The Aristocracy of Art

Aristocracy of Art typecast - Rino Breebaart

This is a reactive piece. It's been bubbling for a bit, and needs further explication. And I should clarify that Lanier was the inspiration for it - his humanist critique of crowdsourcing is in line with this. And I do not deliberately cast myself as a "genius" by association here: I function more as a critic/theorist. But then every critical generation should throw up a genius like Ruskin too... See? Pure snobbery at work. It is and it isn't.


  1. Thanks for (yet) another stimulating article. I'm not one to readily label anyone a genius but I tend to agree with your basic thread. Any multiple has a lowest common denominator which defines its mediocrity. But can creativity thrive in a vacuum? And is genius a commodity or an attribute given only by the 'crowd'?

    Interesting w/v: reverso

  2. Rob: interesting: I think genius is something related to identity, the personal make-up. The crowd/mob tends to grayify identity and distinction, hence my suspicion that it's anti-talent.

    There is a thing called scenius or the traditional school/movement (as group talent and ~pool), but that's very far removed from the levelling nature of crowdsourcing. I think it's the marketing people trying to start a trend.

  3. Interesting read. I agree with most of what you said (maybe all, but I don't want to say that without being 100% sure).

    Now, I do think the non-crowdsourced genius still relies heavily on the crowd. If a contemporary genius is involved in a subject that "nobody cares about", is s/he really a genius?

  4. @deek: I'd say so. Extraordinary talent is often said to be 'discovered', implying a quality was present but unobserved.

  5. Couldn't agree more - there is, I think, a pervasive (largely US American) idea about equality that gets misappropriated. Everyone should have equal opportunity and human rights, but that does not mean that all things are equal. The opinion of climate sceptics or trailer park bogans is not equivalent to that of scientists nor smart people. Being 'entitled' to an opinion does not render your opinion of equal value to that of everyone else.

    In the context of crowd-sourcing I think you're right that there is this homogenising effect, but just to play devil's advocate with your position, I also think that within any system there is a continuum rather than a stark duality. So I think what you're proposing is a false dichotomy. People aren't either geniuses or incompetent plebs, they're both and everything in between.

    At one end of the continuum we have talentless hacks and many of them, and at the other end we have bonafide geniuses, who are few in number.

    Thing is that in a real world context there's a lot of people (dare I say like you or I) who aren't Da Vincis, but who perhaps have some amount of talent and expertise to separate them from the talentless hacks. What crowd-sourcing at something like 99 designs does is allow for a meritocracy to take place wherein those in third world countries, between jobs, freelancing or whatever can compete. The result relies upon the client having good taste, which isn't always the case, and the truth of the market is such that the best designers are still going to be full-time employed for the most part and not interested in devoting many hours developing a logo for one tenth their normal rate competing against 20 other designers who have a lot more time on their hands.

    But the principle is still meritocratic, and I suspect many designers who are competing on these kinds of sites are learning a lot through the process and that the quality of the outcomes is therefore getting better with time.

    Another point is that there's a lot of privileged creative professionals cruising along in their cushy jobs who might be falling behind the times, their skill sets becoming outmoded, their passion to do great work crushed underfoot of stress, clients and higher-ups' various idiocies.

    Crowd-sourcing might be one of the ways that more of a meritocratic equilibrium is restored at some levels of the market. When you think about it, clients who get several agencies to pitch is a form of crowd-sourcing that's been going on for ages, and the truth is that they get a better outcome through the process of competition.

    Ultimately the truth will out - the best creatives are going to be able to negotiate much better conditions than crowd-sourced exploitation sites, and the results will have a determining effect in terms of where the most savvy, successful businesses go to get their work done. You won't see Nike looking for a rebrand on 99 designs any time soon.

    What you might see, though, is some kid in India who has a dodgy PC, an internet connection, a strong phenotypical eye for design, and 20,000 hours in which to learn who becomes extremely successful on such sites, and then gets employed by an Indian agency, and then gets poached by a London agency, and then gets to work on the rebrand of Nike in 2055.

  6. Jesse, Deek,

    thanks for the (detailed) responses. And taking the time. Yes, I'm deliberately being a bit binary on the issue to better offset the contrast.

    I'm reacting to all the punditry that's mindlessly spruiking the web 2.0/social thing, like this SMH article: - the kind of lazy thinking that doesn't respect the value and power of ideas in a context of cheap exploitation.

    And yes, as a meritocracy it can work just fine. Crowdsourcing is great for small bits of information that may lead to bigger bits. But it dumbs down big-ass ideas in the worst way - where an idea is something that can change thought and perception.

    A philosophical shift is happening in our understanding of creativity + talent + ownership - where something intense and peculiar is being downgraded. Genius and The Crowd are not opposites - they're not even ballpark. It's what we hold up as the best that worries me.

    Note how my examples were mostly literary - and yours from advertising. My suspicion is that marketing is the only sector that'll survive the cultural depression we're entering now. That the model of marketing creativity will become THE model. Great for 99designs (have used a similar company previously - and think it works well) but less great for content generators, writers, musos.

    I worry we're rewarding agencies by setting them up as cultural edge-cutters. Or cutting edgers. We're not rewarding the geniuses of the spirit (Mailer's term for Lennon) who make cultural objects that are worth it. We can leverage profiles and attract viral eyeballs and mitigate churn - but can we create something outside of this paradigm.

    After all the Kanye samples and video meme mashups, all that'll be left is pure advertising. For Coldplay songs. Sampled by Kanye again. Or some such.

    My perpetual mental refrain (to a work): Yes, it's interesting, but is it any good? Does it express an idea? Is it crafted, immersive and humane?

    Again, genius (or the dangerous eruption of talent) doesn't fit today's understanding (of marketing). Crowdsourcing is fine for marketing and agencies; it doesn't cut mustard with the creative ideas and expression that are supposed to underpin culture.

    It begs a lot more guff - like what would a Genius 2.0 look and think like? Is he a generalist or a specialist? Would s/he care? etc etc.

    In the meantime I just want better content.

  7. hmmm… I fear you're quite right (and that my working in the ad industry is inadvertently skewing my perceptions).

    It does seem the case that mainstream herd-like homogenous thought isn't the thing that has propelled us this far forward into a progressive and civilised state. Instead it has been genius elite thinkers, visionaries who stood on the shoulders of each other. What most certainly has not enriched our culture is focus group plebs proffering hackneyed and predictable banality as a determinant of how things should be.

    I read a tangentially related article on why the philosophical father of libertarianism gave up on the movement he inspired earlier today that you might find interesting:

    there is something fundamental, and imo fundamentally flawed, about the reverence of cultural democracy: populism seems to have an entropic and degenerative effect as we see demonstrated to such grotesque effect in the USA; and I'm inclined to agree with your appeal to an aristocracy of art (as opposed to commerce). But I'm not so sure that it's rightly equivalent to the exclusionary tyranny of aristocracy as we'd normally think of it: intellectualism, art and ideas aren't to be prejudicial with regard to who can have 'em, but rather discriminatory with regard to the art or literature itself. This is an important demarcation, i think.

    The enlightenment didn't care that you were a scottish dropout, you can still be the father of empiricism because your thinking is genius. The snobbery of an enlightened culture is not ad hom, it's discriminating in the more archaic sense of the word in that it has good taste.

    Do we get the content we deserve in the same way that we get the government we deserve? Arrested development gets axed and vapid sitcoms get renewed contracts - there's little point, to my mind, attempting to redress the symptoms of an anti-intellectual culture that worships celebrity sensationalism and populist drivel. Something much more fundamental needs to occur wherein we begin to have reverence for art, science, literature, music and philosophy again. I suspect that it would be as simple as teaching critical thinking and philosophy in schools...

  8. ... to follow Lanier's reasoning: if we re-introduced an element of scarcity, then creativity might be recognised and rewarded again. Not thru micropayments, but by changing the system from a file/product one (copies and copies) to a service one (one or a few copies on the network).

    Thing is: very few people recognise that crowdsourcing (for big ideas) will fail because it widens the baseline so much that value/worth will be meaningless, and eventually uniform, indifferent. Zero scarcity - masquerading as super equality and accessability and you-can-too. Which - hey presto! ties in with not having to pay for those ideas in the first place.

    Hence the other problem: money.

    Someone - somewhere - is making a ton of money from YouTube. But who, and how? That's a secret. That skit from South Park with all the YouTube sensations, waiting in a room, for their money.

    Freemium doesn't inspire creativity and innovation either. Neither, ultimately, does the long tail. Just chump change. Nothing dependable, thousand fans or no.

    The web is like a way of dividing every profit calculation by a billion. You hope for the one trick that comes along and makes you some money (crowdsourced, natch). And everone will focus on that pony as a marker of certainty, as confidence-proof that the online model works. Like blockbuster thinking, just with lower probabilities.

    Like that teen Kindle writer who's sold like a million. For that every one lucky, freaky break, there's a billion others trying, and probably better. So the model is completely unrealistic, idealistic, deluded. I don't think there's a web model that succeeds without some non-web parent system or diversified base.

    It's not profits for all; it's potential profits, spread awfully statistically thin.

  9. It's like applying massive numbers to a finite problem: even with a billion web users, you still end up with crap.

    And it's also the oldest problem of the web: I ask everyone I know who works/depends on the web: So, how do you make money from it? How do you get paid for content? Even the content kings don't know. Because there is no way (yet). It's all about... leveraging.

    Of course we get the content we deserve: look at reality tv - cheap and easy flim flam with no writers or production values and all you have to do is edit a story into it post-hoc.

    Look at all the blag about gadgets and readers and ebooks - and no-one actually capable of saying it's a CRAP piece of writing, WHY did I bother etc (A: because the screen resolution is good).

    I want to bring it back to the matrix of identity and expression that is the source of art. That old *moral* pronouncement: there's only good art and bad art - Wilde - and we need more Wildes.

    And that calls for (eg) a revaluation of identity vis. the graying that happens online (Facebook). This is Lanier's line also ('What makes a person?') - and yes, his thinking is swaying me a bit currently.

    But for people like Lawrence, Henry Miller, Flaubert - this was the fount of their creativity - this centrality of identity. You simply can't crowdsource personality. (How perverse is that?). I think in the arts, in the world of the genius of expression, there is indeed an aristocracy - but it's different from political/social aristocracy. It's more of a talent-driven hierarchy; a bright but motley collection of unusual intensities.

    So yes, I do argue for a snobbish line, or an eccentric line, but I do so from personal conviction that this is right - not from a fuzzy mass of conformist birdnoises saying Er, well, everyone is right, somewhat.

    The value lies in personal singularity. That's the original mystery and power. The worth should be built on that, not the noisy mass. The mass responds to Murdoch pandering and lowest common denominator.

    Good content is sometimes difficult, obscure and rare - but so much worth the effort of invested attention. Cf the novel. Maybe it just needs to get scarce again. Which is an interesting question in an all-digital world. We've passed the point of not being able to do much without it any more.


  10. Sorry, absurdly belated reply.

    I can't say I'm versed in Lanier's reasoning, but I wonder if scarcity might only be necessary in the context of a system scarce of talent; scarce of intelligence; scarce of genius-realised?

    To my what we're seeing, what you're rightly identifying, is not the result of crowd-sourcing and collectivism itself but instead an emergent truth borne of a culture gone stupid on television thinking. These aspects of homogenised reverie of the banal and the out-sourcing of content (of literature, of art, of ideas) to the crowd and crowd-think market mechanisms are what we should expect to see manifest in a society where magazines are favoured over books.

    If such a seemingly achievable utopia existed in which children were taught to think critically, where the only 'genius' you saw in movies wasn't evil, where intelligence, and literature was celebrated; perhaps then we might see that the exponential effect of collectivist systems might multiply effects for the better rather than the worse? A small collective of intense intellectuals as one might find in a coffee shop in Paris in the 20's might then not be such a rarity, there might be the brewing of post-post-modernist ideas in the coffee shops of Brisbane, Dayton and Paris alike in a modern age.

    The enlightenment was a time of collective intelligence: the stars of Europe were philosophers; art and science were revered; free-thinking was unleashed in a melting pot of intellectual genius that has brought about our glorious modern lives two times longer than when such powerful, intense ideas were being concocted en masse (and so long because of them). The outsourcing of ideas at that time, the collectivist power, the crowd-sourcing of philosophical enlightenment was a great thing to behold, such that a university drop-out such as Hume could fraternise with other thinkers of the time and become the modern father of rational thinking. And there was both an actual aristocracy as well as an intellectual aristocracy at play there too - the merits of one's thinking were rightly vetted by the intelligentsia; but the point I'm making is that the values of society at that time were pro-intellectual. Whereas now, they're not.

    That, to me, is the crucial modifier.

    The individual genius cannot meaningfully be said to be apart from the society in which she is schooled; in which his ideas are tested; in which her mind is created. To my mind our minds don't stop at the edges of our brains: we are all connected.


Nice comments are welcome!