Post-commercial entertainment

[27 November 2007]

By Rob Horning

The Hollywood writers’ strike certainly helps throw this in relief, but it seems clear that the commercial entertainment industry is in trouble. Digitization and dispersed internet distribution has made it impossible for them to control supply, and the intellectual property concepts their business models depend on seem likely to come under attack or undergo extreme revision in an era where anonymous collaboration and open-source development become more and more customary. Not to wax too utopian about it, but it seems like the idea of commercial artists working for industry middlemen is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and as that changes, the means by which our society defines what makes for an artist or entertainer will change as well. Reality TV and blogging are just the most obvious examples of semi-professional and, in some cases, post-commercial entertainment supplanting the work of pros. The expectations we have of polish and high-end production values may continue to become more and more relaxed; what lo-fi indie rock helped pioneer could become acceptable in every genre and every medium, as YouTube would suggest. (Though all I ever seem to use YouTube for is watching old clips of bands from the 1960s and 1970s appearing on European TV; it’s become sort of a random-access collective memory. In fact, I can safely say that the internet, by enriching my access to obscure culture detritus from past decades, has guaranteed that I won’t pay any attention to contemporary culture for the foreseeable future.) While paid ads still support part of the distribution medium for these works (i.e. Google’s ad brokering makes it worth its while to host all this junk), the creators themselves, who are confronted with very little overhead for making and self-distributing their own product, are not necessarily compensated monetarily and seem to have attention (becoming more and more measurable, more and more useful as a means for status competition) rather than monetary reward as their motivation. This seems like a good thing, at first, but is it actually a license or a prod for all art to become even more about ego than communication? in other words, is self-expression as a goal wildly overrated, especially now that it’s so easy, now that we are in the so-called age of microcelebrity Clive Thompson notes in this Wired column? Is art being subsumed to an even greater degree by the (commercially derived) ideology of personal branding? Are we getting the worse of both worlds—the superficial, narcissistic culture without the discipline brought on by the need to make money?

In his book In Praise of Commercial Culture, economist Tyler Cowen points out that on the 18th century, when the printing press was having similar effects on culture as the internet is having now, critics worried that the commercialization of art, the market for books, would erode the power of fame as an incentive, without which writers would produce nothing but trash. But with fame devalued now that the trappings of celebrity are open to all, it seems like money and the professionalization that went along with it were last-ditch means to uphold standards. In Cowen’s view, 18th century critics sought to impose aesthetic standards and use fame as the reward that would induce writers to adhere to them. In a similar fashion, centralized cultural production enables a few media corporations, or the state (as in China, Soviet Russia, etc.), to impose similar standards. In a market economy, mass popularity seems to justify after the fact those decisions made early on about which works met the approved standards and were worthy of being supported. But mass popularity, or monetary reward may not be as significant when you can bask in the recognition of a niche audience and feel righteous about not having sold out. The “microcelebrity” thesis perhaps bears out Cowen’s argument that there is not a limited supply of fame, and that technology and the density of intertextual references multiplies the amount of fame there is to go around, albeit in ever finer measurements. But conversely, the demands on our attention may be stretched to the limit, leaving us in even greater need for filters and organizers of what’s available. Commercial gatekeepers once served this function; perhaps now social networking tools (linked in to targeted advertising) will replace them. Nothing, though, stands to discourage anyone from producing culture and “cluttering” the public sphere with it. I waver between thinking this is a pervasive triumph over passivity and fretting that it’s a disaster that’s made self-branding and the commercialization of our intimate identity commonplace—an eagerly sought accomplishment that we hope to confirm in the public sphere.

Having cheered for so long against the culture industry Goliath (without ever really suspecting it was actually vulnerable), it hasn’t often occurred to me to consider what we lose with its decline. The need to make art that will sell is usually derided as forcing artists to pursue the lowest common denominator and compromise their vision. But it may also have required artists to focus, to consider how effective their work would be on audiences. Respect for the bottom line typically makes people more receptive to criticism, and criticism from invested parties generally improves things. And the commercial entertainment industry performed a useful filtering service, putting hurdles between artists and audiences that eliminated some poetasters (and, unfortunately, some talented but easily deterred entertainers). One could be critical of what made it through that initial filter, but usually the fact that it made it through meant it was worth taking the time to criticize—it had been chosen and produced among thousands of other contenders. But free from the restrictions of commercialism, artists can ignore criticism and be as self-indulgent as they choose, selecting self-referential topics and making no effort to generalize subject matter so that others may get more out of them. Instead, artists can develop the expectation that others should be interested in their work for the sake of person making it, that it be interesting only on a personal level, the way Facebook pages are supposed to be.

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