If a band as big as U2 cannot guarantee universal appeal, you wonder who can. Photo: Getty
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With so much “stuff” out there in the world, can we still tell what is art and what isn’t?

From U2’s forcedly ubiquitous new album to “rediscovered” paintings from centuries ago, we are surrounded by things that lose and gain artistic status according to their context.

It must have seemed like a great idea at the time – Apple and U2 deciding to team up and give every iPhone and iPad user a free copy of the band’s new album Songs of Innocence along with their update of the operating system. The response from users was not so gracious though, with many taking to Twitter to declare their annoyance and puzzlement at finding an album on their iTunes that they didn’t want and that they couldn’t delete (something Apple later rectified by popular demand). Leaving aside the presumptuousness of imagining that everyone in the world is a U2 fan, the debacle was most striking for its offloading of an item onto an unwilling public (even in the virtual world, things take up space). As George Carlin once famously said in his sketch on the personal belongings that define us, other people’s stuff is “shit” while your shit is “stuff”. In the minds of many iPhone users, the new U2 album, despite its alluringly Blakean title, was very much someone else’s shit camping out among their stuff.

Few objects have a value that is completely innate. Value and worth are more often than not contingent on either usefulness or desirability. Even the iPhone, that totem of contemporary technological prestige, for which thousands of presumably otherwise sane individuals will queue overnight to buy, becomes little more than an expensive paperweight if you forget your charger and the battery runs out (which doesn’t take so long). Ever since Marcel Duchamp pressed into service his “readymade” bicycle wheels and urinals for use as art, the mainstream media and public have carped at the affront of mere “things” appearing in art galleries and fetching huge sums. Be it Carl André’s bricks, Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes or Tracy Emin’s bed, there are many who will take umbrage at the suggestion that such things can be considered art. The main reason, of course, is the perception that these works are “easy” and the status as art unearned – figurative art, on its most basic technical level, is so beyond the capabilities of most people that it is recognised as “worthy” art. It often takes quite a long time to produce – another thing that reassures the majority of people whose income is intimately tied to the amount of time they spend working.

This sentiment is, of course, misplaced, as the only prerequisite for something to qualify as art is for it to be perceived as such. Even the most profoundly mediocre art will do well for itself if it can induce desire in collectors, buyers and museums. This all seems very unfair but, even allowing for the deforming inflation of the art market since the Second World War, it has always been the case. Most great art in history stands out on its artistic merits but not a single artist who has survived through the ages has not benefited from good luck or the prevailing winds of fashion – some have had to weather those same winds: Vermeer’s work languished in obscurity for almost two centuries before being “rediscovered” in the 19th century, and Laurence Sterne’s proto-postmodern novel Tristram Shandy (published in 1759) was largely forgotten until the Russian formalists championed it in the early days of the Soviet Union (no less an authority than Samuel Johnson predicted it would “not last”).

Take a long walk through the Louvre, the National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you will find much of the “supporting cast” of paintings to be admirable in their own right but rather indigestible in mass. In some instances you will find it difficult to ascertain why they are less esteemed than the Leonardos, the Velasquezes and the Monets that they rub shoulders with, other than for the fact they lack the cachet of historical renown that the more famous artists enjoy. Many paintings with a strong similarity to major painters remain unattributable or divide art historians on their provenance, so they get lumped with the tag “of the studio”, having to be content to bask in the glow of proximity to the Master. Until it was authenticated as a Caravaggio in the early 1990s, “The Taking of Christ” was simply a fine Renaissance tableau hanging in the Dublin headquarters of Ireland’s Jesuit order, presumed to be one of a dozen or so copies of the long lost original. While the painting was not exactly “unrecognised”, its authentification was no doubt delayed by its being viewed first and foremost as a piece of religious art. Its surroundings made the Christ more important than the painting, an ironic reversal of the phenomenon that makes much of the devotional art throughout history so difficult to parse for modern secular audiences.

There have been countless examples of priceless art slipping through the fingers of gormless dealers and owners. Knowledge is the key to transforming a piece of bric-a-brac to a valued item. I have a friend who deals rare records to a number of high-profile clients, many of them well-known DJs and musicians. Much of his stock he sources in the most inauspicious surroundings – car-boot sales, flea markets and even second-hand record stores – bought for next to nothing off sellers unaware of the true value and then sold on for much larger sums.

People can also be subject to the shifting values of a libidinal economy. Fame is craved by some and feared by others. For what the famous gain in visibility, they lose in anonymity and they find hard to do some of the everyday things that the rest of us take for granted. There is a picture of Elvis Presley, taken by Alfred Wertheimer on 4 July 1956, where the singer, on the verge of becoming one of the most recognisable faces on the planet (this was three days after his appearance on The Steve Allen Show), stands unnoticed buying his lunch at a railway platform stall in Sheffield, Alabama. Elvis stares into the camera – it was one taken with publicity clearly in mind – and the image is a disorienting one. The man’s face, which would soon become so familiar as to be practically a registered trade mark, is like that of a ghost looming amid the ordinary Joes who are completely indifferent to him. Despite having built up a name for himself since the release of “Heartbreak Hotel” in January that year, Elvis is still “nobody”. All that was soon to change.

It is not just visual art that can gain or lose value depending on context. Books, when they are not of interest to one, become just books. In Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion (1937), Rosenthal, the Jewish intellectual incarcerated along with other French prisoners of war, protests strongly at the burning of books by his fellow inmates for heat against the winter cold. He is outraged by the violence done to the books (though the film is set in the First World War, the burning of books by the Nazis was clearly the reference here). Book-burning these days is generally seen as synonymous with barbarism, even though there is nothing innately “good” about books per se, and millions of books get pulped by the publishing industry worldwide every year, albeit discreetly out of the public eye. These volumes are destroyed because they are unwanted, they are someone else’s “shit” as opposed to one’s own “stuff”. But even one’s own favourite books can quickly become “useless” as soon as one is finished reading them, or if you end up with multiple copies. For a bibliophile, there is nothing quite so forlorn as a pile of books that does not move you in the slightest. These poor, unwanted objects just take up space – you cannot conceive of wading through their text, of investing the book with the necessary attention to bring it to life. Books in languages you can’t read likewise suffer. While the typographical beauty of books in Arabic, Japanese or Chinese might lend them some interest, with more workaday Latin scripts, the book is not quite the thing. Of the foreign languages I speak to varying degrees of ability, I read French the best, and I try to read French literature in the original whenever I can. But even when I am capable of ploughing through a 1,000-page doorstopper such as Jonathan Littel’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), a book in French never seems as real or as vibrant to me as one in English. Even when you can read the language perfectly well and detect style and tone as well as a native might, your reading it is mediated, and at one remove. It doesn’t mean, of course, that those books are any less valued in your estimation but it does make it harder for a lesser book in a foreign language to grab your attention. Still, the writers of those lesser books are not necessarily trying to reach me. And not every artist in the world has the luxury of combatting falling sales by spamming unsuspecting consumers with their latest product, as U2 have done. If U2, a band more used to selling CDs in supermarkets and on service station forecourts, cannot guarantee universal appeal, you wonder who could. There is a lot of superfluous stuff out there in the world.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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