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Reflections on being an artist in a modern consumerist society and the role of social media in re-shaping the relationship between artist and fan By René Mulder (a.k.a. Blooming Late) \ Written February 21st 2019 The title of this article is somewhat of a mouth full, so allow me to break it down a little before we get to the main text. My concern in this article is to deal with the following phenomenon: I am an artist among many artists in the world; I, like them, live in a time and in a place when there is an overabundance of art for people to consume; Thanks to social media our creative expressions are rapidly distributed, judged, consumed, and shared by an unimaginably large (potential) audience; Those same social media outlets allow fans for unprecedented means to connect with the artist; The overabundance of available material plus the consumerist attitude of people in general combined with negative side effects of interaction through and behind a computer screen drastically re-shapes the relationship between artist and fan (the art-consumer); The artist in such a world is challenged by a number of important questions and issues that he or she must face before deciding to pursue the life of the (professional) artist. On a personal level I find myself disappointed, discouraged and somewhat disgusted by what I think I see going on around me. I am challenged to reconsider the purpose and value of entering the public arena as a producer of art (in my case as a musician. I used to be a visual “artist”). Do I want my work to simply be consumed by an anonymous group of people that will quickly demand more or turn attention to something else? Do I want to keep up a complex social network strategy to please people? Can meaningful relationships really emerge out of connections with fans and is that pursuit even desirable? Is it healthy to open up your life to the audience that way? Why, in the final analysis, is the pursuit of becoming a publicly known artist a good thing? We will begin exploring these issues. One artist among many The world has always known its share of artists. It is probably safe to say that history is filled with more creative persons than the few famous examples we can come up with. Not every individual made it to fame and glory. In fact, being a full time artist – like a painter – was not exactly an easy path to walk. There is a reason why we have the term “Starving Artist”. In a lot of cases the fame and glory part only came after the death of the artist, who could hardly imagine the sums of money people pay for their works today. Making a living as an artist is still challenging in our time, though conditions have improved a lot since the days of, say, Van Gogh. One particular challenge I have personally experienced is simply getting noticed, standing out in an overwhelming sea of creative works, particularly online. With the world wide web and online platforms such as deviantArt (a place where I tried to share my visual arts in the past) it has become possible for creative people from all over the world to gather in one place and share their works with one another. This provides tremendous opportunities, but also those challenges. The same goes for musical artists. With radio, TV and online streaming services being widely available, you are now competing with the entire world. And with advances in education and technology, many more people have access to the knowledge, tools and techniques previously only available to a select few. To put it bluntly: everyone can be a filmmaker, photographer, comic artist or music producer. Now I'm not saying everyone will be a great or even good filmmaker, photographer etc. What I am saying is that the availability of these tools enables more people to glut the stream of art that is being produced, which makes it harder to get noticed, at least online (which is where a lot of the action is taking place in our time). Perhaps in the end it will be those seriously committed to their art-form who will get the furthest, but even then we will find ourselves being one artist among the many. Art as a consumer product If you ask an artist why he or she produces art, invariably they will answer somewhere along the lines of, “Its who I am.”, or, “This allows me to pour something of myself into [words/images/sounds/shapes]” Art is usually self-expression. That is why art can be both interesting and attractive as well as boring or repelling. We don't always like what is coming out of the deepest corners of someone's soul. Art is inherently personal, but there are ways to create something that has appeal to the masses. Rather than exploring what is just inside me, we can explore what is inside all of us. The more general the more people may be attracted to it. Enter commercialism: the turning of art into a consumer product. Modern technology allows us to create things fast, easy and to make duplicates in a near instant. Chances are high that the nice painting you find in your neighbors house is not exactly one of a kind. You can get mass produced still lives and natural sceneries for a few bucks at all sorts of stores. Though that fact does not necessarily take away from the beauty of the work, it does take away some of the value we assign to it. There is a difference between owning the original and only copy of Rembrandt's De Nachtwacht (The Nightwatch) and being one of a million people who have a mass-produced reproduction of it. Granted, the value we assign to items based on rarity is somewhat arbitrary, but it does show that we appreciate the amount of labor, care and craftsmanship that was poured into the making of a masterpiece. Speaking more to my own field of creativity, I find a classical work of Mozart to be of much greater value than I do the latest dance track that was produced in a couple of hours by some dude with a computer. In fact, having personally discovered how easy it is to make the kind of music that was popular on the radio back when I was a teenager has made me value that kind of music less. It also made me think less highly of the people we practically idolized for making that music. Now, with art having become somewhat of a mass-produced consumer product we also face the problem of the consumerist attitude that comes with it. Works of art can become easily disposable, much like we dispose of other products we're done consuming. With a constant stream of new images, sounds and things coming out it is easy to forget about the images and sound and things we so enjoyed yesterday. Considering the claim that people can maintain only up to about 100 connections with people, how are we to oversee the ever growing and expanding list of images (for example) we “Like” or “Fav”? How meaningful a connection can we establish with every new piece of work that comes out? How much lasting effect does it have? Or are we quick to jump to the comment box and shout: “More please!”? When I was still a graphics artist, it was this mentality that I saw around me, and you can still find it on places like YouTube. Imagine this: you just uploaded your latest work that you poured your heart and soul into and all you get is, “Nice work. More please.” All that effort only to fill someones belly and have them beg for another bite. Before long the artist has become the slave of the audience. The provider of kicks and wows; of daily mini-orgasms that always beg for more. Art then is no longer about self-expression and pouring out your soul. It has become about finding out what appeals to the other guy and giving them their fill. You better get cooking! The desire to connect Besides self-expression I think there is another aspect to why the artist does what she does: she is looking for connection. Most people inevitably will want to share what they have created. This will expose the artist to potential harm in the form of criticism but also to potential good: connecting to another soul through the shared experience that was expressed in the artwork itself. Art then is a means to get to something more profound: human relationships. Sure, there can be other motives like a craving for recognition and applause; for validation, or simply for financial gain. I discovered only yesterday that the human connection element is actually something that I am seeking. I wasn't really aware of this before. It wasn't on my radar. It came to me when I stumbled upon a forum post by an unknown (to me) artist promoting his latest album. It was his only post, or maybe one of two posts. It just had links to his works and said to “Enjoy!”. His music was kind of nice, but I had no context for it. I could not find out anything about the person. Pondering the process of getting exposure to an audience I suddenly experienced a feeling of sadness. Is this the way? Signing up on random forums with a link to your stuff and hoping people will “enjoy” it? The person didn't seem to show much interest in the forum itself, only in self-promotion. I asked myself: is this what I would do? Would I sign up for a forum dedicated to trance lovers (for example) and only drop a link to something they can consume? Would my goal be just to get them to hear my stuff, and maybe even buy future releases? Is that going to be our relationship? I don't really care about you, but I want you to care about me and my music? To be fair, I could have contacted the person and find out more about him. In that sense, our modern situation provides us with something we didn't have before: direct access to an artist, even a famous and otherwise busy one. Social media provides fans that link. Even so, connecting via a screen is not quite the same as connecting in person. Therefor, a real friendship is hard to establish. Especially when you are one of a million people trying to gain an entrance with your favorite artist. We all understand that having hundreds of thousands of followers on your social media accounts does not have to mean much in terms of human connection. You can also question the desirability of having potentially unstable people connecting to you so easily. Examples of unpleasant behavior abound on places like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the likes. What is our relationship? This then raises the question about what the relationship between the artist and the art-consumer is. Taking the commercial perspective, the artist is the producer of the goods, and the art-consumer is the consumer; the end user of the goods. You don't have to be friends. You're just business-partners. Provider and taker. But given the nature of art, I don't personally find this a satisfactory relationship. There are also easier ways to make money if that's your goal. Again... “Starving Artist”. So far I have kind of painted a picture of the art-consumer as a selfish, thrill seeking, short-attention-span-having, demanding ogre. There are of course people who don't fit that description. They approach things differently. Maybe they really do care for the person behind the art. They appreciate the craftsmanship and are selective in what they consume. Perhaps these are kindred spirits with whom you could have very meaningful conversations, based on the thoughts and feelings your art has invoked in them. Surely these people would be comparatively rare, just as is the case with friends in general (how many people would you truly consider a good or best friend?). I read an article that talked about so called Super Fans, the small percentage of fans who are responsible for the largest share in your economic success. The article suggests a number of tips and strategies you can employ to connect with them, but it basically boiled down to providing them with goodies and VIP opportunities. To me, that still smacks of the commercial attitude where you do everything in your power to please the consumer into sticking around. If your aim with me is just to keep me coming back to your stuff then I'm going to feel that and I'm not going to like it. So I like that idea of having an audience that you can engage with at a meaningful level. With the art as the means of establishing first contact. Where art is not something I make to satisfy your craving for something new and shiny, but where art is my way of communicating something to you that I cannot easily do with words, at least not initially. Where my sharing of art is my way of being vulnerable and risking the chance of getting hurt while also creating opportunities for people to respond in openness themselves. Maybe that is asking a lot, and maybe the artist (or is it just me?) is seeking things in the wrong places in an unhealthy way? Perhaps it is simply unrealistic to demand that kind of relationship with random people who are interested in your product. Especially in the context of social media. A smaller audience of real-life friends may be more suited to the purpose of sharing yourself, with or without the means of art as a catalyst for conversation. At the end of the day, it still comes down to this: you want your art to be seen/heard/experienced by other people. There are certain mechanics in place that will determine whether or not you achieve that goal. Part of that has to do with advertising: exposing people to your works and ideas. Actually, that's probably the biggest part of it. This requires effort and networking, and finding the right places to distribute your art. During that process you are going to encounter all sorts of people: consumerists, potentially dedicated appreciators and everything in between. Not everyone is going to “get” you, and yes, sometimes people will stomp on you. The question is: is what you create worth it? Is making the art worth it to begin with? Do you really have something to offer to the world, or are you simply adding to the already fast pool of throw-away stuff? This I ask myself too.