I live in a remote corner of the world, it’s a long way to anywhere and at times it can be a lonely existence. It’s a location that makes it difficult for me to find my tribe. I guess it’s a numbers game, living in a more popular place would make it more likely for me to encounter people with shared interests. The idea of moving to a big city and connecting with a ‘scene’ was some of my favourite elements that Tom Wolfe writes about in The Painted Word.
Likewise in the United States: believe me, you can get all the tubes of Winsor & Newton paint you want in Cincinnati, but the artists keep migrating to New York all the same… You can see them six days a week… hot off the Carey airport bus, lined up in front of the real-estate office on Broome Street in their identical blue jeans, gum boots, and quilted Long March jackets… looking of course, for the inevitable Loft… No, somehow the artist wanted to remain within walking distance… He took up quarters just around the corner from… le monde, the social sphere described so well by Balzac, the milieu of those who find it important to be in fashion, the orbit of those aristocrats, wealthy bourgeois, publishers, writers, journalists, impresarios, performers, who wish to be “where things happen,” the glamorous but small world of that creation of the nineteenth-century metropolis, tout le monde, Everybody, as in “Everybody says”
I think this desire to have shared interests and my own isolation is why I treasure random Internet friends. The sorts of people you haven’t met in ‘real life’, and probably never will. The Internet is the biggest ‘city’ in the world, yet the odds of finding someone with a shared interest is still fairly low. It is often luck that brings together the magic of the Internet in just the right way to make a new random Internet friend (like the one who recommended me The Painted Word). It certainly isn’t perfect, but the Internet melts the remoteness of my own living arrangements and without that little thaw, I think I would be completely crushed by isolation.
In a famous essay in Horizon in 1947 he said the entire future of art in America was in the hands of fifty brave but anonymous and beleaguered artists “south of 34th Street” who were about to be wiped out at any moment. By whom–by what? Why, by the “dull horror” of American life. “Their isolation is inconceivably crushing, unbroken, damming,” said Greenberg. “That anyone can produce art on a respectable level in this situation is highly improbable. What can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?”
That’s not to say I feel brave but anonymous, it’s more that vice grip of isolation that relates. The persistent threat to my Id that permeates my day to day existence. I don’t think I’m alone, as on some level, my entire generation feels like they are being slowly crushed by anxiety. Which is interesting when you consider the following passage:
Modern art always “projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed,” he said. “It is always born in anxiety.” Not only that, he said, it is the very function of really valuable new Modern art to “transmit this anxiety to the spectator,” so that when he looks at it, he is thrown into “a genuine existential predicament.” (Steinberg)
This paragraph left me wondering; where has all the art gone? Given the political climate that currently exists, we should be awash with stuff created by a thriving counterculture. That playful push back. Instead, all that content has evaporated as people set out to be the next influencer, youtuber or whatever. It is almost as though the mechanics of the Internet era, the mega social network corporations, the clicks, the likes and recommendation algorithms have broken Tom’s satirical take on countercultural movements:
He was doing the usual, in other words. First you do everything possible to make sure your world is antibourgeois, that it defies bourgeois tastes, that it mystifies the mob, the public, that it outdistances the insensible middle-class multitudes by light-years of subtlety and intellect–and then, having succeeded admirably, you as with a sense of See-what-I-mean? Outrage: look, they don’t even buy our products! (Usually referred to as “quality art.”) The art world had been successfully restricted to about 10,000 souls worldwide, the beaux mondes of a few metropolises. Of these, perhaps 2,000 were collectors, and probably no more than 300–worldwide–bought current work (this year’s, last year’s, the year-before’s) with any regularity; of these, perhaps 90 lived in the United States.
These days it feels like the Internet has a massive curatorial problem. For the first time in history, algorithms are the gateway between content and human audiences. The role of film studio executives and radio station music directors is slowly being displaced by PageRank, the Social Graph and Collaborative Filtering.
The problem is that these algorithms are overwhelmingly weighted towards popularity. This makes sense from a computer science perspective as popularity is something that machines can measure fairly reliably. But the machines don’t understand satire or sarcasm, nor are they able to discern how a new piece of content has been influenced by everything that has preceded it.
The mechanics of these algorithms has a homogenising effect on content. Notice how the really popular stuff on any social network is all kind of the same? The same memes, the same presentation style? That’s because you can’t create a thriving counterculture on an existing social network. If the submitted content doesn’t match the internal model of “popular” it gets brushed away. The algorithm is not humoured by your sarcasm, nor can it work out how your content is different, yet subtly influenced by something that was popular.
It usually takes another silicon-valley start-up to create a brand-new social network, with a completely empty popularity model to allow fresh content to float up. I guess that’s why every couple of years, a successive generation flocks to a new platform. My Space, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok. Newcomers are largely locked out from impressing their culture onto an existing social network. So the younger generation moves to a new platform, one that is still learning what it will establish as popular. As soon as the popularity model becomes entrenched on the new platform, it too will slowly become stale. Until an upstart creates a new social network and the cycle repeats. This sort of platform-based renewal will continue until someone figures out a better solution to the curatorial problem. One that is able to semantically drill into content and make stylistic and conceptual associations.
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