Survival of the Most Opinionated

23 08 2008


Art critic Harold Rosenberg
by Elaine De Kooning (1967)

One of the principal side effects of the reality-television phenomenon–especially on competitions with adjudcation panels–has been the participatory audience, which typically picks up the telephone at a fixed point in the proceedings and votes on contestants to determine who shall be thrown off the show, who shall remain. The systematic production, and brief celebration, of losers is a central feature of reality programming in general, and the participatory audience makes the production of weekly losers possible without compromising either the knowledge or the personal reputations of the so-called “judges” who sit as part of the entertainment. . . . Without compromising the judges’ knowledge, or, indeed, without making any reference to it, or to knowledge at all:  since the participatory audience is “out there” in Viewerland, where all thought, all experience, all opinion, all taste is averaged and nullified in a great throbbing vacuum.

This audience–what can we say about it? That it’s capacity for aesthetic experience has become fundamentally linked to its sense of empowerment, its believe in being part of the show, its sense of having a voice about what it sees. There is an apocryphal tale of a visitor to the Louvre standing in front of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” (“La Joconda”) and smirking, “Nyeh!”, whereupon a guard comes up slowly from behind and whispers, “That painting is no longer being judged. YOU are.” Today, this story would have almost no meaning at all. The audience is categorically not being judged, and the great works of art, such as we can claim to have them, are (not that a contestant on “American Idol” is in any way a “Mona Lisa”). The point is that the new audience doesn’t stand back and watch, it watches by voting (and votes in its watching). The audience is thus full of critics, whose every moment of aesthetic involvement is a critical endeavor.

Were we to know anything about this audience, we might be able to determine whether it has any basis for its critical judgments other than momentary and random nervous stimulation. But its geographic, gender, age, and educational qualities are hidden, even as we are trumpeted the audience’s reaction week after week–often in the form of trembling and collapsing young artists who are deemed, apparently, “insufficient.”

A similarly critical and participatory audience–an audience unprepared to simply accept an aesthetic work as such and form judgment upon it afterward, according to standards–lived around the time of the first World War in the British music hall; and again in the USA in vaudeville. It operates as well today in cinema, deciding, for a large part, which films will be made available for us to watch and which not. This audience dictates the aesthetic forms that the popular media broadcast and emphasize. Is it an audience of thirteen-year-olds? Thirteen-year-olds living in the San Fernando Valley (or influenced by images of, or images vetted by, thirteen-year-olds living in the San Fernando Valley and broadcast in the media)? What are its standards of beauty?: Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Bros.? Bette Davis and John Garfield? Harrison Ford and Karen Allen? John Ford and the badlands?

And given that the audience is now full of critics, might not the occupational standing of the professional critic now be threatened? The function of the judge or critic, after all, as reality television has it, is to be outweighted by the knowing audience, to be debunked, to be trumped even in the face of critical knowledge and taste and a history of critical endeavor. The audience is supreme. When all art has been destroyed by its callousness, this audience will survive.

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