Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Cult of the Professional

It was probably only a matter of time before Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, would get around to taking a long hard look at the future of creative artists in the world the Internet has made. He has now done so on the Web site of the London Telegraph with an extended essay that makes some interesting points. However, I would like to consider the proposition that Keen overlooked the most interesting point behind his argument, which is that his essay may be as much about the current world of work itself as it is about the world of the creative artist.

The best way to approach this essay is through its most extended case study of an author who, in the midst of a global obsession with the Internet, has succeeded (at least for now) in the good old-fashioned world of print publication:

Take, for example, Jonathan Littell, the Franco-American author of The Kindly Ones, a 900 page Holocaust novel that won the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and Prix Goncourt in France, and which the News Corp owned Harper Collins paid $1 million for the privilege of exclusively distributing in the American market.

Littell is a good example of a cultural aristocrat in the analog ancien regime, a writer acclaimed by high-end cultural curators for his “talent”. Last February, for example, he was interviewed by Jeffrey Trachtenberg, the book reviewer of The Wall Street Journal. “Will you come to the U.S. to promote your book?” Trachtenberg asked him.

“No,” Littell replied, disdainfully. “I don't do that kind of thing. I don't consider it my job.”

So what, exactly, is the “job” of an artist like Jonathan Littell? Historically, at least since the industrial revolution of the mid 19th century, his commercial function has been to create art that would then be manufactured and sold on the mass-market by his publisher. For the last 150 years, there existed a clear division of labor between a Littell who created art and his mass-market publisher who printed and sold copies of the finished product.

Over the last twenty years, however, an interconnected trinity of technological, cultural and ideological events have revolutionized the mass-market copy economy:

1. The appearance of the Internet as a global platform for the creation and distribution of content.

2. A broad legitimacy crisis of the traditional copy economy, both in terms of its economic and cultural value.

3. The ideological assault on the supposedly “elitist” idea of talent and of the role of cultural gatekeepers in the discovery and development of high-end artists like Jonathan Littell.

It is important to begin with this emphasis on the word "job." Keen frames this word in the context of a commodity that is first created and then mass-produced for the sake of marketing and sales, where a division of labor exists between these two phases in the life cycle of the commodity. He then illustrates how his "interconnected trinity of technological, cultural and ideological events" has strained this life-cycle model to an extent that it may now be just shy of its breaking point.

Using this context as his point of departure, Keen plays out an argument that culminates in the following conclusion:
Thus, Jonathan “I don't consider it my job” Littell is absolutely wrong. For better or worse, the reverse is actually now true. The job of all artists is now self-promotion. In an age in which the old cultural gatekeepers are being swept away, the most pressing challenge of creative artists is to build their own brands. And it’s the Internet which provides creative talent with easy-to-use and cheap tools for their self-promotion.
In other words, because Internet technology has all but blown away everything in the life-cycle concerned with mass-production and traditional practices of marketing and sales, all that remains is the creation of the commodity and the need for the creator to promote that creation. From a lexical point of view, Keen has argued that the very concept of "job" must change to accommodate the new practices of that world the Internet has made.

There is, unfortunately, a problem with this conclusion; and that problem is well known to researchers whose work can only be sustained through frequent infusions of grant money. Like the artists that Keen has in mind, these researchers must devote large portions of their time to promoting their projects. Without that promotion, there will be no support through grants. If you build it, there is no guarantee that the Ford Foundation (or the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health or any of the funding agencies under the Department of Defense) will come. Indeed, it is all but certain that, unless you promote what you have built, none of these agencies will come, since they are too busy responding to other efforts that have put more time into promotion.

This is where the problem arises: When does the researcher have the time to figure out what "it" is (even before worrying about building it), if the "necessary work" has more to do with promotion than with research itself? Often the answer is that the researcher does not have the time and is therefore obliged to "outsource" the research to others: The researcher must become the "chief executive" of a laboratory workplace whose "job" has become managing that workplace by directing its activities and providing the necessary resources for those activities. In other words the necessity of promotion forces the researcher to give up being a researcher!

The analogy should be obvious: The artist whose job has become self-promotion is likely to be so consumed by that task that no time is left to be an artist. If Keen's argument is either true or eventually emerges as true in the world of the creative arts, then the model for creation may well be that of Andy Warhol's Factory (in which case posterity may remember Warhol more for his economic foresight than for any of his work that now hangs on museum and gallery walls).

For now I am willing to leave any examination of the moral consequences of Keen's vision as an exercise for the reader. What interests me more is that this model may extend well beyond the work of creative artists. After all, in the grand scheme of things, the impact of the Internet on the work practices of creative artists may be little more than a side show (even if it is a side show of considerable personal interest). More important is the world of work in general, particularly as envisaged by those Internet evangelists who see a future in which we all hang our shingles out on Web pages and wait for the work to come to us. Those who follow this advice are not that different from creative artists and will quickly discover that they, too, must heed Keen's advice: Without extensive self-promotion, work will not come. The irony, of course, is that, as any form of promotion depends more and more on getting good page rank and buying the most strategic keywords, promotion for the sake of creating art will become no different than promotion for any other form of employment. Marshall McLuhan's "Bali ideal" will have been fulfilled: We shall no longer have art; we shall all just do things as best as we can.

McLuhan's vision, however, neglected to tell us that most people on Bali, who do things as best as they can, spend most of their time doing things like growing their own food, making their own clothing, and building their own shelters. Tightly coupled to all three of those practices is an extensive framework of religious rites that organize life on every scale from day-to-day up to year-to-year. As Paul Goodman pointed out in his Growing Up Absurd essays, ours is a culture in which work is not so directly coupled to providing food, clothing, and shelter. McLuhan's ideal is a pretty picture; but it does not "fit" the context of the industrialized world in which most Internet users reside. Thus, while Keen's model may readily extrapolate from the creative artist to anyone else trying to earn a living through work, it is far from clear that it will sustain anyone, whether that happens to be Joe the Plumber getting customers through the Internet or Jonathan Littell trying to work on his next book. Now the reader can start considering questions of moral consequences!

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