Is It Art Because You Say So? Or Because Everyone Says So?

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When it comes to art and artistry, social media continues to act as the great leveler of our time. More and more it has rendered age-old symbols of authority — critics — not merely reduced in power but hungrily searching for relevance, like constitutional monarchs facing political impotence for the first time. Reading certain critics, sometimes you smell their anger and resentment; they were never trained to respond to the questioning of their influence beyond pointedly ignoring letters to the editor or enduring the occasional public brickbat directly from an artist or two.

Yet, as social media gathers more and more control over culture (not to mention the ebb and flow of politics), not only are the masses drawn to developing their own views on art, but increasingly they are finding fulfillment in harnessing all the modes of expressing and publicizing those views. Tweeters, Facebookers, Diggers and their like plainly see that along with advertising one’s views comes the potential acquisition of power — the gasoline that drives the blogosphere, as everyone knows. It’s a feedback loop that has been analyzed to death for half a decade now: As there are fewer and fewer cultural chieftains with the gravitas to decide what is wheat and what is chaff, the vacuum will be filled by, well, everybody.

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Putting this another way, if the analog world of art was oligarchical — a tiny fraction determining what is art, who is an artist, etc. — the hyper-wired world, the social-media-dominant world, is literally democratic, all messiness, clutter, noise and bluster. Some argue that consumers still want someone(s) to instruct them on what is good or bad, what to buy, what to believe. In a world of innumerable someones, power diffusion means influence confusion. That leads to more hunger for instruction, which leads to more people after authority of their own, on and on. We’re in something of an Orwellian trap: Freedom is Power. Control is Freedom. Everyone is Art.

Two recent posts advance the discussion to its next step: examining to what degree it’s true that anyone can be an artist, whether anything can be art and who gets to decide — if anyone at all.

At Mind the Gap, a post entitled “If Anyone Can Make Art” finds for the upside of the equation, smoking the peace-pipe of cultural egalitarianism:

I’ve had some conversations lately with creators in which they lamented an observed trend towards increasing self-involvement among their audience–a fear of the “my opinion should count because I can Twitter it” critical leveling on display of late. Wouldn’t this mark the beginning of the end for great artistic expression? Wouldn’t quality be washed out with tsunami force when anyone, regardless of expertise, could participate?

At the Utne Arts Blog, a post called “Artists, Professionals, and the Wrong Side of History,” pivoting off a think piece in Eurozine, reminds us that the debate is centuries-old:

…amateurs always manage to find new ways to remain relevant. …the article shows that those who fight against amateurs are aligning themselves on the wrong side of history.

The implications in addressing the debate, though, are more freighted that we often acknowledge.

For example, if anyone cannot be an artist, does that make the argument for arts education a tougher sell? True, arts appreciation is distinct from creating art. But if the lesson is that the arts are the province of the crowned, ordained beneficiaries of the intelligensia, how do we avoid alienating everyday folk?