In Defense of (a little) Elitism

Imagine your diet will henceforth be determined by the tastes of a majority of American ten-year-olds.  This may sound as unlikely as it does unappetizing, but the prospect is not really all that different from the basis for at least one of the arguments of the copyleft crowd with regard to distributing creative content via the Web.  One assumption behind DIY culture seems to be that the best work is being systematically squashed by big media conglomerates, and that the level playing field of the Web will allow great art to emerge through the ultimate, democratic means — popularity supported by algorithms.  This theory has proven generally untrue for journalism, music, and publishing; and we’re now on the leading edge of its proving untrue for filmed entertainment.

Gavin Casleton, in this article shared on The Trichordist, sums up his observations about popularity combined with search algorithms thus:  “When you release the valve without well-tuned filters in place, you get what we have now:  muddy waters (not the artist, the metaphor).  You have tracks from seasoned artists like Radiohead distributed side by side with garbage (not the band, the metaphor), and you have transferred the burden and blessing of filtering from more official gatekeepers to the consumer….[but] when almost all new aggregators are adopting the algorithm that sorts results by Most Popular, you tend to end up with the same results.”

The apparent good in this digital-age model — that it is populist — is also its own weakness when we look at results in various media.  Most obviously, it doesn’t take more than a glance at the effects of extreme populism on journalism to realize that we now have news tailored to every taste — conservative, liberal, alternative, user-generated, subversive, and just plain wacko. No one can argue that the consumer isn’t “getting what he wants, and for free,” but the democratization of journalism has broadened the concept to include literally anyone with a computer.  As with Caselton’s Radiohead example, the best journalists in the world now swim in murky waters amid every crackpot, amateur netizen who considers himself a reporter.

Likewise, overemphasis on populism does not inherently produce the best art, either for the creators, the industry in question, or for society as a whole.  Anyone who has taken an art-history or literature class knows that many works immediately unpopular in their time are now among the canon of world masterpieces. The digital-age conceit (because the Web is an egomaniac’s paradise) is that the consumer always knows best; but this apparently fair and reasonable-sounding attitude may well be a greater culture killer than all the suits in Hollywood have ever been.  Why?  Because, just like solid news reporting, great art is not created by popular consent; to the contrary, it is often created in spite of it. When we shift the “burden and blessing” of gatekeeping from a finite number of professionals involved in the process to an infinite number of amateurs detached from the process, we are simultaneously creating work by committee in real-time while undermining the principle of investment in that work in the first place.

It is necessary that both artist and investor take risks. Sometimes art will succeed and money will fail, sometimes the other way around; and occasionally both will succeed or fail together.  Specifically, of course, I am thinking about my own industry and the fact that filmmaking, on a scale greater than other media, requires substantial investment and collaboration among professionals to produce damn good, let alone exceptional, work.

When the film director proposes some creative choice, he may meet resistance from any number of gatekeepers — from his most trusted Director of Photography to some guy in the studio marketing department who has never taken a decent vacation photo, let alone made a movie.  Ironically, though, the web-based, populist model would take what might be wrong with the marketing guy — that he thinks he knows the audience — and exacerbate the problem exponentially by insinuating audience taste even more invasively into the creative process.   Frankly, I’d rather deal with the marketing guy than an algorithm.

The consumer/audience is, of course, the ultimate arbiter of work once it has been produced, but history demonstrates that too much attention to the whims of viewers within the process is less likely to produce the next Citizen Kane so much as the next Fear Factor.

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