How the elite lost control of art

A core, elite group of aesthetes once determined what art was "important." That's no longer true

By Jay David Bolter

Published April 28, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)

A Christie's employee holds a sketch of David Hockney's painting Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, painted in 1969 displayed in the background, at Christie's auction house in London, Friday, March 1, 2019.  (AP/Frank Augstein)
A Christie's employee holds a sketch of David Hockney's painting Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, painted in 1969 displayed in the background, at Christie's auction house in London, Friday, March 1, 2019. (AP/Frank Augstein)

Adapted from "The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media" by Jay David Bolter. Copyright 2019 MIT PRESS.

By the end of the twentieth century, an educated person in the United States, and increasingly in Europe, no longer had to know certain authors, certain artists, or certain composers. The former elite arts are still enjoyed; a few million still attend the opera; many millions go to art and history museums; collectors pay astronomical sums for famous paintings. According to the American Alliance of Museums, there are approximately 850 million visits to American museums of various sorts each year, more than sporting events and theme parks combined, and arts and cultural production combined account for 4.32 percent of GDP. Claims are still made for the importance of various arts, but these claims only hold within a given community (however large or small) of patrons and practitioners. Economic arguments made for the arts (such as the GDP statistic quoted above) in fact indicate the uncertain status of the arts in our society today: why should it be necessary to justify the importance of the arts based on their contribution to the economy? The rest of our patchwork culture of groups, tastes, and practices pursue their own interests. Some, like the founders of the art-sharing site deviantART, will generously claim that it was created “to entertain, inspire, and empower the artist in all of us”—in other words, that all expressive practices are arts and all are important—but this is still to deny that our culture has a center.

The nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold wrote: “Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry”. In the nineteenth century, art was often characterized as a sacred calling. After Schiller at the end of the eighteenth century, it was common to regard “art as the revelation of a superior truth with the power to redeem.” As educated elites in Europe and North America became more ostensibly secular, art was regarded as an increasingly important antidote to the shock of modern urban living. Although twentieth-century modernism rejected the “bourgeois” art of the nineteenth century, the guiding assumption of the centrality of literature and art was hard to get rid of. Even the avant-gardes, such as the Futurists and Dada who ridiculed the art of their day, confirmed the importance of art by trying so hard to destroy it. The Dada artist Hans Richter wrote in his history of the movement that Dada’s attempt to make anti-art had to fail, because “a work of art, even when intended as anti-art, asserts itself irresistibly as a work of art.”

The assumption that art and literature are central to culture and have the capacity to rejuvenate us individually or to save our society in general has ceased to be broadly compelling. It may still appear in the consciously old-fashioned pages of the New Criterion, a journal whose purpose is to provide a conservative cultural voice and is proud to be elite. But such journals address only a particular community, one that is most likely pessimistic about the direction of our culture. Some digital media writers—for example, Jane McGonigal —have picked up the rhetoric of cultural salvation and now apply it to video games or other digital media forms. Others claim that films, television, or video games are art and therefore central to culture, or that they are not art but are nevertheless central to a new popular culture. Every permutation of the old modernist assumptions pops up somewhere, among some community, in our current media age.

In "Amusing Ourselves to Death," Neil Postman argued that television was destroying literacy and that this meant the debasement of both literary and political culture. In fact, in the 1980s, when Postman was writing about the ascendency of television, the inventors of the desktop interface for the personal computer were already in the process of constituting a new set of forms that would reconfigure the place of print, film, and television in our media landscape. Today, former elite culture, though no longer central, has not been replaced by any of these popular media or forms. Instead, each cultural form can serve as a center for a larger or smaller community of patrons or users. Some of these communities are enormous, close to universal, though probably also short-lived. The YouTube video of Justin Bieber’s song “Sorry” has 2.8 billion views, more than the population of the United States and the European Union combined, and over two thousand times as many as the views of a video of a Leonard Bernstein performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin, which itself has over a million views. The size of the community matters for its economic power but not for its claim to being at the center.

Art and media are now the same thing. To say someone is an artist has become simply another way of saying that he or she works creatively in any recognized media form, old or new. Digital media today give participants in thousands of media communities the opportunity to call themselves artists, if they choose. The loss of the center means that there is no single standard of quality that transcends the various communities of practice. However much some may still long for “quality,” the word does not have a global meaning. Professional communities will produce better work by their own standards than others. Professional videographers will produce more technically competent videos than amateurs who use a webcam and post their videos on YouTube. But technical competence no longer makes a video better in any sense that our whole culture shares. If this seems ironic, we have only to remember that American television is technically the best in the world, but many in the United States and elsewhere would appeal to various standards to judge that much American television programming is of poor quality. There can be no general cultural judgment about American television, because there are no generally shared standards.

I am focusing on the United States, which has a low level of public support for the traditional arts. The situation in Europe is more ambiguous, and in general the distinction between high culture and popular culture has faded more slowly there. Germans even today, for example, speak of Unterhaltungsfilme: films designed merely to entertain as opposed to art films. It is interesting that Americans just speak of film or movies. Entertainment is for them the default category; “art film” is a special category. State support for opera and theater in France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe also helps to maintain these traditionally elite forms, when they are not self-supporting. But even in Europe, opera, traditional theater, painting, and so on are losing any universally acknowledged claim to being culturally superior to film, popular or ethnic music, and television.

This is not to say that all cultural communities acknowledge the loss of the center. Many in the traditionally elite communities continue to assert or just assume a place in a hierarchy that only they still accept. They may come to some complicated negotiated position, in which places may also be ceded to some forms of popular culture. The National Endowment for the Arts provides a good example of this rhetorical compromise, in which jazz and popular theater, film, and even television are part of the creativity and vigor of the American art scene. Recently even video games, at least “artistic” ones, have been included under Media Arts. Meanwhile, many writers and practitioners in digital media believe that the work of their community is at the center of a new cultural order. It is an important part of the legacy of modernism to think that one’s art contributes in a fundamental way to our culture’s future.

It is therefore not just elite communities that are upset about the loss of the center. The so-called culture wars, which became a national issue in the early 1990s and have reemerged recently, were not fought solely or even principally over the arts and elite culture. Conservatives were also reacting to the loss of community and shared assumptions among the American people as a whole. When conservatives complain about the “war against Christmas,” they focus their anger on companies such as Starbucks or on the television networks. What they are really protesting against are manifestations of the long trend that Robert Jones (2016) characterized in his book “The End of White Christian America”: the breakdown of a hierarchy in which Protestantism, first in the mainstream churches and then in its evangelical form, constituted the religious and social paradigm for the whole society. When Trump promised in the election to “make America great again,” the community of evangelicals allowed themselves to imagine that he could restore it to the center. But it is not just the religious center that has been displaced; popular culture has also fragmented in its tastes in entertainment, and here the multiplication of media technologies and the rise of Internet were important factors.

Commentators today lament the fact that we no longer share popular cultural references, as we did when there were only three television networks. In the 1960s, the argument goes, everyone could discuss around the water cooler (did all offices really have water coolers?) what happened that week on Doctor Kildare. In the 1959–1960 season, for example, 40.3 percent of all televisions in use on Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. were turned to Gunsmoke on CBS. By comparison, in 2016–2017 the hit Big Bang Theory had a viewership of 11.5 percent. Cable television, the VCR, and the DVD player all had a role in fragmenting viewing audiences for film and television, turning what might once have been a single community into many. More recently Internet streaming has completed the transformation. With the exception of some of the leading pop singers and a few actors (George Clooney or Angelina Jolie), there is no performer, television show, or movie that “everyone” has seen or can even name.

In 1976, cartoonist Saul Steinberg created a classic cover for the New Yorker magazine, representing a Manhattanite’s view of the world. In the foreground Ninth and Tenth Avenues are drawn in detail. As we look west across the Hudson, the American continent recedes into a few major landmarks, while beyond the Pacific there are thin, colorless blobs for Japan, Russia, and China. The cartoon itself could be an emblem of the loss of the center, drawn at a time when New York had not quite given up its status as America’s cultural capital. What happened to this clever cartoon is itself emblematic: it became in contemporary terms a meme. It was imitated for countries, cities, and even small towns, always with the same joke: the immediate environment is huge and important, and the rest of the world recedes.

If you want to picture accurately the media culture we live in now, imagine an endless series of imitations of Steinberg’s Ninth Avenue cartoon. Almost every point in that culture, every genre of blog or social media or video remix, every craft or hobby, every manifestation of DIY (do it yourself), every MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) as well as each traditional media form serves as the center for some community of users. For many gamers, for example, video games are at the center of digital culture and at the leading edge of our social and creative life. Games are at Ninth Avenue; everything else recedes. For moviegoers, the center is still Hollywood. For fan cultures of Star Trek, The Matrix, and Lost, as described by Henry Jenkins in “Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers,” the center lies in the cross-media chains of films and websites and attended events and meetups. For the smaller world of serious fiction, the center is still New York.

To appreciate the variety and the ambiguity of media culture today, there may be no better barometer than Twitter. A search on Twitter for “#art” on an afternoon in the winter of 2016 produced pages with every imaginable variation on the concept of art: images of elite art, mostly paintings, mixed with cartoons, digital 3D graphic art, street art—some by well-known figures, many by the posters themselves. Some tweets were from people selling digital or physical artifacts: paintings, photographs, carvings, t-shirts, and so on. Often these were in a popular or retail style that the earlier elite art community labeled kitsch. The very fact that all these posters choose the hashtag #art indicates a desire to have that status. Every possible contemporary use of the term “art” must eventually turn up on Twitter.

Twitter illustrates what should now be obvious to anyone born after World War II. From that time on, no one had to justify going to a popular music event rather than an opera or to a film rather than an art gallery. In the decades that followed, it became increasingly true that no one had to apologize for watching television, reading comic books, or playing video games. Or rather, you had to justify yourself only if you belonged to a certain community that still kept to the standards of formerly elite culture — the classical music community or the fiction community. It remains hard for many —the “winners” in popular culture as well as the “losers” in elite culture —to acknowledge this situation and to understand its consequences. The results are the inconsistent and confused conversations that we still have about art and culture. Once again, the breakdown of the modernist paradigm does not mean that modernism has been effectively replaced with a new paradigm, a new -ism (although there are many contenders, often with the prefix post-). High culture and art have not been replaced by television, video games, or anything else. There is no new universal paradigm. Instead, our media culture has become additive, accepting new forms, such as video games, that sometimes cooperate with older forms, such as film, and sometimes compete with them.


Jay David Bolter

Jay David Bolter is Wesley Chair of New Media and Codirector of the Augmented Media Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of "The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media."

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