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the changing face of art value



commentary • 09.10.12

It is not much appreciated that successful artists are part of an elite. Some of them might not like that or think it is the case but it is by definition true. Of all the art that gets made only a tiny fraction has any cultural impact. Once you’re successful, even if only briefly, you’re part of a select group whose work has been chosen from a mass of contenders.

The structures that grew up in support of successful creative work were consequently elite structures. Even just being party to them was some kind of success in itself. If you had a recording contract say, or a book deal or a commission of any kind, if you had some signed agreement with a major player, you were in the door already among the chosen few with a prospect of wider recognition. The very fact of getting that far was a thing worth coveting; you had gotten lucky, your work was being elevated by fact of selection by society’s arbiters; you were on the platform, historically a rather difficult space to get to. That’s how it was: the audience was the mass and the creators were the elect.

Things might be changing now. These days the old platform has to contend with the Internet, something which threatens its credentials as a stage for the elite. Indeed the Net is akin to a universal stage open to anyone. That might seem a fairly innocuous event but I suspect its effects are far reaching. It potentially cuts across the long established convention of the singular artist and the great work, the one that made it to the elite stage ahead of all others. What may not have been so apparent in bygone days was that for every “great” there were many more hidden contenders of comparable talent who never got a shot. The new environment brings these contenders into view and there are more of them than ever.

This is potentially a problem. Too much art threatens its high value thus the need for elite structures acting as filter. It doesn’t matter there are 10,000 other options, each of similar quality by any objective measure, the culture only wants one. It likes to celebrate the one above all others which is “best” and “best” can’t be achieved without being on the platform. In his excellent essay Quality Is Overrated Stefan Goldmann explores this phenomenon pointing out that: “the entire planet can get along nicely with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness.”

It is not much realised just how important the contextual aspects contribute to the high value of art. Remove the platform and the art itself seems diminished. That’s already happening to some degree as the Internet increasingly fragments everything into infinite niche and infinite choice. I hear complaints about the difficulty in finding new music - the so called paradox of choice - yet there is more material available than ever with ready access and much of it highly accomplished. That’s a context problem right there relating to a diminished consensus platform. When it’s not presented by tastemakers in an elect environment (by journalists, broadcasters, the music industry etc.) people have trouble connecting with it. I think this issue will manifest more in future as the old elite platform gives way to the new universal one.

Still, it remains anyone’s guess how things will pan out. Goldmann implies that not much will change and that the long tail of the Internet won’t deliver the crème de la crème we have become so conditioned to expect. Maybe that’s true and the only change will be new elite structures emerging to maintain old traditions. Or alternatively, and more interestingly, we might get cosy with the idea of permanent niche with no central stage and no mono-culture with its assertions about quality. You like what you like based on your own intuitions. I’ve long been drawn to that idea probably because it’s the place I reside, way down the long tail where obscurity rules. But it is probably unrealistic and too radical a notion for that to become the norm as most will continue to need a lot of context with their art to digest it. A world with no limelight, no superstars, no global stage, no opinion brokers and tastemakers outside ones’s immediate community is surely too much to countenance. No?

I’ll give the final word on this to a wise old man of rock:

People have the need to set people above themselves. The stage is the illustration of that - the demigods... I stand on stage and I’m thinking, what are you looking at me for, a damn junkie hacking away at the guitar? What is this? This must be a primal need.

                                                                                          ~ Keith Richards