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Date: 08/08/10

A Brief Musing On Culture

Shortly after posting this late last night, I went to bed. But I found the experience to be so...well, unsettling (is there no word which is the positive equivalent of 'traumatic'?) that I found sleep hard to come by.

So I lay awake until gone three pondering on the nature of culture and its dissemination in our world today. And, although I wouldn't be so foolhardy as to chime with that notoriously self-satisfied editorial in the Times which said, "It is possible to look on the present with undisguised satisfaction" (I think it was just before the Wall Street Crash or some similar catastrophe), I really do think that we live - in terms of our access to culture - in as close to The Best Of Times as we are likely to get. And the primary reason is the World Wide Web.

I mean, consider it: for centuries, culture (as we still tend to use the term) was the preserve of the wealthy, the powerful, the favoured few. Great works of art such as paintings and frescoes were created at the behest of the contemporary princes of the world, and were intended solely for their own enjoyment (even if an adjunct of that enjoyment was simply in putting down either their rivals or their underlings).

Music (with the obvious exception of the rude chants of the serfs, or folk music as we now call it) was created at the urging, and under the patronage, of the great kings, princes, popes and merchants. The idea that the peasantry would be able to hear those works - and that it would be nourishing for them to do so - would have struck these rulers as dangerously subversive.

Literature similarly. After all, up until very recently - in historical terms - the vast majority of the population of even the most advanced societies was illiterate. Sure, the lower orders could enjoy their folk-rhymes or poems or stories transmitted imperfectly via the oral tradition, but these forms were by their nature transitory - vox audita perit, vox scripta manet - and were deemed to have no lasting merit.

Even into the age that we now seem to be emerging from, popular access to culture (however one may wish to define it) was not direct. For paintings and sculptures of merit to be seen by the public, there had to be places for them to be displayed. For books - fiction and non-fiction alike - to be available to the public, there had to be publishers and booksellers. For music to be widely heard, there had to be concert halls, theatres, publishers and, latterly, companies willing to issue recordings. And all these required money or the wherewithal to provide the infrastructure.

Thus it has been that the general public's access to culture in almost all its forms has been controlled by a few gatekeepers, who will only make available what is likely to turn to their advantage, either financially or ideologically. For this is no mere capitalist phenomenon. Whereas the great corporations - or even small publishers - of what used to be called The West would seldom issue any culture which would make them a substantial loss or bring them discredit in the eyes of either the public or the market, so too their equivalents in the great State bureaucracies of The East would publish nothing which did not have the imprimatur of The Party, or which was likely to go against whatever minor amendment of policy was currently holding the ring (the same is equally true of far-right régimes, of course).

And so, we - hoi polloi - were circumscribed as to what we were allowed access to. More troubling was that we often had no idea that we were being limited. We just accepted that what was out there was basically all that there was. Oh, a tiny minority of hardy and foolhardy souls would trek beyond the boundaries set by the market or the prevailing ideological tendency in search of the off-beat, the off-kilter or the dangerously different, but those vistas lay unregarded by the mass, those fields lay untilled by the Common Man.

So it was that vast quantities of human artistic talent never gained exposure to a wide audience. Writers, musicians, composers, artists of all sorts found the gatekeepers uninterested in what they had to offer; either because it would not 'sell' or because it was too far away from the expected orthodoxies of their time.

And this is the great tragedy of it. How many great talents have fallen into silence or disregard, how many works which - if not in the Tolstoy/Beethoven/Rembrandt category - could bring a leap to the heart, a lift to the spirits, a tear to the eye or a shout of joy in the face of the world's aridities; how many have never reached us because of the inevitably self-serving attitude of those gatekeepers?

This is now - mercifully - changing. For the World Wide Web now does allow many (though by no means all) of those talents to put themselves out there, to make their work known, to give people all around this planet access to what they have done.

So the more forward-thinking musicians are by-passing the cold, dead hands of the record business and using the internet to distribute their wares; writers who know how deep are the slush piles and how sepulchral are the morgues of publishing companies are using online services to sell their work either in traditional paper form or electronically; artists, animators and video creators have seized an unprecedented opportunity to promote their 'product' to the widest possible audience.

As a result, those corporations and establishments whose business model depended entirely on their gatekeeper role continuing largely unassailed are in mortal difficulty, and instead of adapting to the new reality are lashing out like the stumbling dinosaurs that they are, either by spraying legal actions all over the place or by attempting (and often succeeding) to suborn governments into passing laws amenable to them, a tactic which they are pursing worldwide - check out the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) for how far they're willing to go.

This wider access by creative people to a potential audience has its downside as anyone would be able to assess. Ninety-five per cent of it, it will be said, is crap. This is correct. But ninety-five per cent of it has always been crap. Just look at where I got the link to the Man Balloon clip, for instance. B3ta is a site which - to use its own description - "...is all about celebrating the best stuff on the internet". Its Messageboard is a place where anyone with pretensions to be able to draw or design can place their work. As a result, most of what goes on there is nondescript, although some of the apparently worst material on there is done ironically and with an eye to the many in-jokes which always abound in such circumstances, especially the regular abundance of the CDCs (Crudely-Drawn Cocks) - bright magenta phalluses which can be made to adorn any existing image, usually with unhilarious results.

And yet, it is on B3ta and via B3ta that I have found some of the most amusing or intriguing pictorial material I could ever hope to find. There are examples of the simply amusing (the work of Prodigy69, for example); the clever (Mofaha's conflating of Mondrian and The Beano); or just beautiful (the Man Balloon).

The crucial difference between the old way and the new is that whether something is garbage or not (or simply whether or not something is worth seeing or hearing) is no longer the privilege of the gatekeepers to determine, but is for each and every one of us to decide on the basis of what moves or excites us, not what we are told should move or excite us. Art is not a democracy and never could or should be; in terms of talent, all are not created equal. Nevertheless, the best scenario is that in which all who can contribute can contribute and all who can partake of the results can partake of them.

I have never taken it as a given that the vast majority of people in the world are innately devoid of talent, and I am convinced that there are works of substantial artistic merit being created somewhere in the world nearly every day.

How fortunate we are to live in a time when those works can be so readily available to us. Which is why it is important that we do all we can to keep control of the web out of the hands of corporations and governments and allow the freedom - however imperfect - of people to communicate their thoughts and ideas to flourish.