There’s an infamous little book making the rounds called “the cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture”
by Andrew Keen. I haven’t read the book, nor is this a rant against Keen’s actual arguments. According to marketing guru (and social web evangelist) Tara Hunt
of Citizen Agency
who attended a panel session with him, even Keen isn’t completely sold on his own arguments: “Basically, Andrew is being controversial for the sake of being controversial…it’s a marketing ploy. I don’t think he is really as polemic as he sounds…in fact, during [this panel at the Personal Democracy Forum] (I was there), he admitted that he was more of a moderate on the issue, but would sell more books if he took the extreme.” (Tara also pointed me to a great post
on the subject by Clay Shirky
, who was also present at the same panel.) So what’s my beef with a book I haven’t deigned to read? I am seriously concerned about the ripple effect in the larger arts community caused by people waving their “cult of the amateur” banners, particularly as it pertains to the self-representing artist.
Here’s the misconception I’ve been battling for years: Artists who sell their own work online are wannabes who can’t get gallery representation, or are quaint hobbyists, usually stay-at-home-moms, trying to make a little extra spending money. Self-Representing Artists are a bunch of uneducated, talentless hacks.
A recent blog entry from Artocracy had the following to say regarding Keen’s argument about how amateurs are killing our culture:
“People often ask why we curate Artocracy and not let everybody onto it, and here is a good article that discusses the importance of respecting people who are professionals. Every artist who is on the Artocracy site is a working artist, thinking about the visual arts, and pushing their ideas of their work. Andrew Keen’s book, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture,” is a great example of why sites like Imagekind, Art.com, Barewalls.com, and others of their type claim that everyone is an artist. When this is said, it diminishes the work of people who have studied, worked, and thought about the arts.”
I greatly admire Artocracy founder Megan Murphy’s vision for democratizing the art world, which in many ways mirrors my own. But by taking on the role of tastemaker and making judgment calls on what is and isn’t art via “curation,” aren’t they recreating (albeit at a much smaller price point) the very same elitist gallery system that they’re supposedly railing against? The above quote is a gross misrepresentation and generalization about the artists showing their work at the venues cited in Artocracy’s official blog. To state that sites that enable anyone to publish their art online, sans screening process, are somehow damaging to the arts community? I find that very antithetical to the whole self-representing artists movement and take offense both as an artist as someone who works as an advocate for the self-representing artists movement.
The folks at 37signals recently blogged about Keen’s book and some of their issues with his arguments:
“Keen’s got a point in some areas but it all seems rather elitist. One man’s “mob rule” is another’s democracy. If individuals can’t decide for themselves what to like, who should do it? Is he proposing we all obey a Committee of Good Taste or something?”
Do I love every single piece of art ever uploaded to EBSQ? No. But do I respect the right of every single individual on this site to be here and publicly declare themselves “artist,”, and the tastes of the market to sort out what is and isn’t art? You’d better believe it. Because there is a barrier to entry (a monthly fee, in our case) people who aren’t serious about their work tend not to last long in our community. And the people who are serious but aren’t yet as good as some of their peers? Well, they get access to a community that nurtures their work and helps them accelerate their learning curve so they can fulfill their dreams of following through with their artistic vision. I have seen people join who have nothing to bring to the artistic table but enthusiasm and a desire to learn who have gone from making some rather amateurish kitsch art that even they shudder to remember to really honing their skills to become decent and quite serious artists. Could that have happened in a place where you had to show up with perfect slides and a pedigree a mile long? Or worse yet, in a venue where one must match the tastes of the tastemaker to be accepted? Once, only once, in our seven year history has EBSQ made a judgment call on what is and isn’t art. And that was about five years ago when a member put some store-bought cheap-plastic beads on a safety pin and declared it “artist-made jewelry. ” While I still don’t agree that what she did was art, we’ve also gotten over ourselves a bit since then.
Even artists can’t agree on what the online art revolution means. Or what it means to be a “professional” vs “amateur” artist. When I bizarrely found myself serving as Vice President on the Board of Directors for Pittsburgh Society of Artists (an “old skool” institution if ever I saw one) I engaged in debate with some of the other board members as to what a professional arts career looks like in the new millennia. Is it the RISD certified master-painter who creates 5-10 new pieces a year, regularly does the biennial at The Carnegie and maybe one or two other local juried shows, plus a 3-man show at one of the galleries on Ellsworth Ave? Or is it the self-taught artist who paints daily, does her own marketing and shipping, interacts with her customers, takes on multiple commissions in a year, and sells the bulk of her work on eBay, thus eeking out a living solely from her art? I think it’s safe to say on which side of the argument I fell.
The digital age isn’t just threatening to the art establishment. It’s threatening to artists as well. It is also the greatest artistic opportunity since the Impressionists rebelled against the old patronage and grande ecole system and formed their own salons. Why can’t everyone be an artist? Or a poet? Or a blogger? Can’t the public be trusted to decide what’s good and what’s not? Or at the very least, to enjoy what they like? My husband Bill recently pointed me to a great quote from US President John Adams: “I must study war and politics so my sons may study mathematics and philosophy.” Even in this time of war and uncertainty, people from all walks of life, armed with their vision and an internet connection, are creating art and putting it out there for the world to see. Some of it is good. Some of it is bad. Some of it is even fantastic.