Thursday, November 21, 2013


This is my blog, so I ask you to indulge me a little here and permit me to make the following bald assertion: the proper purpose of art, and of curating art, is to make available to the public work that will connect with members of the public, that will challenge us, that will teach us, that will open us to larger ideas and feelings, that will expand us, that will entertain us, that will move us. Art is, or should be, ultimately, for The People, for their greater enrichment.

Modern art curators, gallerists, and so on would, most likely, sign on to some or all of this. They would be quite unlikely to admit that the actual (as opposed to proper) purpose of modern Art Curation is to create an artificially limited supply of what is basically a wildly available product, in order to create the impression of a closed and exclusive club, with the aim of creating and maintaining a largely artificial and extremely lucrative market.

I beg your indulgence a little further, and baldly claim that, claims to the contrary, that is precisely what modern art is about. Like all human institutions, the goals and desires of the people in it are largely irrelevant. The institution itself behaves in such a way as to entrench its position and to expand itself and its influence. So, while individual curators and gallerists and artists may earnestly desire to serve some greater good, the institution as a whole does not. Among other things, it has devised its own language which seems to exist primarily to exclude the unwashed.

Whether or not you believe my assertion that the institution of Art operates largely to protect a lucrative market, perhaps we can agree that one would have a hard row to hoe should one choose to argue that the modern institution of Art effectively serves some greater public good.

There have been some motions toward democratizing access to art. Various web sites are springing up to offer art at various price points to various larger markets. These, I think, are really just an attempt to expand the exclusive club, and to thereby cash in. The aim is not to actually revolutionize the institution, but merely to join it and make a bunch of money. Making the same old art available to people who merely have a few thousand to spend isn't really the same thing as democratizing art itself.

On the opposite side, we have a sort of mass curation process which occurs in public, on web sites like flickr and so on. Rather than a cadre of credentialed gatekeepers trimming down the flood of available art into a small and manageable set of reliable workers and a right-sized flow of Certified Important Art, we have everyone on the planet empowered to Like or +1 anything, and to thereby to collectively elevate certain work over other work. By skimming the very top of this totem pole, we get a set of.. something.

The trouble on this end is that when the tools are a Like button and a 100,000,000 people, what you get is a homogenized collection of pictures that people generally tend to like. Add in some social norming, and the result is pretty uninspiring.

The Fine Art side has at least a chance of selecting work that is challenging, educational, expanding, interesting. The people in the system do, after all, perceive it as their job to do just that.

The democratic side doesn't. It is incapable of generating anything except some lowest common denominator of likable work. This is not because people are awful, it's simply that there are too many of them. Average up enough disparate opinions, and all the interesting stuff gets cancelled out. Every single person on 500px could have excellent taste in some sort of crazy avante garde form, but when you average up what the all like, that stuff gets eliminated because not enough people like any individual branch of the crazy.

So on the one side we have a Fine Art System which is devoted mainly toward maintaining a small and lucrative market, and on the other side we have homogenized and uninteresting pablum. The currently available systems are: Oligarchy, and Mob Rule. Neither one seems to be serving The People all that well, but at least nobody seems to be getting shot. Which is nice.

What is needed is some sort of middle ground. Simply replacing the gallerists and curators with a new set of Approved Gatekeepers won't help, they'll just descend into their own little world of madness. We don't need different oligarchs, and we certainly don't need more Mob Rule.

We need some way to generate small, interested, opinionated, and passionate groups of people who will make and curate art. We need some way to organize these groups, to rate and rank that output, and to make their output available. We surely do not lack for small, interested, opinionated, and passionate groups of people. The trouble is that these groups are of two kinds: the kind nobody has every heard of or ever will; and the kind that are already in charge, have been sucked into the Fine Art World, and are now serving the lucrative market. Perhaps we want something like a representative democracy, the traditional middle ground between oligarchy and the mob.

There are two problems:
  • surfacing the work of little groups of weirdos so we, the general public, and jerks on the internet, can find it.
  • preventing little groups of weirdos from cementing themselves into place as permanent gatekeepers of taste.

I'm tempted to propose the phrase "continuous revolution" at this point, except that history has provided this phrase with the connotation "most obnoxious gang of oligarchs ever" so it's probably a bad choice. In any case, my notion of a cellular social network is clearly an attempt to provide precisely this sort of thing.

There's plenty of excellent photography out there, plenty of excellent Art. What is needed is a mechanism by which more of it can be found, anointed with the magical oil of Good Art and brought forward to the people, a mechanism which does not reward the ability to chatter about playing with the dialectics of reality, but rather rewards actually challenging, entertaining, and enriching. We need enough mob rule to keep the oligarchs down, and enough oligarchy to force some challenge, some variety, some difficulty onto us, The People.

Got any ideas?

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