We often talk about how “high” and “low” culture, once two distinct things, have increasingly become intertwined. Wether it’s a pop star singing with a full symphony orchestra, or a fashion house doing a collaboration with a sneaker company, high and low have been coming together with a greater frequency over the last 25 years, and certainly since the start of the 21st century.
But what I think is also interesting, and maybe more recently has been gathering momentum, is another type of collapsing, this time from what I would call Back to Front.
There was a time when professional and consumers were two distinct entities. Sure, a doctor, advertising exec or lawyer was also a consumer, but those were two discreet parts of her identity. But those distinctions seem to be breaking down quite a bit. Let me give you some examples:
- Trucks and tools that are marketed as “Professional Grade.”
- “Clinical Strength” personal care items.
I don’t recall my father needing “clinical strength” antiperspirant. But it’s not just the tools of the profession, it’s the professions themselves. Think you could be a good General Manager of a sports team? Fifty years ago that meant arguing over a few drinks in a bar over who the local team should trade for in the off-season. Now, after pouring over reams of data, you build your own fantasy team. Think you could be a Hollywood mogul? Great, play the Hollywood Stock Exchange game. Want to be a network programmer? Great, go dive into TV By the Numbers and give it a shot.
Walking around Manhattan the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of posters like these:
There is another one, I can’t remember the cable network right now, but the copy even jokes that you should watch the network, even if you don’t know what an upfront is. Yes, it is that time of year, and these ads will be gone in a few weeks, but the fact that these are no longer confined to the pages of Variety and Hollywood Reporter is interesting.
Another example? Sephora has partnered with Pantone to create a new cosmetics line. How many people even knew what Pantone was a few years ago, other than people in design, house painting or publishing?
When everyone has the means of production, we’re now all looking for, expecting really, access to the tools of the trade. When you have this sort of back to front collapsing, combined with the collapsing of the high and the low, you get another aspect of the Cultural Singularity. Here now is a different kind of divide. Some people thrive in this new environment, where the rules have been effectively thrown out the window and the barriers have been removed. Others are completely overwhelmed, paralyzed by the seeming confusion brought about by this collapsing. “If everyone can do my job, or have access to my tools, then what, or who, am I?”
How does a Film/TV critic at The New York Times grapple with this: Style in The Wire is a 36-minute film that breaks down the brilliant HBO show to breathtaking levels of detail and erudition. Or how about this 20-minute masterpiece called In The Cut: The Dark Knight, a critical look at director Christopher Nolan’s choices during one critical scene in the film. When amateurs can produce criticism of this level, what do I need the professional critic for? For that matter, what do I need The New York Times for? And that’s why you see institutions clinging to tradition. They can’t handle the Cultural Singularity. Can you?