Sunday, August 09, 2015

Andrew Durkin on the ideologies of authorship and authenticity corrupting our understanding of art, but this would not be his endorsements of Taylor Swift and Michael Bay
...Moreover, “free culture” (or, in my own, more broadly-defined term, “decomposition”) is still the best way of critiquing the real issue: the ideology of authorship and authenticity. (For what it's worth, here's how I define those terms in my book, and in terms of music: authorship is the idea that works are created by solitary individuals, and authenticity is the idea that there is a “singularly true, ideal experience of music that trumps all others, disregarding the variability of audience perception, and accessible only to those with ‘correct’ knowledge and ‘proper’ understanding.”) It’s still the best way, for instance, to undermine the celebrity worship that propels our interactions on the network. Taylor’s point that Web 2.0 has led to the consolidation of superstars as a class is instructive here; superstars are now both fewer and wealthier. In a world of aesthetic abundance, the veritable “celestial jukebox” we were promised, why should that be? I blame our willingness to believe in putatively objective hierarchies of quality—the individual god-like artists and reified expressions of music that we are all supposed to agree are among “the best that has been said and thought in the world” (to use Matthew Arnold’s famously narrow definition of culture). As belief systems, authorship and authenticity create powerful cultural cliques; they have a tendency to pull audiences toward an arbitrary center of gravity, to work against a more haphazard and chaotic process of taste formation, and to stomp down the so-called long tail in favor of a disproportionately large head.

But not only do authorship and authenticity corrupt our understanding of art—they also drive the free market system that makes the techno-utopian mega-corporations possible in the first place. They are crucial to private property (see John Locke). They are crucial to advertising (see trademark law). They are crucial to planned obsolescence (see the parade of new devices, each made possible by an updated slate of proprietary technology). They inform our understanding of the techno-utopian mega-corporations themselves (see the cult of Steve Jobs). So it is actually not that these corporations have truly embraced the “free culture” philosophy they benefit from, or done away with authorship and authenticity, as some purveyors of the regret narrative would have it. Instead, they have claimed authorship (this brand made this product!) and authenticity (it is objectively the best; buy it!) for themselves. What is Mark Zuckerberg now if not, legally, the “author” of a significant chunk of the Internet—a rights holder of the donated experiences and expressions of the enormous number of people who use his network? If “free culture” had really come to pass, that kind of ownership would be impossible.

Given this continuity, the danger of the regret narrative is its propensity for engendering a feeling of nostalgia—not a critique of the system itself, but a critique of the current manifestation of the system. Taylor is better at avoiding this trap than most, but even she betrays an occasional fondness for the more dubious aspects of what we have lost. She repeats, for instance, the problematic notion that one of the benefits of the old label ecosystem is that its pop hits functioned to “funnel revenues from more successful acts to less successful ones.” She calls that dynamic “cross-subsidies,” but to me, it sounds a lot like trickle-down economics: nice if you happen to be one of the fortunate few to get some of the windfall. More broadly, if free market capitalism is the problem, why would changing the elite beneficiaries of that system—subbing in the big record labels or movie studios for any of the major technology companies—be the solution?
My friends complain about modern pop all the time. I wish I could evaluate it in aesthetic terms. But I feel like I can’t even hear it. It sounds like money to me. I hear the money that went into the production. I hear the money that went into the promotion. I hear the money that is being exchanged every time it is performed. I hear the money that is expected as a kind of birthright. Lord help me, I can’t get past the money. 

 Call me crazy, but I think that’s a problem.

Dismantling categories of "authorship" and "authenticity" doesn't accomplish anything.  It doesn't change the role of Taylor Swift in popular music or of Michael Bay in tentpole cinema.  In fact, if anything arguing against authorship and authenticity can be construed as arguments for modern pop. Yet here is Durkin, having confessed he can't even hear modern pop music as music because it just sounds like money to him.  The trouble is that Durkin's not going to go Dwight Macdonald and get all "Masscult and Midcult" because he loves Stevie Wonder (and why not, I adore Stevie Wonder's music). The problem is that if we're not going to commit to explicitly formalized aesthetic values the cult of authenticity as an extra-musical imputation of intra-cultural credibility is what we have left.  Cue up Sherman Alexie's assertion that all good art is explicitly tribal and to be part of the tribe you have to pass muster on a set of criteria for membership, don't you?  Either that or you're literally born into that privilege.

Durkin wants to defang the ideological commitments to authorial uniqueness and authenticity without actually dismantling the entire ideological foundation of Romanticism.  The trouble is that in the last century the alternatives to individualistic Romanticism as an ideology have tended to veer toward a more social/collective sense of identity that Americans, particularly those of a progressive type, have tended to explicitly conflate with fascism. 

And one of the other problems is that Leonard B Meyer called it half a century ago when he said that already by that time (1967) artistic creation had stopped being seen as the result of a solitary genius and the popular arts of the time, whether popular songs by rock bands or films, were literally seen as the products of collaborative activity, team review and group distribution.  Think of all those 'fifth Beatles'.  Durkin pays lip service to the idea of subverting the legitimacy of the categories of "authorship" and "authentic" but his heart is as far as can be from embracing the reality of such an abjection, because if his heart was in it, he'd embrace modern pop.

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