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Culture is an Ecosystem: A Manifesto Towards a New Cultural Criticism (3)

Culture is an Ecosystem: A Manifesto Towards a New Cultural Criticism (3)
Critics are important catalysts for moving ideas across the cultural ecosystem and providing incentives for invention and innovation.

Finally, here is a proposed revision to the ideology of inclusive cultural criticism that builds upon the poptimist critique while correcting its excesses.

IN REVIEW: Part One and Part Two outlined how aesthetic experiences are a social good, and humans need a constant refresh of novel and complex stimuli for continued aesthetic experiences. A healthy cultural ecosystem therefore generates a diverse range of cultural options, both complex and simple, to provide aesthetic experiences to as many people as possible.

3.1 An ecosystem-based approach to cultural analysis clarifies the function of criticism: Critics support ecosystem health by (1) identifying innovations that arise in each cultural sub-unit, (2) crafting a narrative for innovations to facilitate their wider acceptance, and (3) rewarding esteem to artists who pursue radical invention.

3.1.1 Cultural refresh requires invention (new ideas that break current conventions) and innovation (the diffusion of those inventions). Expertise enables critics to better identify where invention and innovation arise. While invention does sometimes appear in mainstream artworks, artists and rebels outside of the cultural industry have more intrinsic motivation to break current conventions, and so critics in search of innovation must spend time looking across the entire ecosystem.

3.1.2 In parallel to identifying invention and innovation, critics must also denounce cliché (stale artistic conventions), unethical borrowings (stolen valor), cynical cash grabs (abuse of audience attention), and otherwise poor artistic practice.

3.1.3 Since mainstream audiences reject most innovations as arbitrary changes to culture, critics can use narrative and explanation to convince them that certain artistic inventions are worthy of consideration and appreciation.

3.1.4 As part of validating invention and innovation, critics need to also provide explicit praise to artists working in novel and complex forms, while denying esteem to artists who stick to staid and simple ones. Critical praise alone will never shift the aesthetics of an entire ecosystem, but someone must provide esteem to true artists, since the commercial market is more reliable for providing financial rewards to artists working in kitsch.

3.2 In the spirit of "inclusiveness," poptimism became the dominant paradigm for criticism in the 21st century and abdicated responsibility for performing these key functions in the cultural ecosystem.

3.2.1 Critic Simon Reynolds first used the term "poptimism" in 1980s, and later it attached to younger pop-oriented critics of the early Aughts who fought against “rockism," the calcified critical perspective that overvalued white, male, self-composing musicians working in rock-centric genres. Poptimist critics sought to expand serious attention to works made by and for other demographic groups, many of which were made with explicit commercial intentions. The foundational document of poptimism is arguably Kelefa Sanneh’s op-ed for The New York Times, “The Rap Against Rockism,” written in defense of Ashlee Simpson's botched lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live.

3.2.2 Poptimism, which then expanded into other art forms besides music, fit well with pop culture in the early 2000s in that (1) innovation became more pronounced in R&B, hip hop, and dance music, and (2) most sophisticated audiences had omnivore tastes that enjoyed both "low culture" and "high culture."

3.2.3 More important, poptimism was an obvious ideological extension of “hyper-modern” liberalism, what philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky identifies as the “desire for hyper-recognition which, rejecting every form of the contempt, depreciation or sense of inferiority under which one might suffer, demands the recognition of the other as equal in his or her difference.” To criticize pop culture — with its legions of fans — was to label millions of people inferior. Poptimism, thus, had a political agenda: the positive valuation of pop culture was a strike against elitism and discrimination. In a poptimist paradigm, old-style criticism took on the cast of bigotry.

3.3 Between market forces and "stans" becoming core to youth culture, poptimism quickly transformed into ultra-poptimism — the belief that popularity is the ultimate arbiter of cultural value. In this ideology, only artworks created for mass adoption possess importance and legitimacy.

3.3.1 The seeds of ultra-poptimist ideology can be found within Sanneh’s original op-ed and auxiliary writing in these years. He quietly established two key principles for evaluating culture: (1) pop’s value lay in its artifice and awkward commerciality (e.g. Ashlee Simpson’s lip-syncing made her more vital than a singer-songwriter who doesn't use Auto-Tune), and (2) unpopular creators had less relevance, thus less value (e.g. bands playing at Pitchfork’s first music festival were not that important because they had no ambition to be mainstream.)

3.3.2 Ultra-poptimism channeled inclusivity but took little interest in broadening the number of works under critical appreciation. It simply inverted snobbish criticism: Kitsch was now more valuable than art because of its immediate comprehensibility and popularity. Demanding or creating complex art became a sinister act of social exclusion for losers.

3.3.3 Ultra-poptimism, under the banner of inclusivity (and perhaps, driven by a need to increase website clicks and to avoid stan retaliation), became the dominant paradigm for younger music critics — e.g. Pitchfork, once a bastion of the anti-poptimist movement, began to review more pop albums.

3.4.1 Poptimism, in other words, reported on culture as if it were sports: the greatest, most historical feats only happen in the "major leagues," and so everything in the "minor leagues" is trivial by nature and less worthy of attention.

3.4.2 This approach perfectly conforms to market logic, but denies the inherent nature of cultural creativity. The “minor leagues” of marginalized and smaller cultural sub-units have always been the primary source of innovations that go on to refresh the entire system.

3.4.3 Poptimism was also self-defeating in that critical appraisal and explanation have never been necessary for mainstream audiences to enjoy mainstream culture.

3.5 Poptimist ideology hence became a barrier to the promotion of invention and innovation within the ecosystem. In the poptimist paradigm, there has arguably been (1) a reduction in the flow of innovations into the mainstream, (2) a reduction in the legitimization and valorization of non-mainstream innovation amongst mainstream audiences, and (3) a reduction in non-financial rewards that go to unpopular but innovative artists.

3.5.1 The shift of critical focus onto mainstream culture not only diverted attention and esteem away from non-mainstream artists, but subtly delegitimized the entirety of non-mainstream culture, so that artists outside of the mainstream felt the need to be mainstream, and for that goal, curb their own innovations for better market fit.

3.5.2 In a completely ultra-poptimist world, there would be no available incentives to create novel, complex, or ambiguous works of art. We would have to rely on artist altruism or insanity.

3.6 To support a healthy cultural ecosystem, critics must reject ultra-poptimism and re-focus their attention to the discovery and valorization of invention and innovation across the many sub-units. 

3.6.1 Understanding culture as an ecosystem offers a path towards a more inclusive 21st century criticism that incorporates all of poptimism's important corrections:

(1) The poptimist rejection of culture as a vertical hierarchy of high vs. low → a tolerant understanding of culture as an interlocking series of diverse taste worlds

(2) The poptimist complaint about too much focus on white, male auteurs → a focus on the innovation that arises in smaller and marginalized cultural spheres

(3) The poptimist complaint about knee-jerk rejections of commercial culture →  attention to actual innovations originating in the mass market and not just a celebration of mainstream creators for being popular

(4) The poptimist complaint against disparaging mass audiences' conventional tastes → a recognition of the widespread desire for conventional artwork, while also understanding these audiences' future need for innovations that will be adapted from complex artwork

3.6.2 This is not to deny the many, many talented critics already working with these goals, but simply to challenge the primacy of poptimist thinking as the only "progressive" form of cultural criticism. A cultural ecosystem approach is more inclusive than poptimism, better supports inventive artists, isn't just a vehicle/mask for market logic, and comes with more long-term benefits for everyone in the system.