So Real You Can't Afford It


My iPod is packed with thousands of songs I’ve never listened to by bands whose names I don’t recognise.

The hard drive of my laptop contains dozens of movies I’ve downloaded and never watched, and if all goes according to the pattern, I will soon have a Kindle or similar reader full of books I’ll never read by authors I don’t appreciate. I’m far from alone in this: in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity — cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.

The old cyber-libertarian slogan declared, "Information wants to be free," but of course, information doesn’t want to be anything. It is just a good like any other, subject to the usual laws of supply and demand. For centuries information was scarce, and the heavy demand for news, culture, art, and other "idea-laden" goods made them expensive. We now live in a topsy-turvy world of information abundance, where a glut of ideas is chasing an increasingly limited supply of demand, in the form of time or attention.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the rise of the "freeconomy". This is a world where the marginal cost of producing another unit of culture — a song, a news story, a video — is approaching zero. This is the online digital economy that has been wreaking havoc with the business models of newspapers, magazines, and other enterprises that make a living by selling stuff made of ideas, now that those ideas can be copied at a marginal cost only a shade above zero.

But one issue that has been somewhat neglected in that discussion is the effect of "free" on art itself, on the nature of aesthetic experience when the only expense is the time it takes to consume it.

In contrast with Walter Benjamin’s era, which saw the mass consumption of art that remained centrally produced, in the age of digital culture it is not just access to art that has been democratised, but its production as well. What we are seeing now is the fulfilment of the Rousseauian ideal of every individual as a creative spirit, as millions of amateurs flood the internet with their own songs, videos, photographs, and stories.

But when everyone is so busy creating, who has time to consume any of it? In an economy where what is scarce is attention, the spoils will go to the artist who is best able to command it — even if this requires some rather baroque or contrived setups to achieve. For example, when Moby released his latest album, he booked an entire spa for a day so that journalists could listen to his new album while getting a massage.

A more delightful example of the attention economy at work comes courtesy of a fan of indie folk hero Sufjan Stevens. In 2007, Stevens held a contest in which he awarded the rights to a new song, "The Lonely Man of Winter," to a New York theatre director named Alec Duffy.

While Stevens gave him the unconditional right to do whatever he wanted with the song — destroy it, or use it to sell snowmobiles — most fans expected that Duffy would just put it online for all to hear. Instead, Duffy decided that the only place anyone would hear the song would be in his living room. Sufjan Stevens fans now make pilgrimages to Duffy’s Brooklyn apartment, where he serves tea, plays the song a few times, and then sends them on their way with a bag of cookies, a tune they’ll never hear again already fading in their minds.

Can you see what is happening here? It is the return of the aura, of the unique and irreproducible artistic work. Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitised and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity, which is what Alec Duffy is doing with his listening sessions.

Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground — involving staged pillow fights in the financial district, silent raves on subways, or games of kick the can that span entire neighbourhoods. This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral, participatory, and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect. But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle.

After all, not every Sufjan Stevens fan can afford to fly to New York City just to hear a song, and not every musician can afford to rent a spa to curry favour with reviewers. It turns out that in the attention economy, a profound aesthetic experience becomes something that is free to those who can afford it or who have the necessary social connections, and very expensive to those who cannot.

The authenticity of a work of art is something that has always been seen as threatened by commercialisation, but now it turns out that authenticity is something for which people are willing to spend great sums of money. The aura of meaning that comes from being embedded in the sacred rituals or ancient traditions of a community is an excellent selling proposition — something that has not escaped the attention of marketers and brand managers operating in every sector of the economy.

This is an edited extract from Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves (Scribe: 2010).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.