Content Versus Art
Commonplace Newsletter #32
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Cards on the table time. A week today I will be turning on the premium features for this newsletter. These weekly essays will of course always be free but I will be creating additional walled-in material for the Chosen Elite who kindly opt to give me the price of a beer for my wares each month.
The prospect of this makes me nervous, I’ll admit. Very nervous.
Not so much out of fear of failure (or indeed its deadlier cousin fear of success) but because this venture could potentially mean a dreadful thing- that I will soon become a professional content creator.
This is a hideous fate on the face of it. Because, as I have recently been mulling over at some length, this beast called ‘Content’ is the cornerstone of all of the problems of our contemporary world.
A bold claim?
Well let me try and line up all of my intuitions and feelings on it. Try and turn this gut-level hunch into something that resembles vague coherence.
Magritte’s Lovers Kiss reimagined as a selfie, created by @DitoVonTease
Content and Its Discontents
A playlist of instrumental songs is content.
A press junket interview with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is content.
A thirty-two tweet long twitter thread about serial entrepreneurship is content.
A meme incorporating Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog is content.
A reaction video reacting to a reaction video in which a vocal coach listens flabbergasted to some Norwegian Death Metal song is content.
Do you see the problem?
Everything now, essentially every form of human expression and creativity and dissent and complaint made public (up to an including this very newsletter) is a piece of content. It’s all the same at root. It’s all so much ballast used to fill the holes in our souls and in our schedules and to help kill time in our extremely online present while real life- whatever that means- goes on some place else.
This content keeps us just above water, existentially speaking. Or it certainly seems that that is its true purpose.
Now that was a heavy few sentences to get through. I overstate the case I’m sure. I project most likely. It’s just that I am completely burned out on ‘content’ (I continually place it in inverted commas to signpost my contempt for it).
I’ve had enough.
See, in a world without distinctions there can be no meaning. There can be no firm ground upon which you can find your footing, let alone build a life. And content is a swampland. It looks firm enough but it offer a no solidity at all.
Content, as hinted at above, is a bland and homogenising force which gobbles up everything in its path- art, photography, the spoken voice, the written word. So rather than being a swamp, it is more like The Blob, an amoeboidal mass that swallows up everything it encounters.
And to kill this beast, or at least to prevent ourselves from becoming its victims we must first try to understand it.
Which will take a little while here. So indulge me. This will make sense in the end.
The Content Of Content
In trying to figure out what it is that bothers me about the world at present- or at least the sad, square world inside screens which can unfortunately take up so much of your time if you let it- I have read a fair few non-fiction books.
They all talk about behavioural addiction and gamification and the perils of unchecked, echo-chamber-facilitating algorithms. This is all well and good, and it is interesting, as far as it goes. But what do these algorithms algorithmize?
You’ve guess it- content.
Content is the meta-problem. Whenever I take an issue that irks me- the state of Hollywood, say, or why the publishing industry rarely produces novels that speak to my experience- and subject it to three or four of those childlike ‘but why?’ questions I invariably end up at the issue of content. The contentification of culture, you might say.
Because ‘content’ isn’t the content itself necessarily. It is a procedure. And this procedure creates a worldview.
Content is transactional. It’s impulse at root is the same as advertising. It is looking to sell you on something. The message behind content is always a covert ‘buy my course’, ‘subscribe to my email list’ or ‘pick up some of my merchandise.’
The fact that this often exists alongside an overt and outright ‘hey guys, make sure to smash that like button and don’t forget to turn on that notification bell’ message is simply a case of insult being added to injury.
See, back in the Camelot heyday of Madison Avenue the wits used to say that ‘advertising advertises advertising.’ Well the same thing goes for content. Content is simply an informercial for itself, for its creator, perpetually and forever. Which is why content binges bring about this vague unease and sensation of being trapped in a mirrored maze where you and your chosen content guru are shouting affirmations at your own refracted and distorted reflections.
It’s all transactional, it’s all advertising. Which is why, when closely examined, so much content has about as much substance and coherence as those fever-dream Johnny Depp fragrance ads where he inexplicably buries his jewellery in the desert like some sadly demented grandmother who has implausibly gained access to a muscle car.
It’s an advert, it doesn’t have to make sense. If coherence and substance and beauty and form are an impediment to getting you to sign on the line which is dotted then they will be nixed without question or regret. Whatever makes the metrics move.
And this is why I am burned out on content. When you are perpetually being bombarded in your lived environment and audio-visual landscape by actual advertisements- billboards, radio spots, sign-twirlers, TVs seen through shop windows- the prospect of unwinding with more ads in your off-hours loses its allure. Once you see content for what it is, and for what it wants, you lose interest in it.
So what, then, is the alternative?
The ‘Artistic Temperament’
Recently, as I have been reflecting on creativity and money while I build up to turning on the premium newsletter money tap, my mind has turned to that age-old idea of ‘selling out’
I am dead against the cliches that artists are destined (or should even welcome) the prospect of poverty and purity in some musty riverside garret. I think that real artists don’t starve. I think that’s what defines a real artist.
But. The purity question is a nagging concern. No compromise, no quarter. You’re with me or you’re not. You get it or you don’t. That kind of rhetoric.
Now this kind of bordering-on-self-destructive obstinacy and digging in of heels is a cliche of the artistic temperament. It’s almost as widespread as the aforementioned garret misconceptions.
So why is that?
Well, I would argue that this is because Art- in procedure, in intention, in temperament if you like- is the opposite of content.
Content is a transaction presented as utilitarian exchange, art is an emanation of the spirit presented as a gift. These are two fundamentally different modes of being and as such lead to two fundamentally different kinds of end product.
This is where fear of selling out comes from. And it is reasonable. Before we even had the internet-birthed homogenising buzzword, the fear of selling out was rooted in the artists concern about degenerating into a mere ‘content provider.’
The ensuing filthy lucre is to the artist a mere symbol of the descent, not the cause of the problem itself. It’s symptom and not disease, byproduct and not root cause. It’s only a rare artist who wouldn’t want to be rich if they could gain the wealth on their own terms, without having to compromise the work or themself in some way.
I think also, incidentally, that when people dismiss certain genres of art (visual or otherwise) as being crap such ideas are at the root of it. I don’t believe that audiences particularly care about the level of objective talent and skill it takes to make a piece of art. But even (or especially) an unsophisticated audience can smell BS and can sense when something that calls itself art is really a transactional money-grab.
Hence why all of that YBA art was peddled by an Adman like Saatchi and why your Everyman instinctively dislikes it. The Everyman senses that someone is trying to pull the wool over his eyes and that there is no meaning to it because the gift-giving mechanism is absent. And he’s not wrong.
The Triumph Of The Shill
I want to avoid misunderstanding now that I have gotten onto the subject of money. I say art is a gift and content is a transaction. And I stand by this. But the distinction is rooted in intent and not what the respective creators bank balances look like at the end of the quarter. Understanding this is crucial to understanding my point.
It’s possible to make content and make no money. Further, it’s possible to make mere content without even the aim of making money. But there is always a transaction being sought- usually in the form of fame or internet points.
Don’t forget to smash that like button.
Content wants something from you, that’s what defines it. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just a question of domains that is the issue, of content masquerading as art- or at least as being art-like- while still seeking that transaction to take place.
This is the downside of the death of the gatekeepers. You as artist have to hock your own wares now. You as artists have to make content to advertise the art. You play the gig but you also print off the flyers beforehand. And the commingling of these two domains gets very blurred and very confusing and that is how so many would-be artists slide down the slippery slope of becoming jaded hacks and cynics (I believe the labelling of oneself as a ‘creative’ or ‘content creator’ are two common ways of inadvertently signposting this sad slide).
In the bad old days, you would be exploited by a rapacious and comically lopsided contract but at least the marketing department took care of the ‘content’ side on your behalf. You just had to show up- invariably wasted and/or dishevelled- to some junket or press event once in a while.
Now we are all our own marketing departments, for good or ill. And ‘how do you aggressively sell something you are offering as a gift?’ is more zen koan than brainstormable business problem.
Hence why content ascends and the shills triumph. Because ‘I’ll scratch your back and your scratch mine’ is easy. It’s sellable. The fact that in such a transactional world everyone ends up sore and bleeding and itching is an unfortunate side effect.
Like I said above, content is a procedure and the procedure creates a worldview. And that worldview is centred around the quid pro quo. Around the idea that everything and everyone is out for themselves and that they are selling you something. They have motives- money-making motives- which they wrap in the mesmerising, criticism-erasing techniques of ad-copy.
And that might be objectively true. Everything might essentially be for sale. But a worldview such as that is damaging. A world like that is hard to live in.
And in a world where all backs are red and raw and bloody from the scratching the only salve is art. Because a gift asks for no gift in return.
So you see the problem. As the engulfing amoeba of content grows the conditions for art become less likely. Reticent gift-givers are crowded out by the stentorian carnival barkers with their content sideshows.
But there is hope. Awareness can set you free. As consumer, simply understanding the two domains means you have won a fair portion of the battle. Realising that you are oversaturated with content (something that exists to get something from you) and are undernourished with art (something that simply is) is a quick fix. You just amend your inputs and see the difference.
This is why I am dismayed whenever I seek book recommendations via my twitter account (I know, I should know better by now) and rather than being pointed in the direction of art (novels, poetry, stories) I am given well-meaning but infuriating suggestions for book-bound content (self-improvement and self-help nonsense, pop-psychology, rampant TED talk friendly best-sellers and their ilk).
I realise that so much of my own content (up to and including this very piece you are reading right now) is concerned with pointing people away from content and towards art. Which in the list of activities sits somewhere between fools errand, rank hypocrisy and those slightly-too-on-the-nose karmic punishments that are the preserve of the type of classic fiction that the Content Brained are sadly oblivious too.
You can call me Tom Quixote.
Yes, I am an artist in the gift-giving sense. Yes, I do realise that making content- to a greater or lesser extent- is a necessity for the contemporary artist, as unfortunate as that may well be. Yes, this thing you are reading is an example of content. Yes, its implicit aim is to get you to subscribe and maybe even give me money.
No, I don’t feel bad about this because I am at least being honest and primarily trying to entertain you here. Yes, I will be focusing more on art from this point onwards. Yes, I do feel good for having gotten some of these concepts and distinctions and qualms off my chest, thank you for asking.
And Yes, I do think this piece has now gone on for long enough now and yes I am aware that ending this on a ‘sign up to my newsletter’ call to action would both undermine my point but also be pretty amusing.
So perhaps that’s what I’ll do as a final reminder that content can be great but content is transactional and it wants something from you. Enjoy content from time to time, but keep it in its place, in the background behind actual art and actual attentive experience in the world itself.
And if you agree with this make sure to smash that like button and let me know in the comments!
Until next time,