Real Culture is Bought Culture

I should be writing my thesis at this moment, however a small jaunt over to the Open Rights Group blog left me with a small thought (just a small one mind) about the perhaps less obvious disruptions that digital media have caused. One of the commenters on the most recent post stated…

You ORG people are pathetic. I’d like to see your point of view if it was you who produced a film or wrote a book in the course of your work (your way of life, how you get paid), and little slimy leeches like the operators of the Pirate Bay/Oink/etc made a crapload of money in ad revenue/subscription fees for enabling the piracy of your work, giving you nothing in return. The majority of your spotty live-in- parents-basement members should get out more, get a girlfriend, just get out and please join the real world where people need to get paid for their work. I hope you’re not ever actually taken seriously at the government level, your counter-arguments are too poor to be taken seriously.

As you’d expect from a blog comments section this elicited a fair amount of responses, many (though inevitably not all) of which I’m happy to say were much more polite and much less aggressive than the above. Now this may be a case where one should pull out the ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’ sign, however it does illustrate a larger issue.

The countless discussions that we have about copyright these days always seem to be chipping away at an assumption of what creative work is that we have had for a long time. If you wanted to bring in some classic critical theory and invoke Adorno and Horkheimer’s writings on mass culture (which I do because I’m a geeky obsessive), you would hark back to their considerations of how mass culture has impacted our understanding of what the value of culture is. When they were criticising the idea that culture could be commodified and sold as a product they were also concerned that only culture which was commodified would be classified as ‘real’ culture, with the rest being confined to the derogatory category of ‘amateur’, creativity without profit. What seemed to define real culture from amateur culture was the involvement of some economic value. Therefore only people that make money from their cultural production are ‘real’ artists and culture is best judged on its economic merits. Now this of course is a gross simplification; as anyone that has a passion for any sphere of culture will rabidly argue, just because something sells a lot doesn’t mean it’s any good. However this conflation of economic value with cultural value seems to have stuck in areas.

For example last year when Lily Allen made her little snafu and pissed off the entire internet (hyperbole noted), I recall she stated that she would prefer people go out and buy bootleg copies of her albums from street vendors than pirate it online, because at least that way it had some value. To Lily it seemed her music was worthless unless someone was willing to pay her for it. Likewise from the comments much was made about the commenter’s assumption that ‘ORG People’ could not be creative people because they did not support copyright (In fact as Jim Killock corrected them, ORG do support copyright but not the infringement of our human rights in the name of its protection). Many others replied that in fact many creative people, both ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ were members of ORG and that it was a rather simplified perception of the organisation. One commenter especially, Prof. Andres Guadamuz of The University of Edinburgh, highlighted the issue very well saying…

There is this remarkably short-sighted idea that only those who profit from copyright industries have the right to make any arguments… the vast majority of people are engaged in creative processes, be it taking photographs, writing poems, writing a blog, etc. Only because some people are lucky enough to get rewarded for their creations does not de-legitimise everyone else.

This I think is the crux of the copyright debates along with the progression made in ‘amateurism’ and creativity. That people outside of the established cultural industries are able to produce and distribute work of comparable quality has brought the debates about copyright out of a corporatised context and down to an individual level. Where copyright was once the domain of the industry and viewed in a purely economic context, now it has seeped into the domain of the individual, and its more restrictive elements are visible. People that produce creative work without an economic focus are joining the debate. Again this is not to say it should be abolished, as much of copyright law is about protecting the consumer as well as the producer, it just needs updating for this de-corporatised context. As for the original commenter, they should not be dismissed as just ignorant, but should be engaged with. Not only is the view espoused real, but it is also deeply rooted from decades of commodified creativity. If we are going to reach an equilibrium between industrial and ‘amateur’ creativity, it will need to be addressed.

Then again, maybe I just fed the troll….

Passion

Under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.

Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, 1944

It became apparent on New Years Eve, whilst watching the umpteenth ‘top songs of the decade’ show that the general pop music landscape was unchanged from 2000 to 2009. The majority of it was cultural product designed off the back of market research and demographic profiling. What was interesting however was the process by which these acts came into being. Whereas the early part of the decade still ran the process of designing and manufacturing a pop group in the background, only to release them to the world in a flurry of doves and multimillion dollar marketing budgets, the latter part of the decade was more transparent. What we now find is that although the acts are produced in much the same way as they were before, the process of producing the act is itself a lucrative entertainment empire. The target audience is actively encouraged to become complicit in the construction of the next big hit, and that construction is as much pop culture as the final end product.

The observations regarding the increasing transparency of manufacturing pop are nothing really. A blip, a grain in the decades of actions that Adorno and Horkheimer first recognised in the 1940s. The quote from them is one of my favourites. It is a quote that I truly believe should be read by as many people as possible, if only once. It is clear concise and blunt, but most importantly it is sixty-six years old and is truer today than the day it was written. I find it strangely beautiful in the vehemence it conveys, I often wish academia had some more of this passion left.

If you feel inclined you can read the entirety of Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay on the Culture Industry online.