I’ve been a fan of the Mars Hill Audio Journal since the early 90s, though only an intermittent subscriber.  I enjoy and appreciate its insight into life and culture, but generally prefer to receive information in printed, rather than spoken, form.  Plus I was tired of finding places to store the cassettes.

Recently I re-subscribed, because they now offer an mp3 version.  This I can take with me on my walks, and it takes up no physical space in the house.  Works for me.

Mars Hill also has more free resources, audio and print, than I have time to handle.  Here’s one that came to my inbox recently:  A Culture of One, a review of a book by Andrew Keen entitled The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture.  I’ve ordered the book from our library, but haven’t yet read it, so this post will not be commentary on the book, per se, but on some of the ideas expressed in the review, which I believe to be worthy of comment and on which I seek your opinions.

Although he doesn't use the phrase, Keen's book is about the loss of cultural authority. He believes that the survival of the very best forms of cultural expression, in journalism, music, fiction, and other disciplines, requires a network of mediation and accreditation. Cultural institutions that nurture the production of the best cultural artifacts maintain teams of editors, critics, producers, and teachers who have advanced in their careers through years of training and evaluation within a guild or tradition. Over time, some of those institutions earn more trust and respect among their peers than do others, their expertise and ability are acknowledged through an organic process of accountability and recognition. Those cultural institutions can be corrupted and standards can become debased. But without some form of institutionalized judgment established over time in communities of expertise, without, that is, some knowledgeable person to tell you your work isn't good enough to be published, cultural expression easily becomes mere self-expression.

I would respectfully cry, au contraire!  Perhaps I’m being a bit defensive here, as I am one of those who “can self-publish by putting up a few bucks for a website, [and] don't have to face the humiliation of rejection slips.”  He’s talking about blogging, but also about amateur music and other forms of cultural expression.  In this and all of life I fear the Cult of the Professional much more than the Cult of the Amateur.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a strong proponent of excellence, and of training our children (and ourselves) to appreciate the best in music, art, literature, and life in general.  I readily admit that developing such taste usually requires deliberate effort; scattering random seeds on unprepared ground is not equivalent to planting and tending a garden.  In a world dominated by Doritos and Coke, children will not naturally prefer edamame and milk.  Similarly, much that is excellent and worthy of appreciation does not immediately captivate us, but must be assisted by experience and education.  Keen’s concern that the true ore is being buried in a flood of dross is valid, but the solution does not lie in letting a guild of professionals control access to the mines.

Professionalism is good, and professional certification is good when it provides information about minimum standards to those who otherwise would be ignorant.  When choosing a surgeon I would want him to be board certified; when purchasing raw milk I would like the dairy to have a governmental imprimatur.  However, the freedom to choose outside of official sanction is equally important; all the obstetricians in the world should not be able to stop a midwife from exercising her skills, and no state should make it illegal to buy milk from my neighbor’s uncertified farm.

We are too much overwhelmed by the professional in all of life.  We blindly trust our health to our doctors and our children’s education to their schools.  We watch; we do not do.  We watch professional sports; few of us play.  More of us watch the productions of professional actors, directors, set designers, and sound technicians, and fewer of us participate in amateur theatrical troupes.  We pay large sums to hear musical superstars perform, but who of us—besides Irish seisiún participants—gathers with friends to make joyful, informal music?  Mothers hardly sing to their babies anymore!  Professionalism has also put its mark on the amateur performances we do indulge in, and not always for the better.  Well-organized, scheduled, and rule-laden children’s sports may have their place, but they’re not a substitute for neighborhood pick-up games.

By all means, let’s encourage the development of excellence, discernment, and good taste in ourselves and our children.  (“By all means”—what an odd expression, when you think about it, because I don’t really mean “by all means”; I’m about to state an exception.)  But don’t close the door.  Above all, don’t assign as porter those in whose interest it is to keep others out of the business.

There’s a lot of junk on the Internet.  Some wicked, some dreadfully bad, some merely insipid.  And I’m not even going to talk about American Idol!  (There’s another odd expression; I just did.)  But to the extent that YouTube, blogs, amateur music publishing sites, and yes, even American Idol encourage people to become participants rather than observers, they are providing an important service.  Life is to be lived, not handed over to others and watched.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, March 20, 2008 at 10:23 am | Edit
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