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I read two things today that bring into focus the downside of the democratization of thought and culture that the internet has provided us. The first is yet another thought-provoking post from Mat Gleason at the Huffington Post. The second is from photo critic A. D. Coleman on his Photocritic International site.  To me, they approximate the opposite ends of an argument that catches us, we intrepid purveyors of art and culture, squarely in the middle and with no place left to run.

I read both of these guy frequently and like them a lot. They raise critical issues and invite the reader to think. They share a certain smugness and self-satisfaction but do so from completely different points. Gleason is an iconoclast, Coleman a member of that group which some have branded the cultural elite. Both are touchingly sure of the correctness of their own vision, but since their visions are inherently antagonistic, they can’t both be right.  Or can they?

At issue here is the supposition, increasingly popular, that anyone with a camera is a photographer, anyone with a PC a journalist, anyone with a point of view is worth listening to. I’ve commented on this disastrous trend before (in this post)and elsewhere. It’s an oversimplification to be sure, but I think there’s some merit in using it as departure point for discussion.

Sundown (©2010 Richard X. Moore) This is serious art because I say it is.

Gleason publishes the Coagula Art Journal, a very hip, very happening online magazine about the arts. I like Gleason’s basic premise that the Art World is exclusionary, hide-bound by tradition and dogma, and without much relevance to normal people, be they art practitioners or soccer moms or sales associates at Target. But in his haste to dismiss the establishment, he seems to replace it with a something equally tyrannical: the collective where no one’s opinion is any more valuable than anyone else’s. As an example, I give you this statement:

“Art is subjective. There inherently cannot be experts.”

This is the purest form of bullshit. The statement is designed for mass populist appeal and to challenge it is to risk self-identifying as one of the dreaded elitists. It is, however, false on it’s face. For one thing, there’s a body of research that at least suggests that there may be a biological basis for artistic expression and appreciation For another, there is a rich history of art, the study of which gives rise to an understanding of what artists of different historical periods were expressing and how some art movements lead to others. To say that these things are irrelevant is to display a monumental ignorance of cultural development. If Gleason said “experts don’t know everything,” I’d agree wholeheartedly, but he didn’t. And his smirking, adolescent contempt for the educated shines through in other statements, particularly where he intimates that art professors are bad at sex, the basis for which knowledge he doesn’t share with the reader.

Still, it was the Art Establishment that elevated Warhol to a deity and, by way of example, proclaimed Sherrie Levine’s plagiarism as brilliant and visionary, so there’s clearly some truth in there somewhere. Oh, wait, Levine is an appropriation artist, not a plagiarist. My bad.

A Photograph of a Walker Evans Photograph by Sherrie Levine, passed off as somehow original in some way.

Coleman, on the other hand, takes his role as a critic very seriously. He has high standards of scholarship and has never been afraid to take on the sacred cows of the medium of photography (his surgical destruction of a very pompous Minor White in his book Light Readings ranks among my favorite critical essays ever) . He respects knowledge and dedication to craft. He is one of those elitists that Gleason and his ilk talk about, and his work has shaped my own appreciation of photography more than anyone’s.

Coleman published an interesting essay this past year about. among other things, the decline of scholarship and quality in the cultural press. He laments the replacement of critics with specialized understanding with “culture reporters” who know very little about anything in particular. The content is dumbed down to the point that anyone with a probing mind will invariably find it, to be as kind as possible, utterly without depth. He sees, as I do, a continually downward spiral toward mass ignorance and obsession with trivial nonsense. To wit, the rise of the internet and its effect on print journalism has:

… led {print publications}  to a more reader-driven relationship to content, with  the result that, in a steadily dumbed-down culture, Amy Winehouse, Kim Kardashian, Bruce Willis, Ashton Kutcher, and Demi Moore share front-page headline space with Arab Spring and the European financial crisis.”

I blame both the readers and the press for this and the result is clear: as a society, we care about nothing of consequence and often ridicule those among us who still practice what is known as “critical thought.”

If the elites gave us Sherrie Levine, the anarchists have given us something equally disquieting: “great” artists lacking in craft consciousness, originality, or even a message worth paying attention to. This happens because in the post-internet world, everyone is just as good as everyone else and we don’t need education and experience to say something meaningful. Everyone has an opinion.

In a world where accountants have replaced scholars, we have the likes of Damien Hirst becoming a multimillionaire because enough of the right people simply said he’s brilliant. He sells dead animals in formaldehyde and “paintings” of rows of colored dots that he himself did not create but rather delegated to assistants. He’s been called the Warhol of his generation, which is not a compliment in my book.

LSD (possibly not) by Damien Hirst

This is true, the opinion thing. But every opinion isn’t equally valid, no matter what the egalitarians what to tell you. Some opinions are flat-out wrong, even stupid. That’s Coleman’s premise, and I totally agree. We now live in a world where everything is art, just by applying the word.

These are thorny issues. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that both points of view will be found in whatever answer eventually emerges from the ruins. I don’t want to exclude anyone, but I don’t want to accept vapid garbage as art as a prerequisite to my admission to the collective. There is a place for scholarship, there is a place for critical thought, there is a role that history has to play. Yet these things do not need to define us, to limit the roads that we creatives can or should take.

I no longer place much faith in the marketplace to decide what is good art and what is tomorrow’s landfill. The market gets manipulated by both camps (camps is really a bad word since it’s more of a continuum than anything else, but you get my meaning). Replacing one elite with another, albeit more inclusive one, isn’t productive. I just leads to more counterproductive puffery.

My faith lies in the people who view my images and who read my words and on whether or not I move or inspire them, or even piss them off. I’m not asking anyone for credentials, but I would appreciate the engagement of the brain in all considerations of my work. I will defend your right to express your opinion, regardless of content, so long as you will defend my right to tell you you’re a moron if the situation requires.

RXM

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