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Dossier 06/06/2016

Covers and parodies: subversion or decadence?

Is there such a thing as a crowd culture, or at least an anonymous culture, produced outside any recognised cultural structures? When cultural industries and the media define Culture with a capital C, they do so in opposition to "lower-case culture," with no artistic or intellectual pretensions and mainly produced by amateurs. Generally considered a hobby or an aspect of social integration, with the arrival of the internet it has found an unprecedented degree of resonance. Is this sub-culture essentially worthless, or is it becoming a true counter-culture? The avant-garde of the culture of the future?

Culture for everyone

In the digital world, amateur culture is mainly produced by enthusiasts paying homage to works and artists by sharing, remixing, or reusing clips, music, images, films and video games made by professionals. According to researcher André Gunthert, the possibility to appropriate a work has become key to its success because it determines its potential for sharing and conversations on social media. While at first glance this culture seems to be enslaved to codes and imaginary worlds developed by the cultural industry, professionals are finding it impossible to control this flood of creativity...

For example, remakes become a part of conversations between web users, relegating the original version to the background. They create parodies of parodies, like this video which a US Army company in Afghanistan made in response to the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders' version of "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen.

Another example of appropriation is memes, a phenomenon which goes far beyond simple plagiarism. André Gunthert, Chair of Visual History at the Ecole des études en sciences sociales, explains that memes are part of critical or satirical discourse, and are largely independent of the original model. One of Gunthert's examples is the out-of-context use of a photo of an armoured police officer violently pushing a woman with his foot near the Place de la République in Paris during the Nuit Debout protests. Gunthert, a global reference on image history, argues that interactive tools have created brand new cultural mechanisms, which give the majority of us the capability to produce or reproduce information while adding our own perspective. The result is the creation of an openly democratic documentary space of unprecedented wealth.

The end of culture?

This form of "culture for all" has, however, come under virulent criticism. In France, Alain Finkielkraut has fought against it for a quarter-century, and his arguments find an echo in Andrew Keen's "The Cult of the Amateur," which denounces the superabundance of cultural productions which lack any real legitimacy. Keen fears that this cultural relativism could ultimately lead to the death of Art, with artworks gradually disappearing in favour of a juxtaposition of expressions which claim to be artistic - but are not. That would be the end of artists and authors, but also of experts, since all citizens and consumers would be equally legitimate to express their opinion, with no "authorisation" required. Keen argues that this would threaten the very foundations of representative democracy.

Italian novelist and essayist Alessandro Baricco argues that refusing to make culture more accessible on the pretext that it could cause cultural collapse has historically been the argument of an elite seeking to maintain its place at the top of the hierarchy. In the 19th century, novels and symphonies were rejected by authors and intellectuals who feared that their fictional and lyrical forms would open up culture to the non-initiated and thus drag the quality of artistic production down. Today, the novels of Alexandre Dumas are considered literary classics and Beethoven's symphonies are played by the most prestigious orchestras. Baricco concludes that in the history of art, making culture more accessible has never prevented a Verdi from emerging.

The seeds of a counter-culture?

According to Ariel Kyrou, amateur content production seems to correspond to a broader desire for emancipation and respond to an "urgent need to appropriate the digital environment of sound and images, rather than simply absorbing it." Are we potentially seeing the rise of a counter-culture? In France, during the 2006 protests against the CPE youth contract, many amateurs published pictures on Flick to provide an alternative view of events and fight back against what they saw as unfair media coverage. As observers and analysts like André Gunthert have noted, Flickr, which started out as a basic amateur photography site, became a grassroots information source, including for the foreign media. More recently, French activists protesting the El Khomri Law labour reforms used new applications like live videocasting on Periscope to the same end: to provide a live online feed with a different perspective than that shown in major media outlets.

Artists also play a role in this media liberation movement. Video producer Julien Lahmi, for example, has turned mash-ups , defined as "using existing image to create a new work," into a form of protest: "A mashup can take widely-publicised objects that haunt our collective imagination and pull them off their pedestal to make them say new, more subversive things".

Or the gradual death of creativity?

Despite this subversive potential, music critic Simon Reynolds is concerned by the lack of creativity in music over the past two decades, arguing that our culture is withering. Reynolds bemoans the fact that culture seems to be going in circles, constantly "recreating" and reusing the same ingredients. He sees this as the result of the ability to simultaneously access all of the world's past and present artistic creations. Are we submerged in music to the point that creating new types of music has become impossible? Are we too busy playing with it (samples, remixes, mashups) to create something truly different? Are we locked into the cultural version of a circular economy, a "symphony in re-" which kills originality?

Journalist Bill Wasik is even more critical, writing that the Internet has driven the emergence of "niche cultures and a clique of mini-stars addicted to their audiences." The development of powerful metrics applications has enabled certain amateur content products to become buzz professionals and masters of the "media mind." Wasik suggests that the ultimate aim of these "amateurs," who have become micro-media in their own right, might really be fame, not creativity. He adds that the Internet's viral capabilities encourage users to act like sheep, influenced by crowd behaviour rather than personal decisions, generating meaningless attention bubbles...

We do not yet have the perspective necessary to assess these criticisms: emerging artistic currents and most truly great artists are recognised by later generations, and measured by their influence on them. This culture of recycling may well produce creative geniuses.

Unless we are on the wrong tack entirely, and this amateur culture should be understood in social, rather than aesthetic, terms? André Gunthert, an image historian who has been studying photography in the digital era for a number of years, suggests a hypothesis: what if the increasingly democratic nature of cultural expression contained the "seeds of the revenge of the crowds" and thus profound social change?


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Consult the original sources of this article

Le culte de l'amateur : Comment Internet tue notre culture
by Andrew Keen

Critique de l’émergence d’une sous-culture et d’une contestation de la démocratie représentative.

Livre Scali (10 avril 2008)

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