(FilmBuff) Early in the documentary film PressPausePlay, author Andrew Keen opines that if a young Hitchcock or a young Scorsese put their work on YouTube today, they would be ignored, and their work would be “lost in the ocean of garbage.” He calls our current culture of universal creativity “global masturbation” and says that we may be on the brink of a cultural dark age. Not everyone in the film takes such a harsh, cynical view of the state of artistic endeavor, but what you do get is a sense of absolute tension between the positive and negative aspects of democratized creation and distribution. Yes, everyone has the tools to be a filmmaker or a musician now, and that's simply wonderful. Yes, the truly brilliant work of genuinely talented artists is getting lost in a sea of clumsy noise, and that's utterly awful.
Throughout PressPausePlay, we get clips from interviews with artists like Moby, who says that in his experience, artists today are “equally excited and afraid.” They're being forced to accept a world in which it's nearly impossible to make a living at their trade, and – in many ways – this is the same world that artists inhabited centuries ago. Over the last hundred years or so, we've been experiencing temporary bubbles of artistic rarefaction in which the “recording industry” or the “film industry” have taken a few select artists and elevated them above all others by ensuring that their work is seen and heard around the world. Now that we have the Internet, those industries are crumbling – or perhaps mutating – and there are so many more choices out there. In a sense, democratized distribution is smashing the edifice of elitism and allowing the general public to make up their own minds about what's good; but without an artistic elite to educate the masses, are our standards of quality going to drastically plummet?
One odd consequence of online distribution that the film addresses is that artists now often don't go through extended periods of development before releasing their work to the public. In the case of musicians, someone can write, record, mix, and release a song all on the same day. Think about Hot Chip, who freely admit that they wouldn't have the talent to make their excellent music without the aid of computers; the music world is certainly better for their existence. Bands rise to worldwide fame in a matter of weeks; think about the Arctic Monkeys, who started selling out large venues only a couple months after releasing their first single – and that was in 2005. Now think about Lana Del Rey, who went from being an overnight success to an overnight failure in 2011 based solely on the opinions of amateur music bloggers. Whatever you may think of her music, integrity, or image, you can't deny that her rise and fall were lightning-quick.
One of the main issues that PressPausePlay explores is the idea of artists giving away their work for free. It's easy to complain that musicians, filmmakers, authors, etc. are being financially crippled by online piracy, but the truth is much more complicated. New York Times Bestselling Author Seth Godin wrote a book called Unleashing the Ideavirus and began giving it away as a free ebook in 2000. Millions of people downloaded it, but not all of them wanted to read it on a screen; because he was able to demonstrate a large and immediate demand, Godin quickly found a publisher for a print version. He ended up making more money on the book than on either of his previous efforts. Musicians are now using this same strategy to demonstrate value to record labels.
All of this discussion centers around an age-old fact, which is that art in itself is worthless. It has no intrinsic value; any value it has is assigned to it by the observer. Thus, a fan pirating an album online can easily argue that they're doing nothing morally wrong. Yes, they're taking the product of someone's hard work without paying for it – but was the work really that hard? And is the product really worth paying for? When a carpenter sells a chair, the buyer pays up front and then decides over the next few months or years whether or not they really like it. With art, it's become the opposite: the consumer decides whether they like it first, and then maybe supports the artist somewhere down the road. Should it be this way? Can it be any other way now that we have these technologies?
Bill Drummond of The KLF – a man who once literally burned £1,000,000 – makes perhaps the most salient point, which is that the democratization of artistic creation puts everyone on the same footing. If everyone can use technology to create highly-polished products, then there's no longer anything special about highly-polished products. Real talent will still rise to the top. “It's moved things on,” he says, “and I like things moving along.” Maybe independent, self-managed artists do have more power than they used to – and more than they realize.
The final message of PressPausePlay seems to be that all we can do is wait and see. Everyone agrees that we're in a period of transition, and the only real question is how long this period will last. Whatever you may think of these issues, this is an important film to see and discuss. In the coming world of transhumanism and universal automation, won't we all be artists to some degree? Kids will grow up knowing how to do things that used to be very specialized fields of study; the logistical side will come naturally to them. In that case, we'll need some kind of standardized system for evaluating artistic instinct and compensating artists for their work. Assuming that we're going to continue having jobs, using money, and living off the fruit of our labors, we should probably have this conversation and get all this figured out sooner rather than later.
For Fans Of: Re:Generation Music Project, Before the Music Dies, Bill Drummond, Moby, Hot Chip
Why We Like It: raises vital questions about art and money, will provoke a necessary conversation and make you think about how you consume art