Restaurant reservations, preteen painters, cultural appropriation, and the end of the internet
Once a month I analyze the latest culture-related news and developments within the framework of my book on status and culture, Status and Culture. (Order my book on status and culture, Status and Culture.)
New Status Symbol: Restaurant Reservations
In “Nothing Is Cooler Than Going Out to Dinner,” Amanda Mull examines the increased social media signaling of dining at difficult-to-book restaurants. (This article helps explain the Chinese woman I met in Tokyo whose business secures seats for wealthy foreign tourists at only eight specific restaurants.) In the past, a core part of dining at fancy restaurants was to be seen by and possibly consort with the other upscale patrons, but thanks to social media, the reservation itself can now be shown off like a handbag. Despite the attempt with NFTs to create new forms of digital exclusion, scarcity remains easier in the analog world, as restaurants have inherent limits in seating. This suggests the most effective signaling strategies will be hybrid online-offline: using social media to widely broadcast rare experiences in real life.
Two auxiliary thoughts: (A) This is further evidence that the rise of digital media made physical objects (food and clothing) much better status symbols than downloadable formats (music and films). (B) Online-offline hybrid signaling re-empowers big cities — New York, L.A., London, Copenhagen, Tokyo — as cultural centers. Omaha residents can order Vetements to be delivered to their doorstep, but they can’t go down the street to Alchemist.
New Aesthetic: Laissez-Faire Foodies
Eater notes that a “weirder, messier, and more comfortable” aesthetic is overtaking the old prissy plating style among food creators on Instagram. The writer Bettina Makalintal suggests that this is a shift from Millennials' potemkin perfectionism to Gen Z's TikTokian chaotic amateurishness. “The vibes have relaxed,” says someone in the piece, providing a future author documenting the Twenties with an excellent book title.
New Kitsch: Andres Valencia, 10 Year-Old Artist
The word “art” is ambiguous, covering everything from Malevich’s “Black Square” to inky kindergarten finger paintings, and maybe the money-people prefer this ambiguity because it helps them sell the virtuoso kitsch paintings of preteens to collectors under the banner of “art.” As profiled in The New York Times, elementary school student Andres Valencia has already sold enough paintings to pay for his college education and start building his future children's trust funds (or increase the sumptuousness of his parents' lifestyles.)
We’ve condemned the word “kitsch” to be pejorative, but following Tomas Kulka’s Kitsch and Art, it’s best used as a technical term to describe creative work that “invariably uses the most conventional, standard, well-tried, and tested representational canons." In 2022, our kitsch canons include Valencia’s beloved Cubist and Surrealist styles. (Piet Mondrian being an avant-garde genius doesn’t mean Mondrian cakes are actual art.) Like all the greats before him, Valencia is learning by copying the masters; in his case, however, he already commands high prices for his homework assignments on the presumption of future success.
Honestly, a preteen art prodigy fits well within an art market that equalizes art, kitsch, and kitsch-art under the same exchange value. When Valencia says, “I’m glad I can make people happy with my art and they can hang it in their homes,” he might as well be line-reading from old Jeff Koons quotes.
Definitions: Cultural Appropriation
Ligaya Mishan’s essay “What Does Cultural Appropriation Really Mean?” for T Magazine is likely the best and most definitely the clearest writing on “cultural appropriation” I've ever seen. As the author of a book about Japanese brands copying American styles, I am often asked whether the ametora phenomenon qualifies as “appropriation,” and no, it does not. Appropriation is not a neutral descriptor of intercultural borrowing: the term is grounded in questions of power and cultural politics. Cultural appropriation occurs when a majority group attempts to profit — whether for money or for status — from the stylistic inventions of minority groups. As long as America is the hegemonic power, non-American adaptations of majority American styles are unlikely to be considered appropriation. Mishan shows how difficult these judgments become in edge cases, however, especially when minority groups borrow from each other. Still, the idea of appropriation has been useful for identifying the most egregious examples when marginalized minorities create their own unique symbols as a result of oppression, only for the oppressors to borrow and denature these innovations to refresh their own culture.
New Narrative: Reaching Peak Internet
For the last month, I’ve been haunted by two pieces of content: (1) Benny Drama’s video “Me as a millennial journalist” in which he gleefully recites faux clickbait headlines until their ceaseless repetition culminates in tears of despair, and (2) Sam Kriss’s powerhouse debut Substack post about the internet being “already over.” Both surfaced something many of us feel: The internet’s economics and media formats have resulted, in Kriss’s words, “an endless slideshow of barely interesting images and actively unpleasant text.” The internet in 2022: the creators are in tears, the audiences are bored. Clickbait no longer baits.
Like many, The Verge’s Russell Brandom blames this outcome on the algorithms. At first, TikTok boosted organic, native-born content, which at least created a new kind of content, but now it recommends recycled videos from elsewhere. Brandom posits a “Bootleg Ratio” to judge the health of a service: “the delicate balance between A) content created by users specifically for the platform and B) semi-anonymous clout-chasing accounts drafting off the audience.” The current state of the ratio portends further boredom.
Admittedly, a glaring omission in the internet chapter of Status and Culture is that I didn’t look at how algorithms push users towards lowest common denominator (LCD) content (Kyle Chayka will cover this masterfully, no doubt, in his upcoming Filterworld.) But I do explain that the content industry always works to simplify cultural innovations to reach larger audiences. These algorithms are a hyper-extension of this principle (and further proof that most people prefer LCD videos over complex, ambiguous ones.) It’s good to remember that the very term “recommendations” has been perverted. Matthew Yglesias noted that the previous paradigm of recommendations involved teachers, older siblings, and surly record store clerks offering pedagogical introductions to even deeper examples in a specific interest area, whereas a capitalistic algorithm may point towards much more general, less sophisticated versions of whatever you liked.
Maybe a strong plurality are happy about an LCD-internet. As much as we remember the 1990s for Twin Peaks, America’s Funniest Home Videos actually hit #1. LCD rules because The People keep clicking on LCD. The move to LCD-everything, however, is extremely alienating to one important group: early netizens, an unofficial group to which you readers may belong. The 2022-internet is a betrayal of what the web promised in its idealistic years: a cloistered play-zone for nerds and sophisticates to go deeper with other compatriots from across the globe. (The most conspicuous things on the internet when I first logged on in 1993, at least on Gopher, were eerily-accurate They Might Be Giants chord progressions and long FAQs on Macross.) Now that most of the entire planet is online, Boing Boing can no longer be the internet's most central content provider. Obviously this change is going to anger the original netizens, in that any once-dominant group becomes resentful as they lose status and influence.
But Kriss's point is that the non-sophisticates don’t seem to be very happy either. Engagement is dropping across the board, as tried-and-true short video formats are becoming stale. Ted Gioia points to the popularity of podcasts and newsletters as the antidote: “the market for clickbait is saturated, and longform feels fresher, more vital, more rewarding.”
A strange presumption of our time is that high-information consumers are supposed to inhabit the exact same internet spaces and appreciate the same content as low-information consumers. By contrast, Nirvana fans were not expected to have respectful and educated opinions about the new Color Me Badd and Roxette. Omnivore taste only makes sense as an elite mode of consumption if low culture holds up its end of the bargain and actually provides interesting innovations. If LCD is the only outcome for our media platforms, high-information consumers will either (#1) flock to new secluded spaces on the internet with steep barriers to entry that help prevent LCDization or (#2) return to analog content distribution and networks. The issue with (#1) is that new tech platforms need scale to justify VC funding, which in the past has led directly to promoting more conventional content to entice a larger user base. The issue with (#2) is that our paradigm of techno-utopianism considers returning to offline culture to be a verboten, reactionary act. But culture is never teleological: There is nothing right or wrong about going forward or back. If our halcyon offline days provided a formula for more complex culture, could we not copy some of its arrangements?
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