Nick Wapplington, I think is the fellow you're referring to. But it wasn't just his desperately poor background. If my memory serves, he took utterly pitiless photos of his drunken alcoholic father stumbling and falling ("Ray's a laff"), publishing them to great critical acclaim. This speaks for itself if you think it "fits right into the art world photography ethos".
Wrong name right idea. But just because some work is awful in your eyes, does not means it's awful. I don't care for Billingham's work either BTW.
All modern art has been vilified in it's time. It later becomes so very acceptable and loses the 'Shock of the New' impact, so much so that it's hard to concieve anybody objected to such now quotidian work. Impressionisn, Ballet, Jazz....
I can't agree with most of what you're saying, though it's always great to toss the ideas around. I still feel most strongly that contemporary art has removed itself from the realm of the typical educated layperson in ways that are far beyond historical precedent. Average folks nationwide lined up and paid money just for a glimpse at one of Bierstadt's paintings 150 years ago. It's difficult to imagine such popular enthusiasm for high art nowadays.
Well as there was so little other visual stimulus in those days, paintings could easily drew crowds - no competion was more the reason than the art itself being better. Sometimes as they were the only depictings/recording of news events such as the Raft of te Medusa by Théodore Géricault.
And as pointed above, modern art can certainly fill galleries even with cinema, TV, internet, DVDs etc as competiton. I often visit the Tate Modern when in London - never seen it quiet. Busier than the Tate [not Modern] from my experience.
I also find it baffling that people criticize some art as being elitist. What is actually wrong with that? Not everything has to appeal to average people. For them you have Thomas Kinkade
and I'd rather look at Billingham's art that Kinkade's populist work.