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'The Rise of the Amateur'

gave this talk on April 11 at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane, Australia, as part of the Low-Fi Forum organised by Arts Queensland. You can read it in its original setting here, where you can also read and add comments.

A couple of quotes: “Criticism as a whole is best recognised as a polyphony, rather than a monologue: if there is a diversity of making and experiencing art, then surely the health of a culture can be partly measured by the availability of a diversity of response.” … ” the biggest shift is that we are no longer dealing with hierarchies of taste, with the critic at the top, but with an intensely complex system of interconnected networks. Authority exists within these networks, but it has changed … The discourse is fluid and rapid, and energies move according to different and sometimes counter-intuitive orders. The only rule is participation.”

The whole talk follows.

“Amateur” is an interesting word. It usually carries a derogatory sense, meaning unskilled, ignorant or second-rate. And it’s a word with economic baggage – an “amateur” is unpaid, whereas the “professional”, the term used as a distinction, is paid. This translates into a pay cheque being the badge of professionalism, whereby money becomes the currency of intellectual status. If you’re unpaid, so the wisdom goes, you can’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s a distinction that’s often been used often in recent years by journalists and critics attacking bloggers, in a debate that long past its use-by date. The cliché is that a blogger is an ignorant, asocial nerd banging away on his computer somewhere. The print journalist or critic is the one with trained, professional skills: the blogger parasitically (and anonymously) exploits the paid work of the professional and uses it to puff up his amateur ego, on the way undermining the whole profession. Andrew Marr, former political editor of the BBC, is not untypical when he says:

A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting. They are very angry people. OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk.

But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism.

Bloggers counter with their own generalisations, which similarly embiggen their significance: they are independent voices, while the tenured journalist is a wage slave subordinated to the demands of corporate bosses. Both these arguments misrepresent the complexity and fluidity of exchange that is the actual case.

This amateur/professional division is a distinction that breaks down completely as soon as you get anywhere near artists. Artists all know that the work that earns them money isn’t necessarily the work that they most value. Auden once commented that poets have no idea of the value of money, because they can spend a year writing a poem that earns them ten dollars and an afternoon writing an essay that earns them 500.

Bertolt Brecht wanted that paid professional status badly: he wrote his second play, Drums in the Night, to earn a buck while he was a struggling medical student, and erupted into fury when an older playwright told him he had written a stunning work of art: that wasn’t what he had intended at all. The history of art is replete with (often romanticised) stories of artists dying of poverty in garrets. Rembrandt, for example, lived his later years in desperate poverty, but painted his greatest work at that time. He was clearly no less skilled when he was unpaid than when he was paid.

Art and a steady income are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and poverty is not a badge of integrity, any more than an income is a mark of “selling out”. Artists, as a matter of principle, ought to be paid for their work, but the reality in our world is that very often they are not. Every artist wants to earn a living, and maybe the biggest challenge in every artist’s life is economic survival. Every working artist knows that, whether they like it or not, the biggest subsidy for the arts comes from the unpaid labour of artists themselves. In the strict economic division of professional vs amateur, most artists qualify as amateur.

However, there is another dimension to the word “amateur”. Amateur derives from the Latin verb amare, to love. It also signifies a commitment to a vocation that was pursued for its own sake, rather than for the sake of money. In the 19th century, the amateur sportsman was a fiercely guarded ideal, especially among the privileged classes, and for much of the 20th century only amateurs – those who did not derive income from sport – were permitted to compete in the Olympics. This amateur status is, out of necessity, still alive and well in the arts: the culture would in fact collapse without the unpaid work of the many. We certainly wouldn’t have a theatre culture in Australia without it: early companies like Sydney’s New Theatre, formed in 1936, or the theatre revolution of the ‘70s was fuelled by precisely this kind of unpaid work. Only the most privileged can make a full-time living from making art.

This ambiguous status has been generally recognised by such things as labelling co-op independent theatres, for example, “semi-professional”, but it remains an uncomfortable division. It’s too easily hijacked into an a priori judgment on the kind of work it signifies as being less important or achieved than that of “professional” companies: in other words, it’s made by “amateurs”. And again, a swift gallop through the history of art – even a quick look at the past decade of Australian theatre – demonstrates that artistic significance, merit and skill doesn’t dovetail neatly with whether or not the artists involved are paid.

Amateur and professional are not, clearly, neutral descriptors: they both come with a lot of baggage. They are most commonly used as markers of status: a professional writer has a higher status than an amateur. Much of the usage of these terms, in other words, has been about shoring up and reinforcing privilege of various kinds: economic privilege, to be sure, although the division holds out the hope for a gifted amateur to ascend to professional status, but also social and intellectual privilege. This partly explains why the internet, with its staggering democratisation of opinion, has given rise to such anxiety, especially in those professions already feeling under attack in the massive cultural shifts of the past decade.

There’s been a lot of press in the past few years about the death of critical authority, which generally places the finger of blame in two places: increasingly alienating academicism, on the one hand, and the noisy democracy of the internet on the other. Rónán McDonald, author of The Death of the Critic, sums up this argument:

The critic has a vital role to play in culture and one that is under threat. When Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot was first produced on the London stage in 1955, it was greeted with derision. Catcalls came from the early audiences and half the theatre emptied by the second act. But when favourable reviews appeared in the Sunday papers by the leading theatre critics Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, the play was taken seriously. Waiting for Godot is now regarded as the most important play of the 20th century. Controversial artists have often been brought to a resistant public by prominent critics. … But are there now critics of sufficient authority to perform this role?

Is this because we are all critics now? There has been a tremendous democratisation in response to the arts. … the idea that one opinion is as good as another has accelerated in recent years. …Alongside the popular expansion of criticism, the academic study of the arts has become much more specialised and esoteric…academics are content to speak to each other in technical language, published in small-circulation journals. …

The popular widening of criticism and its academic contraction might seem opposites but are in fact symptoms of the same assumption: that artistic value is simply a question of personal taste. The critic-as-instructor, as objective judge and expert, has yielded to the critic who shares personal reactions and subjective enthusiasms.

This is interesting because it assumes several things about the critic, not least his authority (I use the pronoun advisedly). McDonald is defending “the critic-as-instructor, as objective judge and expert”, the taste-maker who decides what will and will not enter the canon of great works. He has a point – I think the most important work a critic can do is to create a context in which new or challenging work can be appreciated – but for my part I think it’s only half a point. What he ignores, in claiming full credit for the perception of critics in advocating for art that doesn’t immediately catch the public taste, is the power of the art itself.

In this picture is an assumption that only person in the audience with an acute and superior sensitivity to art is the critic: the critic descends to sit among the hoi polloi, and dispenses his wisdom to the unwashed masses, who otherwise will just boo and catcall. This is patently untrue. An artist’s work might be recognised by a critic, and that has often been an important step for his or her work in reaching a wider public: but equally, if he or she is to have a legacy, it’s equally important that others – an audience, no matter how small – are fired by the same enthusiasm: in other words, that the work means something to those who experience it.

If a work of art doesn’t express something that someone else feels deeply, then no amount of critical pumping will preserve it in the cultural memory. It sticks in my mind that the only reason why we can read many of Sappho’s poems in the 21st century is because some anonymous monk loved them enough to rescue them from the great fire in the Library of Constantinople.

There are all sorts of works of art, and infinite means of making and experiencing them. This seems to me to be an uncontroversial statement. Criticism and response has always been – and to my mind remains even in this volatile age of information deluge – a means of processing and sorting and understanding, of generating grounds for discrimination. It is, as crucially as it is an individual activity, a collective process. Criticism as a whole is best recognised as a polyphony, rather than a monologue: if there is a diversity of making and experiencing art, then surely the health of a culture can be partly measured by the availability of a diversity of response.

This doesn’t mean that I am a person who claims that “one opinion is as good as another”; I don’t think that about art, and I don’t think it about criticism. And those who think that this is all the internet can mean for public discourse profoundly misunderstand its capacity for self-organisation. But it does mean that I think the process of assigning value is rather more complex than it is said to be here.

It’s worth stepping back now and taking a slightly longer view. In fact, the decline in the authority of the bourgeois critic began long before the rise of the internet. Back in 1986, the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in an essay called Twilight of the Critics that casts a sardonic eye over the literary journalism of his time, commented that “there is only babble left”. “Literature is free,” he says, “but it can neither legitimate nor call into question the constitution of the whole; it’s allowed to do everything, but nothing depends on it any more.”

Enzensberger is noting the decline in social influence of the great critics of the early 20th century, thinkers such as Edmund Wilson, Walter Benjamin, Viktor Shklovsky and so on, and their replacement, not by bloggers, but by literary journalists and academics, part of a self-perpetuating industry located in institutions such as schools, universities or newspapers.

The old-fashioned independent critics, says Enzensberger, were “fabulous intellectual beasts”, “writers who wrote about the books of other writers”. “These critics,” he says, “are said to have been independent people, who owed their significance solely to their work, not to an institution or an industry.” He compares this kind of criticism unfavourably with what took its place – what he called circulation agents – literary journalists and the like – and academics. “The former,” he said “belong overwhelmingly to the sphere of the free-market economy, the latter form the solid base of state culture.”

Literature, Enzensberger concludes, has lost its spotlight as the expression of an age, which was an accidental side effect of the domination of the bourgeois after the Enlightenment and has now splintered under late capitalism and the pressures of a pluralist consumerist economy. Yet, he says, it isn’t as if writers are especially upset by the death of the critic: they keep on writing all the same. Literature has simply returned to its true scale, a literate minority of the interested. “This public uncoupled itself from the Punch and Judy show of the big media long ago. It forms its judgment independently of the chatter of the reviews and the talk shows, and the only kind of advertising it believes in is word of mouth, which is both free and beyond price”.

Enzensberger’s essay is fascinating to read in 2011, because what feels itself under attack now is precisely the institutional critics and academics who replaced his “fabulous intellectual beast”, the independent critic. It’s interesting also because he so acidly points out the mediocrity of so much of this institutional criticism. It is this institutional authority that is most often mourned and defended in newspaper columns. The institutional critic, who has dominated public artistic discourse over recent decades, is now under extreme pressure: not only because of the internet, but because of profound social shifts that were already beginning in the 80s. And, like Enzensberger, I have found myself asking whether this is all bad.

One of the things which happened to public discussion over the Age of Murdoch, especially in Australia, was its ferocious centralisation in the mass media. Cities which once had two or three daily newspapers found themselves, through a process of continual economic rationalisation, only served by one. News Ltd and Fairfax have gradually bought up almost every independent newspaper outlet, meaning that these corporate entities dominate the discourse through all the suburbs and regions. The concentration of media ownership in this country has meant a continually narrowing bottleneck, not only of information, but of opinion and criticism.

This had a massive impact on the arts here, where – unlike Enzensberger’s Germany – we have the slenderest tradition of arts critique. Even before Murdoch, the public fortunes of a theatre company putting on a production in Melbourne was at the mercy of a tiny number of print critics. This critic, whoever he or she was, carried all the authority of the institution he or she worked for, and – for a wide range of reasons – their judgment was seldom publicly questioned. In the past decade, the digital world has changed the game out of all recognition.

The internet is a fiendishly complex phenomenon, and I’m not even going to try to begin to sketch out its implications, which are both positive and negative. I’m not utopian about digital technology. Anyone wanting to make a case for the decadence of late capitalist culture need only go online: you can find every sort of proof of human greed, ignorance, foolishness, ugliness, criminality and inability to spell. The internet has made possible phenomena like Wikileaks, which seeks to destroy the conspiracy of governance by a militant openness; but equally, it’s the internet which allows secret police all over the world to locate and arrest dissenters. It’s an extremely powerful tool, which can be used in many ways. The thing that is often forgotten in the discussions around the abstraction we call the internet is that it’s made by billions of individuals: how you use the net is up to you, and you can make things happen there if you want.

As far as arts culture is concerned, the biggest shift is that we are no longer dealing with hierarchies of taste, with the critic at the top, but with an intensely complex system of interconnected networks. Authority exists within these networks, but it has changed: those seeking to adhere the old, stable authorities often find themselves lost and bewildered. The discourse is fluid and rapid, and energies move according to different and sometimes counter-intuitive orders. The only rule is participation.

The internet has made possible two important things. One is the return of the genuinely independent critic. Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, for example, claims that the digital age has ushered in a “golden age” of film criticism. Simply because they can, a lot of intelligent people have gone online and started writing about the stuff they see. They have no need for an institution to make their work visible to the public: they can write whatever they like, and get it out to an audience, and it costs them no more than an internet connection. Freed of word limitations, they can consider things in detail. Freed of newspaper style and the insistence that they write in a certain vocabulary and consider significance in certain predetermined ways, they can bring as much complexity to the contemplation of art as they like.

That’s the sort of critic I am: although I think of myself as a reviewer rather than a critic, I am able to bring to the immediate work of review a wider vocabulary of thought than I ever found possible in print. The rise of this sort of critic, who simply writes about art because he or she wants to, has, with an astonishing swiftness, broken the monopoly of the mass media, and I think that is only good: now a diversity of response is beginning to match the diversity of the work that is made.

The second important thing is that those who never had a public voice, the audience themselves, can add their two cents to the polyphony. It might be worth here recalling Enzensberger’s comment about word of mouth, “which is both free and beyond price”. Their interventions might range from an idle tweet to a deeply engaged blog post. The distinction here between those who might be called professional critics, as I certainly have been, and the amateur commentator is now extremely blurred. The reader/audience member is the most common sort of arts blogger and, as the publishing industry has discovered, they have a lot of power. Opinions once confined to private expression are now out in public for other people to read.

Artistic institutions are suddenly aware of those who encounter their work in ways they never were before, and critics can be challenged and argued with. This is the democratisation of opinion, which is where we started. What’s new is not the existence of this opinion but its public airing.

People have always had opinions; for as long as there have been theatres, audience members have been starstruck, or have muttered darkly as they left foyers. It mightn’t be reviewing, necessarily, but it is and always has been part of the discourse around art. What’s so bad about listening to what audiences have to say? Corporations find this power terrifying, because it’s uncontrollable: but the arts company prepared to listen and imaginatively participate will learn a lot about the people who see their work, and more, can build up an invaluable fount of goodwill, an active relationship, with their audiences.

What the internet means is that more people are talking about art. They are talking about it because it moves them – it angers them, or pleases them, or excites them. They connect in small, volatile communities: some might last a microsecond, others might endure for years. They are not waiting – if they ever did – for some authority to come along and tell them what they think. Some are speaking from areas of deep expertise while others are not, but in the age of twitter and blogs, that’s just the beginning of a conversation. As an arts manager once said to me, anything is better than the white death of silence. And the chatter online sounds like life to me.