I hate to be someone who decries contemporary cultural production as somehow less than in the past; maybe it’s just the museums I’ve been visiting here in the Southern Hemisphere, filled with art that’s less than great. But today, as I wandered into a joint in Buenos Aires, I was struck with the same unimpressiveness I found in Santiago. It wasn’t that the work was less than what I’ve seen in other, more imperialist museums (although that’s partially true – but then, comparing every painting to “Guernica” is a little bit unfair), it’s that the work was, instead, equal to what I encounter regularly… on Flickr, on Etsy, in daily life. I don’t know that this is a sign of some kind of great creative decline so much as it is an indicator of the broader democratic trends in culture-making, an issue that’s affected comedy as well, but it raises particular questions within the arts which have traditionally depended on curatorial gatekeepers to be the kingmakers (as much as YouTube has broadened access, comedy, on the other hand, has always been fairly meritocratic). What’s the purpose of museums, of these expensive institutions, if one can find revolutionary product design for $12.99 at Target? Sorting the wheat from the chaff has long been the task of the cultural custodian but a search engine can do much of that work at much less expense.
I’m hardly the first person to declare this a looming problem for institutions, to suspect that we might be in the midst of a serious reorganization favoring the masses over the privileged few. But this was, perhaps, the first time I’ve observed it on such a visceral level, in my own reaction to curated works. There are valid arguments behind bemoaning the change, and behind its celebration; but ultimately, can the increasingly widespread availability of quality aesthetics ever be such a bad thing?