The death of auteurs Antonioni and Bergman has inevitably warmed up that old chestnut about the death of arthouse cinema. It's a perennial favourite that's wrapped up in wider social issues: the notion that society is dumbing down and our brains are becoming atrophied by a forced diet of empty-headed pap culture.

Serious artistic purpose, goes the argument, has been replaced by postmodern irony and cultural relativism, dragged down to the lowest common denominator by the inexorable force of a globalised market. Broadly speaking, people are being given what they want or think they want, rather than what's good for them.

Some of that feeling is a false memory syndrome. It's become an enduring myth that in the 1970s people flocked to see cinematic works of genius. The box-office figures say something different.

An interesting phenomenon created by the web and, perhaps most of all, iTunes, is the ability to rewrite our own cultural histories. The back catalogue allows us to lay claim to a wealth of music and film that actually passed us by at the time. We can be cool retrospectively.

But there's a strong argument that cinema today is more, not less, interesting. We can now see immense pieces of work coming from a far greater variety of countries than ever before.

Many arthouse films from the supposed golden age were wrapped up in specific local cultures and hidebound by political posturing.

There's also an argument that some of the great auteurs lapsed into mediocrity as age and indulgence blunted their edge or disappeared up their own backsides in experimentation. Some of the least interesting arthouse cinema in recent years has come from revered auteurs.

The question for the future of arthouse, then, is not one of culture - there's no reason to believe great film-makers are in short supply. Rather it's whether we can get those films to audiences. Film does have an advantage here. Most governments see film as part of a national identity and as such it can call on subsidies.

Equally important, arthouse benefits from one of the wonders of the cultural world, the film festival. It is an extraordinarily successful way of unearthing new talent, and reaches global audiences in a way that belies the throwaway lines in many reviews that a film will only succeed on the festival circuit.

It's clear, however, that the business environment isn't great this year. The glut of studio product that came with the private equity boom has squeezed market prices and space in theatres. All the anecdotal evidence points to falling budgets for independent film and a shift towards safe-option genre films. There's even an argument that arthouse is under threat from the digitisation of back catalogues, as potential home viewers opt for the certainty of the classics rather than new film-makers.

But this doesn't point to a future that is already written, encapsulated in the statement of a European indie exhibitor at a conference this month that arthouse would die with its current generation of fans.

That kind of fatalism is the real threat to arthouse. In fact, the word 'arthouse' is a problem - too often it's both exclusive and excluding.

Lower budgets supported by digital technology won't kill creativity. Digital cinema and digital distribution will extend film-making opportunities beyond what's been, historically, a small elite. Yet it is the indies which have often been slowest to embrace the potential, giving credence to the idea that arthouse is often wrapped up in a complacent subsidy culture where the audience is an afterthought.

Intelligent film-making has new tools at its disposal to fight for its future. If it does die, it will die of neglect.

[s19] See The State of the Arthouse 2007, p24-28