photo: Avi Solomon, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

A as in Amateur

BY Mirek Filiciak / Alek Tarkowski

If in the 20th century the amateur was basically a non-professional, in the 21st, the amateur is a fan and the term is returning to its etymological roots

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The Web has brought the amateur back from the shadows into which they had been pushed by mass culture and its clear-cut division between professional artists and passive consumers of culture. The division drew partly on the romantic myth of the artist-genius who creates fundamental opuses that the ordinary man in the street doesn’t even dream about. The early 21st century, however, is a time when creation and distribution have become,  in a very literal sense, much cheaper. At the same time, a leisure-time culture is booming, with people often working after work – but this time for fun. Often by creating and then publishing Web content.

When looking for entertainment, we increasingly opt for amateur productions created by other Web users. A big hit on YouTube in 2009, racking up millions of views, were the music videos of Kutiman, who sampled and remixed (better or worse) YouTube videos into hip funky songs. Kutiman turned out to be a 27-year-old working at home on his laptop, who only several years prior hadn’t known who James Brown was. Such divisions as artist vs. consumer or professional vs. amateur are becoming blurry.

But this blurring has only been gradual. The divisions, entrenched by the unidirectional nature of the broadcasting media, and which are not as obvious in, say, folk culture, have already become embedded at the linguistic level. “Unprofessional” means poorly made and from “amateur” it’s but a short step to amateurishness. However, if in the 20th century the amateur was basically a non-professional, in the 21st, the amateur is a fan and the term is returning to its etymological roots. Franciszek Dzida, the prototype of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (Polish: “Amateur”), calls himself an enthusiast. Recent years have seen the rehabilitation of the amateur. Pro-Am (what Charles Leadbeater calls “amateurs who work to professional standards”) are an archetypal role in post-material society, in which we increasingly do things for pleasure and fun rather than out of professional duty.

The work of professionals coexists in the media with content created by amateurs. Journalists draw inspiration from blog entries, musicians pay attention to amateur remixes, e.g. those created by musicians who don’t get money for their work, while cool hunters professionally follow the most amateur youth fashion, searching for that next big trend. The domination of the centralised, professional media is yielding to pressure from the grassroots community media.

The authors of the computer game Doom distributed it as open source as early as fifteen years ago, allowing third-party amateur programmers and creative players to modify the product. The game was a source of entertainment, but also a vehicle for creating new games. A crowd of new productions appeared on the Web and Doom sales grew instead of shrinking. It turned out that replacing industry competition of “professionals” with cooperation with “amateurs” could be a viable business model.

Of course, the situation breeds new tensions too – professional graphic designers and photographers object to sites that for a fraction of the standard fees hold competitions aimed at talented amateurs or novice pros such as 99designs or Istockphoto. In this case, the destructive element is not the amateur, but the crowd of professionals and amateurs that the traditional mechanisms of the culture industries aren’t prepared for.

So what’s next? The protagonist of Kieślowski’s Camera Buff achieved maturity when he turned the camera on himself. It seems that in social media, the evolution is taking place in the opposite direction – from a focus on the author, the best example of which are the narcissistic blogs, to activities based on communication and working with existing content and pursued by a community of authors. More widespread participation in culture not only through consumption but also through creation seems a good exercise in social commitment.

Amateurs have put down roots in culture for good – now it is time to prepare for the amateur production of tangible goods. The latest technologies herald the arrival of amateur competition in the field, currently limited to mass production lines at factories.

And if someone still remains unconvinced, let us remind them that Albert Einstein was an amateur mathematician and Franz Kafka an amateur writer.

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak