Updated: Oct 11, 2021
I've been thinking about this idea for a long time, even before I renounced Instagram. It might be uncomfortable for some, but I feel like I need to talk about it. A few years ago, there was a shift in which people started referring to their artwork on social media as "content". It became sort of an obsession for artists to make sure their "content" was getting likes and engagement and to stay on top of making more. But this shift brought some not-so-great side effects along with it.
I noticed this shift immediately. It felt wrong and counterintuitive for the arts to get wrapped up in and driven by overused marketing lingo. And, as this trend continued, art took a nosedive in terms of quality and connection. I know that might upset some people, but it's the unfortunate truth. When art shifted from something special and precious to just "content", there was a noticeable effect. Take contemporary movies, for instance. There are still some good ones coming out, but most of the films these days are awful. (I'm looking at you, Cruella.) The reason for that is simple: movies have been reduced to "content". The studios producing them no longer take the time to develop and prune them into something greater. They take the first idea they can make money with and run with it. And this very same thing is happening in visual art, music, literature, and so on.
Making good art takes time. There's a reason it used to take years before a musician would release a new album. Pumping out piece after piece in a public setting just doesn't work. We need to get back to letting ideas and thoughts marinate before picking up the paintbrush. We also need to give ourselves (and other artists) space and time to make good work. Moreover, we need to accept that truly great art often takes multiple ideations to get right. When I was working on my last series, Prism, I made over 30 paintings. But only a dozen were included in the series. Why? Because most of them were terrible! I had to work through the bad ones to find the gems peeking through. But it doesn't seem like this is the dominant way of thinking anymore. All that matters is that we have something new to post on social media.
Music, literature, film, art, theater - they've all been commandeered by commercialism and the pressures of social media. And it's not a good thing. I used to laud social media for bringing art back to the control of the artist, but I don't feel that way anymore. To "make it" on social media, your work pretty much has to have a certain look to it. And good luck if you try to experiment or try something new; you'll probably lose followers and notice fewer likes. It also leads to a lot of comparison and self-doubt as we begin to judge the success of our work based on digital likes. All of this has a negative impact on our mental health. Furthermore, this has reduced our work and craft to nothing more than content for social media.
The ruthlessness of the algorithm doesn't help, either. To stay relevant and ensure your posts get seen by (5% of) your followers, you have to show up every single day - or very close to it. Making something new every day isn't possible for most artists. Doing that and expecting greatness every time is just asking for trouble. How on Earth are artists supposed to ponder, gain life experience, and innovate within 24 hours of their last post all while maintaining a healthy work-life balance? It's just not realistic, and our art has suffered from these outrageous demands. But that doesn't matter to the tech giants, anyway, because they already got their ad revenue, right?
All of these pressures have come together to yield horrible results. The arts feel very formulaic, watered-down, and uninspired nowadays. It's all just "content". And it's not just artists noticing this. People everywhere are feeling this shift, and I think they're starting to get tired of this mess. We don't want art/music/film that's marketable; we want quality art. We want masterpieces that were given room to breathe and evolve, not campy remakes of existing masterpieces.
So what are we to do? How can we fight against the ever-increasing mediocrity threatening our creativity and preying upon our artistic practice? Stop living in the digital space and move back into the real world. I'd much rather a gallery take 50% of my sale so they can employ a person in my local community than scroll past 100 ads to see a fraction of what I subscribed to so the creators of these apps can continue buying mansions.
I know it seems impossible to get back to the analog ways of the past, but there was life before Instagram. Here are a few ideas:
Artisan Markets: get involved with your local artisan markets. If there isn't one, organize it yourself!
Art Galleries: visit some local galleries and decide which ones would be a good fit for your work. Then get in touch with them and find out how you can display your work there.
Co-op Galleries: apply to be a part of your local co-op gallery. It's an awesome way to build up your CV, get involved with your local art community, and make some local art friends!
Local Boutiques and Shops: browse some local shops that carry art and crafts and see if you can display your work there.
Arts and Crafts Fairs: Get a list of all the fairs coming up and see which ones you might want to be a part of. If you're not ready or unsure, go as an attendee and see if your work would be a good fit for next year's fair.
Community Shows: a lot of local government offices and libraries often have art shows going on. Look on your municipality's website to see what's happening near you! And if there isn't one, get involved and organize it yourself.
Find Your Niche: If you make art, there's a local place for it. For example, if you make pet portraits, try to get in touch with your local shelter to put out business cards. If you paint houses, contact a local realtor who would be happy to keep some of your work and business cards in their office. It takes a little extra thinking, but there really is a place for everyone's work.
None of this is to discourage anyone from making art or pursuing their dreams. This is meant to provoke introspection and change within our society. The only ones benefitting from the current system are those who set it up. As an advocate for the arts, I can no longer stand by and silently watch the destruction of the things and people I love. You and your art deserve better. Frankly, every person on this planet deserves better. Art is a human need, not content for some company to intersperse between ads. To reduce art to content is harmful for everyone.
I'll leave you with this poem written by my sister, Kathryn. She was challenged to write a diss track about a very popular poet who succumbed to mediocrity. This piece of writing is all about how we shouldn't settle for mediocrity once money starts coming in. We need to go beyond making content and strive to make art. As she points out, art is like mining for gold. But a lot more sifting is needed within the arts these days. So do the work and sift, because you contain gold. And gold beats mud every time.
You have seen flashes of brilliance
in the muddy creek behind your house,
and so you pulled on your heavy rubber boots,
trudged down to the spongy water’s edge
with your pan and pail, sure there was
a fortune buried under the moss.
You scooped handfuls upon handfuls
of mud and muck and pebble and stone
into your bucket, careless and chaotic,
each clump plopping in with a thick, wet din
and murky clatter of river-worn rocks.
Now you have to do the work of sifting,
gently coaxing the little gems and golden nuggets
from their coats of earth and green moss,
where they were cultivated and held
until you came along, with your empty pail
and greedy hands.
Now you have to do the work of sifting.
That's it for this week! I hope this gives you something to think about and consider when moving forward with your artistic practice. Most importantly: Make art, not content.
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Thanks for reading and happy creating!