Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Culture's carcass?

I have often complained about the dumbing-down of North American culture. Andrew Keen's forthcoming book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture appears to do the same thing. But if there's any truth to Andrew Wallenstein's early review of the book, Keen's arguments are one-sided and rife with an elitism that he leaves unacknowledged:

"Cult" casts the Internet as the bogeyman by reeling off a laundry list of its shortcomings. Keen's favorite targets include Wikipedia for disseminating lies, pro-corporate bloggers, silly video sensations like Lonelygirl15 and MySpace-based perverts.

But not only does "Cult" fail to cite a single example of any of the Web's redeeming qualities, it also exhibits a willful naivete -- or amnesia -- about the TV, movies and music that weren't all exactly Norman Rockwell paintings, either.

Keen finds blogs to be nefarious by nature for warping the truth or shilling for Wal-Mart, and yet he never gets around to mentioning the time Dan Rather's erroneous report on President Bush's military record was corrected in the blogosphere or how local news is awash in paid publicity masquerading as "video news releases."

"Cult" seizes on the Internet as if it represents some kind of quantum leap in cultural degradation, but all the book is really doing is applying a fresh coat of paint to the same hobbyhorses media critics have been riding for decades.

"Cult" is unabashed in its elitism, and there's something deliciously counterintuitive about someone essentially arguing that the ability of the masses to generate content is a bad thing. Absorbing Keen's jeremiad is like listening to Louis XVI decrying the French Revolution.
[Read the whole review...]

As much as I find the perceived erosion of traditional aesthetic values disquieting, I am further unsettled by the elitism inherent in most discussions about the decline of North American culture. Political arguments aside, I find this kind of elitism so problematic because it allows people to ignore what is really at stake here: the approaches by which we currently evaluate and engage with our world and with "the beautiful" as they are represented in non-digital art do not adequately account for the changing relationship between art and technology.

Just as in the 19th and 20th centuries the daguerreotype, motion picture and mass production forced our predecessors to rethink the nature and function of art, so too must we. Change is disquieting, but--if you'll pardon the truism--it is inevitable. This we must accept. But we must also think! A knee-jerk condemnation of new media is equally foolish as a knee-jerk, "anything goes" valorization of it.

I'm not sure if this failure to engage--whether it be with art or in genuine debate--is a symptom or a cause of the anti-intellectual bent in culture on this continent...

At any rate, I plan to pick up The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture when it comes out in June. From the sound of it, I'll have plenty of material with which to engage! I have far from exhausted this topic; stay tuned...

EDIT: May 3, 2007, 2:40 a.m. - Check out this op-ed on a topic very-much related to the subject of this post. [Link via Bookslut.]

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