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The sadness of Michael's

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Saturday, Jan 17, 2009

This may be a pointless either/or question since it can be trumped with the response of “both and” (which is a useful trick, by the way, kind of like switching causes and effects to derive theoretical “insight”). But it interested me anyway as a sort of thought experiment. Which is preferable: (1) discussing a professionally produced song or a film or whatever with a friend or (2) sharing with one another songs or films or mashups or whatever that you’ve made yourselves. I think I prefer the former but often preach the latter. Sharing stuff you’ve made too often closes off the possibility of critical discussion or interpretational analysis, devolving instead into what my high-school friends used to call ballwashing. “Oh that’s so cool! It’s so great that you’re doing that…” Often artistic professionalism is the cue to audiences that they are allowed to engage seriously with a work, to have an opinion regarding what it was about, to devote the resources to analyzing it, or even to allow themselves to enter into it vicariously. Often with homemade productions, I feel myself holding back, because I have this dread that I won’t be able to share the (frequently critical) insights that I would thereby derive. Often, I have the suspicion that the desired and appropriate response is “That’s great that you are doing that. Yay, you!” (Maybe I’m just a jerk.)


This question occurred to me because I was in Michael’s, the chain craft store, earlier today, and it struck me as a great big repository of sadness. I’m sure scrapbooking and collecting rubber stamps brings great joy to many people, but all I could imagine was failure of creativity inherent in purchasing a decorate-your-own-mug kit or any of those kits where the manufacturers try to package the creativity inside, an effort to assuage purchasers of the fear that they won’t be able to rise to the occasion and think of their own mug slogans. “We’ve thought of the project for you, all you have to do is follow directions.” These kits are basically the home-consumer version of deskilling. Rather than sell the raw materials of soapmaking, Michael’s sells you a soapmaking kit which pre-empts your learning how to make soap for real. The same is true for dumbed-down computer applications: Most of the people who have GarageBand on their iMacs will never record a song, let alone become musicians (though it presence does allow for some pleasing flights of fantasy about what you could do.) All that tends to happen when an artistic process is simplified to make it accessible to casual, semi-invested would-be creators is the production of substandard products that no one can possibly take seriously. No one who was serious about making something would stock up at Michael’s for supplies, right? The chain stands as testimony to the collective crippling of our imagination.


Generally, information has never been easier to come by, yet it’s never been harder to turn information into knowledge. Instead the volume of information is an incentive to dabble in things rather than delve into them in pursuit of some sort of mastery, no matter how slight. Is it better to know how to make really good pesto from scratch but nothing else, or to have ready access to many different kinds of passable microwavable meals but know how to make nothing well. (Or is that a particularly nefarious both-and situation?)


I feel a little guilty in bashing Michael’s, because my intent isn’t to dump on the people who shop there, reject them in favor of some superior set or artistic professionals. But some sort of process of professionalization seems necessary to bringing about a meaningful exchange between maker and user—a social relation must be brought into being in which the exchange itself matters more than the personal relation. Of course, in capitalist society, professionalization is a matter of getting paid. Making money is the mark of professionalism—transforming a production into a commodity for sale and finding success in vending it. Get to that point and you show that you’re not just dabbling; you are trying to make customers of others and live up to their expectations. That discipline elevates the product beyond hobby and craft—you’re not just dilettanting around.


But professionalism needn’t automatically be defined by money—by selling out to the Man. It could instead be seen as a matter of creating something that isn’t merely an extension of one’s ego, a matter of wanting to give a social life to some idea or thing that will can then circulate independently from us. Amateur culture often fails to achieve that separation, doesn’t rise to level where it can be seriously criticized because it seems that its primary purpose is to secure recognition for the maker. A noncapitalist understanding of professionalization might resemble flow, losing oneself in a process, wherein the end product is secondary to the creative experience itself but not a matter of total indifference. Instead it could have a ready path to manifesting its social usefulness, to finding an appreciative audience without having to be explicitly marketed—and having its meaning permanently altered by that discourse.


Utopian internet folk probably have this in mind, that the internet becomes a low-barrier-of-entry distribution channel that permits our work to become socially useful without having to be channeled through capitalist means of production first. Unfortunately, capitalist media companies and various internet startups (often under the guise of enhancing the read-write web and so on) have by this time managed to embed themselves online between most home producers and would-be consumers, and in much in the same way as Michael’s kits, the use of these intermediaries’ services tend to taint our productions automatically with amateurism. Thanks to the corporate-owned easy-to-use services, the space that had been opened on the internet for a different kind of professionalism is now being flooded with look-at-me productions. If we are all narcissists, we’ll all remain amateurs, which offers an interesting, albeit functionalist, way to look at the modern efflorescence of narcissism—it seems as though there is an incentive to try to make us that way, insecure in who we are and preoccupied with gaining recognition. But sadly, a MySpace page will never make us web designers any more than a paint-by-numbers kit will make us artists.


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