On making art for a few in a time when being unpopular isn’t a privilege anymore

In the “Collateral Damage” column of this past February’s The Wire issue, Terre Thaemlitz exposed a wound which, it appears, Net culture inflicts on the high-toned artist’s psyche: the connection between an aesthetically complex, demanding work and a small audience has been severed. This seems to have occurred, however, not because recondite art draws more people’s attention now thanks to the accessibility of online content (though that may be so in some cases) but inversely, because publishing-made-easy on Internet platforms has helped to the evolution of a great number of artists who have a small audience although their art in no way challenges listeners, spectators, or readers. Their audiences are small for the reason that they consist mostly of people from their social networks. The limits of their works’ resonance are simply the limits of their social interaction scopes. Or actually, it’s not as simple as this sounds, because the task to determine reasons for limited popularity — i.e., to choose between different possible reasons — finds us unprepared.

For instance, it happens increasingly often to me these days that Facebook or some other network alerts me to a song by a band whose name I haven’t heard before. The advocators of the band, mostly loose friends or Net acquaintances, spend a lot more time than I can afford on searching the world for new cool stuff, wherefore I usually trust them and give the song a listen, happy to benefit from what promises to be a bit of true insider knowledge. The result, in about 90% of times, is some very easy-listening, pleasant but basically banal pop tune — something one might, I imagine, as well have encountered browsing a college radio channel’s Top 100 list. Still, when I check out the band on their pages, I find they are a far cry from any one-to-many media institution’s top list. They have a small but dedicated group of followers but it is hard to tell whether their fans are music aficionados who have gone to great lengths to discover them, or just friends of friends. While some of these bands aspire to become professional musicians (or are already), others apparently pursue making music as a hobby. Wikipedia credits Nick Currie aka Momus for first turning Andy Warhol’s dictum “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” into “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” Be it fifteen, a hundred and fifty, or even five thousand people: the point here is that small-scale fame, which for about one century was more precious than large-scale fame on the meter of recognition and esteem, has now been opened up to those masses the ‘small-scale’ used to exclude.

It’s easy to picture how an old-school professional artist who has chosen, or been driven, to produce works he knows will never earn him mass popularity must feel in this neighborhood of similar-scaled creative known-to’s that has popped up around him within just a couple of years. While the network society contributes but very moderately to the solution of unpopular artists’ financial problems, it takes away the privilege of unpopularity — of an unpopularity that is rooted in the heroic decision against ‘selling oneself’ (a decision whose heroism never depended on whether the indie artist had had much commercial potential in the first place but, in what Jacques Rancière has labeled the ‘aesthetic regime,’ was granted to everyone convincingly devoted to doing off-mainstream things). Thaemlitz reveals how much the loss of this privilege hurts when he accuses the current Internet culture to be driven towards exchange and sociability by “nerds” who do not want to be outsiders anymore. “So isn’t it possible that one reason online culture is so fixated on issues of visibility and the potential for anyone to connect to everyone is because that has been the dark fantasy of so many technically savvy outsiders?” he writes. “Isn’t it true that most of the inconsequential genres we move within emerged as reactions against mass appeal, and in that sense are knowingly inconsequential to mainstream consumers? The tangential electronic audio producer who forgets this is not unlike the bourgeois-seduced LGBT Pride Parader who fantasises about owning a house, getting married and having children […].” (The Wire 336, Feb 2012, p.18)

At first sight, what has happened looks like a colonization of the aesthetic by the social or socio-economic. The small-but-dedicated audience is no longer created ‘indirectly’ through the work; it has become the ‘direct’ product of socializing, and thus lost the power to tell us something valuable about the work and its creator. But the fact that an artist feels harmed and resentful because his emotional balance is not able to offset the value of artistic work of the value of being an outsider anymore, in retrospect also sheds light on what may be called an aesthetic colonization of the social and economic. Paradoxically, the most rigorous representatives of twentieth century aesthetic theory set the conditions for including quantifiables in the determination of artistic value, as their insistence on the autonomy of art made them oppose ‘mass culture.’ Their aversion against commercialized art brought the defenders of the unpopular to measuring aesthetic value based on how much people were willing to pay in terms of personal cost — or even financial cost: in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer found a rare occasion to say something in praise of old bourgeois society, namely that access to art events had been expensive. The price to be paid for a theater or concert ticket, they asserted, at least provided a last cue to an art experience’s being precious, whereas in modern mass society where anybody could get cultural content for free and aesthetic value was bereft of even its most inappropriate equivalent, such preciousness had lost all evidence:

»In der totalen Hereinziehung der Kulturprodukte in die Warensphäre verzichtet das Radio überhaupt darauf, seine Kulturprodukte selber als Waren an den Mann zu bringen. Es erhebt in Amerika keine Gebühren vom Publikum. […] Die Symphonie wird zur Prämie dafür, daß man überhaupt Radio hört, und hätte die Technik ihren Willen, der Film würde bereits nach dem Vorbild des Radios ins apartment geliefert.«[1]

»Totally drawing the cultural products into the commodity sphere, the radio goes without selling its cultural products as commodities. In America, it does not charge a fee from its audience. […] The symphony becomes the reward for listening to the radio, and could technology have its free will, the film would already be delivered into the apartment after the radio model.«

James Kirby, the author of another “Collateral damage” article, seems just one step apart from this — but really verifies an entirely different logic when he writes, “If somebody purchases something digitally or physically, I see it more than ever as them connecting with me directly. I am aware that anyone could find the same tracks which I’m selling somewhere else online for free.” (The Wire 335, Jan 2012, p. 14) One may feel tempted to assume that a fan who appreciates Kirby’s music so much he spends the money for purchasing it although he doesn’t have to, must appease cultural pessimists, or even restore their belief in civilization not having gone to the dogs entirely. But the opposite should be the case. For accepting cost freely and deliberately in an act of personal affection, connects aesthetic value to social value via money value in a fashion that could not be more alien to the Frankfurt School philosophers’ idea that expensiveness stands in for preciousness. Money almost ceases to be a general equivalent here; it becomes an unsigned form of a personal gift.

Where it functions as a general equivalent, money creates a distance between people: it renders the transaction of goods less dependent on social relations, allowing me to obtain something I need or want without having to know and persuade that thing’s owner to give it to me. Georg Simmel explained in his Philosophy of Money how a monetary currency unburdens society from a part of the social, how it loosens and widens the systems of interdependency Norbert Elias later called ‘figurations.’ When relating money value to aesthetic value, Adorno and Horkheimer are drawing on that very generality. They maintain that ticket prices can be a symbol for the preciousness of art because what makes an art experience precious in their eyes is not the Kunstereignis as a social event, but rather something that transcends the social conditions of people going to a play or concert. In their equation, an expensive ticket does not represent a devotee’s personal appreciation of what an actor, a singer or a musician does (or what the playwright or the composer has done); it represents an objective resistance, which the cultural institution as such, i.e. as the objectivated relation between anonymous visitors and interchangeable artists, puts up against subjective motivations like curiosity, search for entertainment, having been told one shouldn’t miss it, or whatever may attract a crowd. Confronted with the objective hardness of money, and ready to make a sacrifice, the individual’s inclination to like the art on display may eventually be elevated to the level of aesthetic pleasure, which is priceless — but if taxed, has more in common with an asymmetrical return for anonymous money than with the symmetrical return for social esteem.

All of this is inverted where fans decide to pay out of their own free will, using money to convey their personal esteem — and where the artist deciphers the income s/he can generate from record sales as the result of people wanting to connect with her or him. Most of us will remember scenes from novels or films where a character, who is rich but emotionally (and hence socially) inhibited, offers money to a poor person in order to show personal affection. In the context of a society solidly based on the assumption that money was the medium of distance and anonymity, people could be counted on to decode such an act as the expression of the giver’s helplessness; and the contrast between the cold silver coin offered by a glove-clad hand and the personal warmth it failed to convey to the receiver (and thereby all the more effectively conveyed to us) would be touching in its tragic irony or ironic tragedy. In the relation Kirby assumes, in contrast, we find neither irony nor tragedy. The choice to pay where the circumstances in no way oblige me to hardly seems inadequate as an expression of my personal affection anymore. It’s realistic. And art will get more and more to do with this realism.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno/Max Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung, S. 168f.

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