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On elitism for all

On elitism for all

Some sectors of modern economies are less prone to the democratization of creative processes that authors such as von Hippel have described extensively. Whereas subcultures may be able to produce and transform imprecise ideas into artefacts, and subsequently into mainstream concepts through innovation (von Hippel describes the work of early kitesurfers in the progression of the sport), vast domains of activity at times give the impression that they are impervious to the successive waves of democratization.



The relationship between elitism and democratization is undoubtedly antithetical. Hence, a call for an "elitism for all" is oxymoronic and must be interpreted as an exploration of the broadening of the elitist appeal that specifically aims to reflect democratic principles while retaining the values of intellectualism, aesthetics and creativity. That said, a broadened elitist policy is emerging in many domains and in several countries. The discourse is generally accompanied by calls for collective action, all of which hope to raise the levels of education and awareness to match those of so-called elitist preoccupations.


Like all "higher forms" of culture, museums have traditionally been perceived as the reserved grounds of the elite. The "democratization of culture" that accompanied the shift in ideology that drove most of these conservative institutions created an entirely new playground for technologues, curators and art historians. The appearance and growth of cybermuseums, as demonstrated in Pr. Lise Boily's teachings, has significantly altered the relationship of laymen's to the cultivation of artistic pieces. In many cases, not only is the virtualization of works striving to increase the breadth of access, it also permits new practices to emerge, as demonstrated notably in Amit Sood's latest TED talk. Additionally, the production of digital narratives elevates the individual as a living museum whose existence is itself conceivable as a work of art. 


While museums exemplify things that are positively influencing both democratization and elitism, other cases have not been as clearly delineated. Some cases even occur where, while democratization served as an ethical justification for action, pure elitism through exclusion has resulted. The case of Montreal's Habitat 67 project (driven by Palestinian-born architect Moshe Safdie) clearly shows how the dynamics of shape and content interact, and may yield unpredictable outcomes. Whereas Habitat 67 was conceived as an avant-garde project that was to permit mass replication at low cost, this idealized end-result was conditional on the project managers' ability to develop the model massively in order to reap the fruits from economies of scale. These economies never came to be. Instead, the unicity of the project has attracted wealthy residents to invest in the residential project, leading prices to an average well above 500,000$, and reaching up to 2.5 M$ . As Adele Weder wrote in The Walrus (Jan/Feb. 2008), "the pioneers of Modernism — Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Adolf Loos, et al. — saw the movement as the salvation of the housing-starved underclass. The Modernists’ most naive conceit was that they thought they could design social equality into existence." Their failure to achieve that goal strikes at the heart of an ideology of democratized elitism. 



Between the forces of emergence and the forces of control through governance, we are left with a number of initiatives that sit at either end of the spectrum and seldom meet halfway. The articulation of a vision for Montreal's Griffintown and its "Innovation Quarter" relies heavily on such a developmental, rational approach, which promotes predetermined excellence while strictly limiting emergent growth.


In contrast, some educators are choosing to accept the emptiness of the cities and, instead of striving towards an artificial "completeness" of fully furnished urban spaces, prefer to open the possibilities to informed citizens. This is notably what the "Space for Life" endeavour wishes to accomplish. Through the incessant small-scale entrepreneurial dynamics of neighbourhoods, cities become entities that are not exclusively the asepticized dream of the formatted elites, but the resulting product of convergent perspectives that allow for conflict, randomness and emptiness.


Following the work of Richard Florida, our cities have adopted the "creative class" concept as a panacea and massively embarked on an absurd quest to generate an artificial inflow of so-called creative elites, believing that our ability to integrate as many "creatives" as possible to the urban tissue would prove a silver bullet to foster economic success, tame social unrest and produce a uniform good to be measured on equal terms irrespective of localization, culture and identity. What we propose is that this model - an essentially elitist rationalization of worldly proportions - could easily be replaced by considering creativity as an essentially locally-fostered, adaptable good. This requires intellectual effort, long-term perspectives and interrelatedness : all things which, in essence, elites should be quite comfortable with.


Elitism for all can only be driven by those who can make such choices. It is likely that, as a precondition, they should understand that to create socially meaningful urban tissue, one must accept to let go, focusing on the networks of individuals rather than on the built accomplishments which are entrapped in momentary beliefs which, in the end, reinforce nothing but the very models that brought them to be. This abandonment is necessary if cities are to become "spaces for life". Else, they are nothing but a collection of statistical data, which doesn't bear witness to the true underlying richness of modern urbanity's democratic nature.  


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