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Metropolitan Life

December 2, 2010

HBO is one of those things you have to have (if you can afford it), even if you don’t watch a lot of movies, because of miniseries like The Pacific (until I saw it, I had no idea what my dad had gone through in WWII and just how deeply it had fucked him up and so many others), and Martin Scorsese’s “biopic” of humorist Fran Lebowitz – I’d call her a writer but she hardly writes at all, making instead what seems to be a very good living as a sort of stand-up comedian.  Nice work etc.

I wanted to finish up my riff on consumerism today, and there was something she said that reinforced my belief that there was a defense to be made of the consumer who didn’t produce anything, but who “works” at a level above the consumer who will not only buy anything but is gullible and dumb enough to believe that advertisements are “new and interesting.”

She talked about AIDS and how it had impacted the culture of Manhattan.  AIDS killed off the best and the brightest, the “first tier” of creatives. (She said, somewhat tastelessly but probably accurately, that that was because they had more sex than those who weren’t as talented – which would mean that you could get lucky often in NYC by being smart and talented without being pretty, which means I need to move.)  But just as importantly, it also killed off a whole field of connoisseurs.  Ballet, for instance, was great because everybody in the audience knew when you made a wrong move, when you made a great move – there was no room for error because there was no hiding error.  Today, she claims, the second rate and third rate and fourth rate talent thrives because not only did the best talent die, but so did the best judges of talent.

Great art needs a great audience, and to be a great audience means you spend a lot of time and energy and effort consuming it, because how else do you know it when you see it?  Are you ever going to dance en pointe yourself?  No, but that doesn’t prevent you from learning how to see when it’s done right.  I haven’t and can’t make time to read Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus (not having a whole lot of surplus in stock these days), but I think Jaron Lanier and Jonah Lehrer have addressed two of the key issues, though not the third.

From what I’ve read about it, the TL;DR of Shirky is essentially that creating LOLcats in your spare time is better than just sitting there watching TV, as it contributes to the great datasphere in the sky, maybe eventually leading you to contribute to Wikipedia or something useful, and if not, that’s okay too.

But as Lanier notes, most of the material we create out of “generosity” and “goodwill” is then repackaged by others and served up with a side order of Adsense.  What we create for free is being monetized by someone else, which gives lie to the idea of “free culture.”  And Lehrer notes that

[T]he consumption of culture is not always worthless. Is it really better to produce yet another lolcat than watch The Wire? And what about the consumption of literature? By Shirky’s standard, reading a complex novel is no different than imbibing High School Musical, and both are less worthwhile than creating something stupid online. While Shirky repeatedly downplays the importance of quality in creative production—he argues that mediocrity is a necessary side effect of increases in supply—I’d rather consume greatness than create yet another unfunny caption for a cat picture.

Lehrer notes that watching The Wire is “worthwhile,” but he misses the main point: Someone has to pay for shit.  David Simon can’t create The Wire if HBO isn’t paying him, and HBO won’t pay him unless we pay them, and keep the ratings high enough to justify renewal (though admirably they kept the show going despite so-so ratings, a decision I think they’ve recouped over the years via international and DVD sales).  American Ballet Theatre isn’t going to stay in business if nobody buys tickets, nor will Off-Broadway productions, or museums, especially now that arts funding is down if not out.  The Republicans are in charge again and have naturally, in the middle of a Second Great Depression and a two-front war, made reviving Jesse Helms’s and Pat Buchanan’s culture wars their first priority (well, second after saving rich people from the horrors of fair tax rates).

Culture is economics.  All the high-flown rhetoric in the world won’t erase that fact.  I remember when I was a young and ambitious would-be writer, and went to the library to thumb through Writer’s Market to see what was out there.  I remember seeing magazines like Esquire and Playboy and how much they paid per word – ten cents a word, a fortune!  And then there was the entry for The New Yorker, which said only that The New Yorker pays, and I quote exactly, “very well.”  In other words, away with thee thou foul thoughts of filthy lucre!  Art was something set firmly (in public) in opposition to Commerce, even as its practitioners jockeyed ruthlessly for grants and book contracts and magazine assignments.  Filthy lucre was to be publicly despised; one was to pretend at all costs that it didn’t matter – “one” strove to be published in The New Yorker because “one” wished to be in The Finest Magazine In The World, not because it paid a shitload of money.  This band of hypocrites despised Tina Brown and her takeover of the magazine because she brazenly conducted a culture business like a business. (“Nobody wants to read 25,000 words about zinc,” she said famously, driving a much-needed nail into the coffin of a certain style of pretentiousness.) 

What is “worthwhile” now, what is high and noble and useful when so much is free, is to pay for good stuff.  The person who buys an album is a greater contributor to the culture than the creator of a LOLcat will ever be.  Artists can’t create much, I’ll tell you from experience, when they spend all their time working to pay for shit and nobody is paying for theirs.  The advocates of “free culture” want every artist to be a social butterfly, giving art away for free and “monetizing” it through live performances or t-shirt sales or some other form of self-promotion which leaves little time and energy for creating, and which many of us are completely unsuited to do – anti-socialism and a taste for creative solitude being the things that made us artists in the first place. 

I finished Shop Class as Soulcraft, and there was a relevant passage in there to all this.  Talking about watching a customer of his motorcycle repair business take a hairpin turn, Crawford says

I try to be a good motorcycle mechanic.  This effort connects me to others, in particular to those who exemplify good motorcycling, because it is they who can best judge how well I have realized the functional goods I am aiming at.  I wouldn’t even know what those goods are if I didn’t spend time with people who ride at a much higher level than I, and are therefore more discerning of what is good in a motorcycle.

By being connoisseurs of his high level of craftsmanship, they connect in a community that acknowledges a “larger circle of meaning,” a friendship that “orients by concrete images of excellence.”  And by paying him for his labors, they enable him to do more of it, to become better at it, to free him from the need to do other, more lucrative and less interesting things instead.

To purchase a delivery device for ads for more crap to purchase is to be a “consumer.”  To purchase a good book, to buy a ticket for an art film or a play or a concert, is to be a better consumer if not a “connoisseur.”  Buying greatness is always a finer addition to the culture than making crap.

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