The Amateurization of Everything

I have a very strong memory of seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s film, The Celebration, when it came out in 1998. Here was a movie made with a couple of tiny Sony VX1000 prosumer DV cameras that actually looked and felt like a real movie. As a young filmmaker, out of film school for just three years, it was revelatory. It was a good film, yes, but what it really meant to me was that the tools of filmmaking were now basically in the hands of anyone who could afford a $5000 camera — and not just documentary filmmaking, feature narrative filmmaking. Vinterberg proved that by writing a script that fit the style of shooting with a small, fast-moving, hand-held camera, you could make a film that not only was impressive because it was made for nothing, but because it was just impressive. I was inspired. Not long after that, I started making a documentary with my dad’s Hi-8 camera, and eventually finished it on my own VX1000 (which came down in price tremendously by the early aughts, when better cameras started to emerge).

Little did I know that by 2015, literally everyone would have a camera in their pocket. I could never have predicted the rise of YouTube and Vine and Vimeo as distribution networks, in addition to iTunes and Amazon and Netflix. And I also could never have predicted the other result of this trend of democratizing the tools of filmmaking — and not just filmmaking, but photography and publishing, painting and music, of making art in general. The downside of everyone being able to make art was that anyone was able to make art — it was no longer really a challenge or a struggle or something you had to feel compelled to do. It let in all the artists who had for so long been kept out by the hierarchies created by the business of selling that art, but it had also let in all of the amateurs. And because the people at the top of those art business hierarchies had always cared more about the bottom line than quality, because to them, “quality” was defined by how much money they made anyway, this also meant that they would take anything that hit, anything that had an audience. Lo and behold, if there were amateurs who they didn’t have to pay to create “art” that people would either or put up with advertising to see, even if it wasn’t very good art, and they could just reap the profits by just putting in a small investment at the very end of the process, making those profits much greater, the answer would be, Hell yes.

And so, in essence, we have the amateurization of everything. Perhaps the most visible sign of this has been how newspapers and magazines and other news outlets are letting their photographers go because they seem to now believe that they can just let any reporter — or anyone period — with an iPhone contribute photos of any given news event. I know this is partly due to the fact that newspapers and magazines are losing revenue at an alarming rate since, thanks to the internet, journalism itself is also becoming an amateur’s game — a place where anyone can put up poorly-researched misinformation or opinions masquerading as news on a blog or a site like Upworthy, Addicting Info, or BuzzFeed (at least how BuzzFeed used to be, since in a bizarre twist, BuzzFeed has in fact broken some actual news stories. Go figure). As for film, the funding for indie films and documentaries has gotten so tight that Frederick Wiseman, one of the most important figures in verité documentary, had to pitch his next film at a festival forum event to get funding — meaning that people without his well-earned credits are left even further out in the cold. But the video equivalent of clickbait thrives, enabling new celebrities like PewDiePie, who seem to only be celebrities because their silly-voice-and-sound-effects-and-screaming humor is so lowest common denominator that anyone can get it in any language, to make a killing off of YouTube advertising. And in the realm of music, we have any and every idiot with a drum machine and autotune, and Rebecca Black. Need I say more?

I love that Instagram exists — it’s an outlet for me, as someone who’s always loved photography but has never been able to get paid to do it, to share some of the millions of pictures I take and get some validation. But I can’t stand the thought that photojournalism will cease to be sustain the people who have mastered the art of telling a story with one amazing still photo. And while I do appreciate the explosion of sources for breaking news out there, and the pressure it’s put on the conventional news media to cover many stories that we wouldn’t know about otherwise, I am truly afraid of a future where journalism is left to people who don’t have a clue about its craft and ethics, or even what the term “journalism” really means. And on the film side? Don’t get me started. Yes, I watch videos of cats, and goats and giggling babies and dancing birds etc etc etc, as much as anyone else who needs to procrastinate, but if I have to watch another muddy instructional video or webcast with a ridiculous amount of nostril hair and always always always bad sound, I think I’m going to start going around destroying webcams with a baseball bat, or at least start tying people down and forcing them to wear lavs.

I’m not entirely sure what scares me more: the idea that those of us who do know what we’re doing in these fields will finally be unable to support ourselves (to the extent that we still can) once the jobs behind the professional making of art, entertainment and journalism get downsized out of existence, or that it will be harder and harder to find and experience fine work in these fields by people who actually know their craft. Or no, here’s what really scares me most: the possibility that we’ll stop thinking there’s any value at all in having people who know what they’re doing in the arts in the way that people in our country seem to think that more and more about politics — that we’d be better off if people “just like us” did them. In other words, a wholesale rejection of anything that we can’t understand how to do better than we can do it simply because we can’t understand it, and therefore refuse to value it. As populists, we Americans have never really liked people who are smart, is it just one small step to deciding we don’t need anyone who’s talented or skillful either?

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