust, and share have long been the most effective critics. Now, the internet provides the opportunity to make more such friends and I am confident we will see more and more systems to enable that.

In fact, I’d argue that this is a role of critics and their outlets. I don’t give a damn what the nation’s best-selling books are; that matters only to the publishers to print them. I would, however, love to know the best-selling books among New York Times readers are (or New Yorker or Guardian or Paid Content). That starts to get us to a smaller group of friends whose judgment matters.

Pareles makes the common mistake of bringing old-media, mass metrics to the new-media, niche world. We judged TV as a mass medium on the basis of the shows on the top of the ratings and that worked when there were three channels. But it didn’t work when we got 100 channels and the best of sci-fi had nothing to do with the best of history or food or sports or news or business on TV. And that critical worldview especially does not work in the new age of unlimited channels, when we all make our own networks.

It is a mistake to judge this new medium by the presence of junk; there is junk in all media. And it is a mistake to judge this new medium by the most-watched; those are merely the curiosities that happen to ignite for a moment. That analysis misses the great pockets of niche quality that are growing underneath: See Terry Teachout’s discovery of the treasures of jazz in YouTube.

Oh, and by the way, it is also a mistake to judge the value of a medium so new. The people’s TV is really less than a year old, for it was in this year that YouTube brought us the last piece to the puzzle enabling unlimited creativity — adding free distribution to the inexpensive equipment and easy tools and powerful marketing via links that we already had. The first days of TV produced crap (that was hardly the medium’s golden age; I say that age began when we got choice, starting in the mid-80s until, oh, about a year ago). Hey, babies make crap. But we know this baby will grow.

So the more intriguing question is what the role of criticism is in this new world of magnificent choice. That’s what I plan to explore in a new course I’ll be teaching next fall at CUNY: Criticism in the Age of Convergence. I hope I’ll get Parales to join me and my colleague Anthony DeCurtis — two of my favorite critics, by the way, both of whom I tried damned hard to hire when I started Entertainment Weekly — and Teachout, too, to explore the new opportunities and needs for criticism.

: Here’s a related Guardian column I wrote about criticism.

: LATER: Staci Kramer deftly dissects Pareles’ piece:

It’s close to a compulsion–this need for traditional media to expound on the real meaning of user-gen media. Social phenomenon. Old wine in new bottles. No substitute for pros. Pick one or all. . . . He views [MySpace and YouTube] as “empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.” MySpace is “an ever-expanding heap of personal ads, random photos, private blathering, demo recordings and camcorder video clips.” YouTube is “a flood of grainy TV excerpts, snarkily edited film clips, homemade video diaries, amateur music videos and shots of people singing along with their stereos.” . . . “User-generated content” is “the paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006″ but Pareles prefers self-expression. Whatever it’s called, it leads to more fragmentation countered by user ranking/filtering that mimics the old media gatekeepers–and a further splintering of “cultural unity” in an online world with endless choice. As he explores the cultural meaning, what Pareles skips over is that News Corp.and Google weren’t buying the content as much as the community, the massive traffic and the distribution MySpace.com and YouTube.com provide respectively. That, and the idea that sophisticated online advertising can overcome fragmentation. . . .

The lost episode

I just discovered National Lampoon’s lost episode of Seinfeld about that darned Kramer, via Brightcove. If you haven’t seen it yet:

Spell the name right

I find it very strange that the billboards advertising Apolcalypto still put Mel Gibson’s name on top in big, possessive type. This could mean that Disney thinks America doesn’t care about his anti-Semitic rant. It could be they think that the controversy will sell his tickets, again. It could be that Gibson thinks this is redemption through advertising. Or maybe they saw the sales for Seinfeld after Michael Richard’s racist rant.

Kneecapping me

I’m 6’4″ and I hate people who slam their seats back in front of me on flights. I spend flights with my knees jammed up against the seat in front so, if they try to jam it back, they will the damned seat is broken, which is better than breaking my knees and my laptop and inducing worsened claustrophobia. The Wall Street Journal now covers this important national divide: the recliners vs. the straights.

Happy butt

I’m watching the oddest ad campaign for the kiddie movie Happy Feet: A mom is grateful that she gets to sit for an hour and snarf popcorn. Now I’ll admit that that’s the reason I like going to most of the movies I see today. But I’m surprised that is their marketing message.

Who needs Borat?

Who needs a British comic to make fun of America when The Telegraph can find plenty of material on its own. See these two frightening slideshows there about religious nuts and nutty stage mothers screwing up little kids’ lives.

: And while we’re on Borat, I agree with David Brooks when he says that Borat took the safe route by not ridiculing Volvo drivers:

Cohen understands that when you are telling socially insecure audiences they are superior to their fellow citizens there is no need to be subtle. He also understands that any hint of actually questioning the cultural suppositions of his ticket-buyers — say by ridiculing the pretensions of somebody at a Starbucks or a Whole Foods Market — would fatally mar the self-congratulatory aura of the enterprise.

But I disagree with his argument that snobbery and mockery are in any way new forms of entertainment. Game shows are built on making fun of our fellow man from the comfort and safety of our own couches.

Criticism is free

The Guardian has taken the Comment is Free model and extended it to arts and entertainment.

That model: They take their columnists and throw them into the conversation (whether they like it or not). They add in new voices and opinion leaders from many different perspectives to broaden the conversation more than the bounds of paper could ever allowed. Then they open the gates to anyone to comment and converse, discovering more interesting voices. It’s a wonderfully rich and spicy stew. In a short time, CiF has become a platform for opinions and, like its foremother, HuffingtonPost, has been used as a place to announce positions (e.g., Jimmy Carter and the Euston Manifesto on CiF, John Kerry on HuffPost).

So now the Guardian brings this to arts and entertainment, which makes perfect sense. Now critics find themselves in the conversation . . . with other critics (formerly known as the audience). What’s so right about this is that the conversation is going on anyway; by helping it to come together, the Guardian puts itself in just the right position, in the middle of the talk. It becomes the water cooler. If I started Entertainment Weekly today, it would look like this, with links to stories, clips, sites, and more.

I can see this working beautifully in sports because, again, it only facilitates the conversation that is going on already among fans — and any opinion there is about as good as the next. [UPDATE: Proving once again that I am not a real man, I never look at sports sections and thus didn't see that the Guardian had already put up its sports columns CiF style; thanks to the real man in the comments who informed me.] The paper becomes the pub. I wonder whether it might work in business or at least in market coverage — why not provide a place for the crowd to dissect, for example, the Google/YouTube deal because we are doing this already. And I think a variation of this can work in local, only instead of trafficking mostly in opinion, this becomes a means for people to share reporting as well. More on that in a minute.

Many months ago, I sat in the office of Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger as we talked about the extension of the CiF model and he drew a diagram showing the new relationship of the journalist — columnist and critic but also, I believe, reporter and editor — to his or her public. He drew a funnel with talk flowing in and out and I can’t recreate that now. So I’ll give you a very mixed metaphor: Journalists should no longer act as choke-points in that funnel but instead as pumps and filters, keeping the flow of opinions and information going in, around, and through — and contributing to and improving that flow along the way.

And that is the important thing to watch here: What is the role of the journalist in this new, networked world? Moderator. Enabler. Even educator. I think the Comment is Free model works beyond merely opinion and conversation as journalists’ roles change.

First, there is the informational role. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the journalists saw questions, curiosities, or misinformation swirling around the conversation and then went and fixed that with reporting: ‘Since you asked . . .’ ‘Here are the facts. . . .’ That is their first contribution. Of course, this is what jounalists do already: They report. I’d like to see the reporting and the conversation around it come closer together in the CiF model. And then, of course, the reporters aren’t the only ones reporting. This becomes an example for anyone; it empowers us all to go get facts, to improve the conversation, to make the crowd wiser.

Second, I think the journalist-as-moderator needs to be more of a magnet, to both attract and actively go out and find the really interesting voices and the knowledgeable experts and bring them into the conversation. Again, this is what reporters do already when they find the right people to quote. But now they can do more than quote those people; they can invite them to the party. And the party only gets better.

Third, editors should see themselves more broadly. I hesitate to say that they should edit and educate the crowd, for I can hear the crowd shouting back at me, ‘We don’t need no stinkin’ editing!’ But at CiF, when comments started to go wild, I suggested that instead of concentrating on the bad guys, they concentrate on the good guys and they found and highlighted some great new voices. That is one role of an editor: finding and cultivating talent. I also think an editor’s contribution to a conversation — as to an article — can and should be to push to make it better, to ask the right questions, to focus the narrative, to push for more reporting. That is how editors will operate in NewAssignment.net. Yes, in this sense, we are all editors. Except I think what’s missing is for the paid editors to bring those skills to the conversation. And the conversation will be better for it.

I think that the CiF model is an important step on the way to networked journalism, for it brings together the pros and the ams to do new things together.

Who says YouTube is tacky?

Not Terry Teachout. The drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and all-around cultural guy writes this weekend about the on-demand fine-arts channel he put together out of YouTube, finding an amazing list of often-rare fine-arts performances there (all of which he posted on the sidebar of his blog):

But YouTube, like the other new Web-based media, is a common carrier, a means to whatever ends its millions of users choose, be they good, bad, dumb or ugly. You can use it to watch mindless junk — or some of the greatest classical and jazz musicians of the 20th century. . . .

By posting this list of links, I have, in effect, created a Web-based fine-arts video-on-demand site. The irony is that I did so just as network TV was getting out of the culture business. Not only have PBS and its affiliates cut back sharply on classical music, jazz and dance, but cable channels like A&E and Bravo that used to specialize in the fine arts are now opting instead to show “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” This abdication of cultural responsibility has created an opening for entrepreneurs who grasp the new media’s unrivaled capacity for niche marketing.

Everybody’s a network.