Audiences, Artists and Reversing the Vicious Cycle

Commonplace Newsletter #47

Last weeks piece did pretty well (presumably via a big name social media shoutout, I don’t know) so I wanted to take a second to say hello to the new sign-ups. It’s nice to meet you. If you want to know more what this Substack is about you can read this introductory piece.

Also if you are one of my premium sign-ups/cult members you can check out this exclusive list of novels that I sent out to you of Thursday. Hope it helps you discover something new.

I think that’s everything. So on with the show…

I might ruffle a few feathers with this one. But sometimes you just have to try and say what is on your mind, come what may. I’m hoping it will be obvious that the following diatribe on contemporary audiences is not a sideswipe at you, dear reader. I’m making a more generalised point here and I trust you will have the discernment and graciousness to ‘get it’. 

See, part of the problem of Contentland is that the wandering audience are primed to take everything personally. If Content is at root transactional, if it is a Hannibal Lecter like exercise of advertisements dressing themselves in the skin of art, then it makes sense for content to try and inflame your emotions. Playing on fear and insecurity is how you generate sales if you have no scruples and/or an inferior product. So on some level you are primed to be riled by the very fact that this newsletter appears to you in the form of content on a screen.

But rest assured, the intention here is not provocation for provocations sake. It’s just there are some things that people need to hear and they may not want to hear them.

So let’s just get them out in the open, shall we?

Morning Assembly

Back when I was in High School we used to have these weekly assemblies were the Deputy Head or some other high ranking faculty member would give us finger-wagging lectures on our conduct. Mostly it was about attendance and truancy. Which of course was absurd because they were criticising the people who had bothered attending about their lack of attendance. And of course at that same moment this needed message was being missed by the same problem contingent who never bothered to show up anyway.

We were being lectured for something that- by the very fact of us being in the room- we were doing right.

I’m conscious of not falling in to that same trap, that same absurdity, with today’s dispatch.

See by the very fact of you reading this, you are doing the right thing. You are in attendance, so to speak. I’m grateful. But when I look beyond myself and my own projects in my own little corner of the Internet I suspect that attendance is slipping, as it were. Not with Content in general- that particular market is booming- but with anything that has the audacity to call itself art and aspire to the conditions of such. How many people are there who still read novels? How many people are there who still watch films that aren’t eardrum-perforating, existing-IP-milking, four-quadrant-hitting CGI fests? How many people still listen to music actively, as an activity in and of itself rather than as a mere perpetual background loop of Lo-Fi beats to study/relax to?

Do you see what I’m saying?

And again, to really hammer the point home, I’m not talking about you necessarily. There is every chance that you are one of the good ones who is valiantly holding out against the cultural race to the bottom, however much of a Sisyphean lost cause it may seem. I’m not trying to make you react defensively here. Honest. 

‘You Won’t Believe What Happens Next’

The diminishment in the discernment, taste and ‘quality’ of audiences is simply a fact of modern life that is rarely addressed. Mainly because the cash strapped artist (or God help us ‘Content Creator’) doesn’t want to piss off any of his would-be benefactors. And this money-driven cowardice perpetuates the problem.

What we have is a classic vicious cycle dynamic. Which runs, as far as I can tell, a little something like this:

  • The artist- out of greed, desperation or jaded cynicism- intentionally dumbs down or compromises some aspect of their work.

  • This either fails, in which case the artist is forgotten, or it succeeds in which case the artist doubles down on it.

  • Seeing the success of said strategy, other artists follow suit.

  • Over time this reinforced the corny but effective tactic in question and it becomes part of the accepted repertoire of the zeitgeist.

  • As a result of this, audiences soon see such things as normal. It is what art/ content is. And as culture is driven by the young (they have the energy, time and relative lack of responsibility to really care about such things) this is soon normalised. The audience soon doesn’t know any better.

  • With the new status quo established, so to speak, some artist devises a way to further dumb down/ grab attention and the whole sorry spiral slides down another step. The bar is set ever lower, yet people still find a way to limbo underneath it.

That’s bleak I know. And possibly overstated. But how else do you explain why every YouTube video has the influencers god-awful open-mouthed face crudely foreground in the thumbnail and a title that reads like the semi-coherent yelling of a sugar and additive addled child at a summer birthday party?

It’s because it works. Because content is advertising. (I’ll keep repeating this point again and again until the spell is broken.) And advertising works via A/B testing the most inane nonsense until you find what is maximally effective. Taste be damned, aesthetics be damned, concerns for how it may contribute to the further degrading of culture be damned. If it makes the metrics move it’s good. End of story.

So how do we reverse the downward spiral or at least halt it?

What follows is as close as I, at the present time, can offer as a possible…

One Weird Trick…

The relationship, stated neutrally rather than in its current downward trajectory, goes like this: art creates audiences and audiences create the conditions for art to proliferate. You get what you pay for. Or to put it another way, you get what you pay attention to.

So the solution as either artist or audience (‘creator’ and ‘consumer’ are much more impoverished terms for the contemporary pseudo-version of this ancient dynamic) is to raise your standards. Demand more. Don’t settle. If nothing is worthy of your attention, so be it. Don’t hate-watch and don’t consume stuff that is beneath you mindlessly. The best of the best or nothing.

This will mean much less overall consumption most likely. Which will break the spell of the lowest common denominator types as your dopamine rests and your attention span returns. You will soon possess the mental bandwidth (and desire) to take in the greatest novels and music ever written. Which will doubly reinforce just how bad ‘content’ is. And you will either feel inspired to spend a lifetime raising your own work to this standard or you will be able to spot others who are on that path and will feel compelled to support them. Which means that they will have an engaged and discerning audience, which in turn will drive them to up their game creatively. And soon the race to the bottom, the vicious cycle becomes a virtuous and uplifting cycle of artists and audiences driving each other on to new heights of creation.

That’s the dream anyway. Because, after all, if you haven’t got dreams, if you haven’t got hope, what have you got?

Until next time,

Live Well,

Tom ✍️📖🍾🎉

Thank you for reading. And a special thank you as always to the Premium subscribers, for their support but above all the quality of their contributions in our Private Discord.

Leave a comment if you want, share this essay if you want. But above all remember that in an attention economy ignoring what you dislike is a powerful act.


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