The Cult of the Amateur


For the past couple years my lament (other than not being able to afford to live in the region I’m supposed to support and promote through my job) has been the rapid decline of standards in just about everything. The growing acceptance of mediocrity vis a vis the advance of technology is threatening the livelihoods of professionals, especially in creative fields. Who knew that having so many neat tools at our disposal would make things worse? Certainly not the legion of hobbyists masquerading as graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, writers, editors and publishers who are liberating quality-driven, experienced people of their jobs. 

The other night I discovered that I’m not alone. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values and Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us has been hip to this phenomenon for some time. I wish I’d been hip to him sooner.

I was introduced to Keen in the film PressPausePlay which explores the repercussions of democratized culture. Along with a host of other respected thinkers, including Seth Godin, Keen discusses how the digital age has ushered in an era of lameness. And as we continue to accept substandard work as the baseline, eventually we will forget how to recognize quality. It’s already happening.

Once upon a time, people learned to play music or draw because it was enriching, challenging, entertaining. They did these things to make their lives better. They pursued them as leisure activities. This created a well-rounded, cultured population. Every so often, a few of these hobbyists would emerge as exceptional talents–they rarely made any money.

In the semi-final analysis, I believe that every person is born with a creative impulse. The fact that technology is making it easier for us to give form to our ideas doesn’t make us all artists. And that’s OK. Just because we want to create, does not mean we must make our living this way.  By all means, take photos and put them on display, make mixed media pieces, write poetry, go to open-mics . . . and then become a nurse, a scientist, a cook. The world needs you; your amateur art? Not so much.


4 Comments to “The Cult of the Amateur”

  1. Reminds me of what Fran Leibowitz once wrote: “Unless you can do it better than Tolstoy, we don’t need you.” (Does Fran herself write better than Tolstoy? Uh, no. But she’s a WHOLE lot funnier.)

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