Hayley Ross is a jack of all trades, master of none, and loves spectacles of both the figurative and literal sort.
It took me entirely too long to write this piece. I don’t mean compose it; I knew what I wanted to say. But the act of sitting down and committing those thoughts to electronic page was always something that could be put off until I had finished catching up on the rest of the books, television, comics, films, music, and even criticism that I knew would be so much better than what I had to say. I put off creation in favor of consumption, and I know I’m not the only one.
We have become a society of curators, and it’s going to kill art.
Facebook and Pinterest are clogged with pictures of food from recipes the posters have no intention of making; pictures of items made by others that are supposed to be as impressive for being noticed as they are for being made, and lists of favorite movies or songs are used in lieu of descriptions of character or hobbies. Taste has been elevated to an art form, with the first person to claim “dibs” on a thing they enjoy expecting as many accolades as if they had been the creator of that very thing. Why write, when you can merely point to a better writer and be congratulated for doing so? Why paint when you can “pin” a picture that’s much better than anything you could do yourself? Why create when simple appreciation gets as many notices?
Part of it is that appreciation means more than it used to. The rise of internet culture and the lack of a monoculture splintered art into any number of micro-branches; with nearly unlimited options, the odds of people sharing cultural experience are diminished. It is less likely that you have seen my favorite movie than it used to be; if you share that movie as your favorite, it means more. However, the former fringes of the cultural landscape are now more visible than they ever were before; the top ten has dissolved into a top 100, but what’s outside the top ten is getting more attention than it ever has. This indeed makes curating a more useful skill than it was previously; there is more art competing for attention, and those with similar tastes help us hone our own. Pointing out good art helps keep that type of art being made; your favorite musician makes more money when five of your friends buy his CDs. The things you like are more indicative of your personality than they once were; with more options to choose from, our tastes are more individualized, and this makes promoting them more important.
The trouble is, too many people are mistaking “more important” for “important.” Publicizing a movie and recommending it to your friends does not make you Steven Spielberg. Liking Girls does not make you Lena Dunham. Posting lyrics to “The Cave” on facebook makes you neither a Mumford nor a Son. And, when your tastes are so important that they are a substitution for a personality, that makes creation harder not simply for a lack of time (too busy reading to write, too busy going to concerts to sing, too busy watching to make…) but for a crippling standard. Your own contributions are a part of that pop-culture gallery you curate, the one you filled with Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson; how will your work compare, especially as you haven’t spent nearly as much time making as you have judging? Far easier not to try anything and let the things you like speak for you.
The recent scandal involving Jonathan Coulton’s cover of “Baby Got Back” being swiped by the television show Glee is a perfect example of how entrenched this sentiment is. When Glee matched Coulton’s stripped-down arrangement of the Sir Mix-a-Lot song (down to the “Johnny C is in trouble” line Coulton modified to his version) and sold it on iTunes, the response to the singer was that he should be grateful for the exposure. The Glee version of Coulton’s cover changed nothing of the song, but by increasing the number of people who would be exposed to that arrangement, the Fox network feels it has done enough to compete with the original artist’s product already available for purchase. That finding the song and showing it to an audience who would not have otherwise heard it is as worthy of profit as the act of creating and arranging the song itself. When a creative endeavor like a television show pushes the position that simply distributing art to a greater audience is more important that being creative and making that art itself; when even art is downplaying the need to make more art, what hope is there that anyone will continue to create?
If we continue to confuse promotion with conception, and leave only a feedback loop of “reworking” the same few things that get attention, we’ll end up with a worse monoculture than the one caused by limited options. And, one harder to get rid of, because we’ll have convinced ourselves we curated this one on our own.