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 and provide respectively. That, and the idea that sophisticated online advertising can overcome fragmentation. . . .

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  • Linda Lovelace

    You tell ’em Jarvis! E.M. Forster thought tolerance was what you got when love ended. But The New York Times’ breakup with the new and democratic art world will be devoid even of tolerance. Like the Raj’s prohibitive memsahibs, print newspapers hung padlocks from their bloomers to keep out the great unwashed. Now Dr. Aziz is undressing Pareles’s muse in the public square one bad article at a time. Off with her jewels. Send her packing to the caves.

  • I truly think you’ve missed the point of Pareles’ piece; I’ll leave it to you to determine if that’s his fault or yours. Regardless, I think your point about all of this choice necessitating changes in the way criticism is offered is also Pareles’ point. He is simply saying that, contrary to the cries of Web 2.0 cheerleaders — you may well be out in front of that group waving your poms proudly in the air, Jeff — more choice does not necessarily equal more great work. Why? Because someone needs to find these diamonds in the rough. For better or worse, people once were content to assume they could turn on the TV and the best that the medium had to offer would flicker to life on the screen. Today, with cable, YouTube, etc., no one can assume that. You and I both know that there is more great stuff out there today than in the past, but because there is also exponentially more crap to wade through as well, it becomes more difficult to find the good stuff. For those willing to do the work — or who are tapped into the right critic, peer group or other filtering system — there surely are more rewards to be found. Many people may be unwilling to devote that kind of time, however, and for them the promise of new media isn’t being kept.

    I look forward to your continued attempt to assess the state of criticism on the Web 2.0 media landscape, particularly if you draw in folks like DeCurtis and Pareles. They clearly have their work cut out for them, but I find it hard to believe that someone with expertise, writing skill, access to resources and a wide platform can’t continue to succeed regardless of what is to come.

  • John Davidson

    The vast increase in choice has come hand in hand with a vast increase in filters, and if Web 2.0 has done anything, it’s shown the power of social groups and their ability to filter MUCH better than the pre-Internet days. For example, in the mid-90s, tens of thousands of CDs were being released every year…you could band Pareles, DeCurtis, Christgau, and Considine into a room and they’d never be able to legitimately assess more than 1500 titles in one year. So in the pre-Internet days, the social networking component of popular music criticism always feel on freelancers. But that’s all changed; we now KNOW that there are thousands of music writers out there who have the basic writing skill, access to resources, and a HUGE platform. And as for expertise, do you trust a 20-something club rat whose seeing live gigs 2 or 3 times per week or someone like DeCurtis, who is a generation removed from hip hop. The filter system now is INFINITELY better than it used to be; if you’re wading through the abyss at YouTube or MySpace by yourself, you’re missing the point entirely.

  • Referencing John Davidson’s post, I don’t think we disagree. However, what you refer to as social groups seems to me to be a case of the cream rising to the top. If a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Grizzly Bear releases a disc without any marketing whatsoever, it’s still safe to say that the quality of the work will elevate it. One friend will hear it and tell another, and so on and so on through these social networks (or blogs, e-mail lists, etc.) until it pops onto the radar of someone with a wider audience like Pareles. All of this doesn’t mean that those “a generation removed” are better or worse critics than the “club rat,” but simply that there is a hierarchy to things. I don’t expect mainstream critics to hear everything, but I do expect them to be aware of the best things, and however they accomplish that — be it by reading MP3 blogs, listening to every disc they receive or going to 2-3 shows a week — doesn’t really concern me.

    Again, the point of the original piece is that more choice means more crap just as surely as it means more gems, and those who dismiss the need for quality filters are in for a long, hard slog to find something worthwhile. “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,” Pareles writes. He’s not complaining about choice; he’s simply defending his profession against perplexing criticism from the very people who ought to be championing his work as being more important than ever.