Human beings evolved to be the complex creatures we are by communicating. As our languages became ever more complex so did we. Bands of humans, joined together by common stories (what anthropologists call culture) and armed with tools they invented and shared with each other, spread all over the world at the expense of larger and more powerful animals.
As our psyches adjusted to this evolutionary success story, we became addicted to holding forth — to expressing ourselves. The caves at Lascaux are filled with evocative art painted and pressed into the walls by common men and women who lived some 30,000 years ago.
But with the advent of the industrial revolution, this universal human urge has been diminished by the emergence of a professional class of artists who do the job for us while we tend the farms and assembly lines. As two Vanderbilt University professors of media, Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper, wrote of this change: “Professionals were becoming responsible for making our culture, entertaining us, and telling us our stories: stories produced by people we had never met, about people we had never met.”
In short, a celebrity culture has overtaken us in which people of seemingly impossible talent and luster hold our attention as they toss balls, or dance, paint, sing, or write the stories we consume in a new culture of mass media. As a result, access by amateurs to avenues of artistic expression have become limited. Galleries and museums are few in relation to the number of us and they are slanted toward established artists. It takes stamina and time to convince them to show our work.
About two years ago, I faced the dilemma of getting a gallery to notice my photographs. I solved that by joining with my cousin Lanny McDowell to rent the Grange Hall and hang a joint show over Labor Day weekend.
We attracted a large crowd with music (David Stanwood on piano), good food, champagne and, hopefully, the quality of Lanny’s paintings and my photographs. I expected to maybe sell one photograph but eventually, in eight hours or so, I sold 18. And I got an invitation to show at the Dragonfly Gallery. Still, it was a lot of work and up-front money to get recognized.
The Internet now provides an alternative way to get our work shown. In the first part last week I mentioned Flickr as a source of information on photography but Flickr provides not only cultural input but is also a handy way to display your creativity, just by signing on and uploading your art to the Web site.
Among other web venues is NeoImages.net, where artists create an on-line portfolio of their work at a cost of about $60 a year and myartinfo.com which brings together artists, galleries, collectors and art consumers to “chat, exhibit work, and share ideas with the art community.” Membership in myartinfo is free and requires only that an artist sign in and create a gallery space on the Web site. MyArtPlot is another such site now just getting started.
Many photographers sell their photographs not only through galleries but to the stock photo market and this has become much easier through a Web site called iStockphoto.
There are now over two million images on the site contributed by over 37,000 photographers. One drawback is that photographs sell for a small fee — from a little over a dollar for small images to about $40 for large high resolution images — but iStockphoto has opened a market to amateurs that was once available only to elite photographers.
The advent of inexpensive digital photographic and video cameras — and computer programs to manipulate and edit digital images — has also helped amateurs compete in the market by dramatically reducing the cost of entry.
And the ability of amateurs to display their video productions on the Internet through such venues as uTube has attracted the interest of mainline media companies, always looking for a new (and cheap) product to present on their airwaves.
A few years ago, for example, VH1 produced Web Junk 20 which featured about 20 videos each week culled from the most popular ones making the rounds on the Internet, and Bravo presented a similar series — Outrageous and Contagious: Viral Videos.
Even Al Gore has got into the mix, by founding Current TV — a network show featuring what they call pods — short amateur-produced videos which are broadcast to more than 50 million households through distribution partners such as Comcast, Time Warner, DirecTV, Sky and Virgin Media Cable. Is it any good? In 2007, Current TV won an Emmy for the Best Interactive Television Service.
This massive new market for art work of all kinds has energized a new generation of creative people. According to a recent Pew Foundation report: “American teenagers today are utilizing the interactive capabilities of the Internet as they create and share their own media creations.
“Fully half of all teens and 57 per cent of teens who use the Internet could be considered content creators. They have created a blog or Web page, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations.”
The Internet not only creates a totally new access to mass markets but also to narrow markets of like-minded people.
“Industry analysts predict that record labels will increasingly earn revenues not only from megahits but from songs and artists that are deep in their catalogs,” wrote media scholars Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper, “songs and artists that would likely not find their way onto a shelf at Wal-Mart but that, nonetheless, might find a small fan base scattered across the world.
“The combination of the rise of serious amateur art making, the explosion of choice, and the sophistication of Internet-savvy consumers will create new micromarkets, challenging the dominance of 20th-century mass markets.”
As a result, the 21st century may well represent what Henry Jenkins, a media scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls “a revitalization of folk culture” or what I would call a return to our innate status as communicating animals like those early humans who impressed their hands in ochre and left their mark on the caves they inhabited.
Sam Low lives in Oak Bluffs. His Web site is samlow.com.