Essay: The Dangerous Dance of Art and Commerce
My tawdry tango with social media
How does an artist create something inspired and original when confronted with the inevitable reality that they must turn their work into a transaction which in turn requires them to try to anticipate what people want? Put simply, how do you remain an artist when you need to sell your work?
We live in an age where the clanking machinery that animates the age-old dance of art and commerce has never been noisier. The innovation of the 24/7 infinite scroll of free, self-published content on social media has accelerated a race to the bottom— to the lowest common denominator. A three-minute scroll through any social media platform will show you content in one of five categories:
Ordinary people doing ridiculous stunts for attention
Animals doing ridiculous things for ordinary people to get attention
Ordinary people striking underwear model poses for attention
People selling miracle cures, diets, exercise regimes, and get-rich-quick schemes
Artists trying to win the attention of an audience
You can argue that there’s more than that and I would concede there’s a category of content seeking to do more but it’s a tiny sliver of the pie. Regardless of how you categorize what makes it into your own algorithm-curated doom scroll, I don’t think you can argue against the fact that the medium is not just shaping but changing the content we create. For most of us, this is troubling. For an artist, this is terrifying.
The act of creating art should ideally be a pure endeavor. Inspired by some idea or observation, the artist filters that idea through the lens of their experience and shapes it with the tools of their craft into something unique that hopefully invokes some powerful emotional response in others. It’s a sacred trade that’s responsible for giving us incredible beauty, pleasure, and insight into what we are, what we were, and what we can be. But what happens when the artist is inevitably sucked into the gears of marketing and commerce? I would argue that their work becomes smaller, safer, and more derivative.
So every artist, regardless of their level of success finds themselves walking this razor’s edge. Falling to one side means obscurity and poverty are highly probable. Falling to the other side means their work becomes an exercise in calculation and pandering.
There is No There There
A friend pointed out to me the other day that in the beginning social media was the place where people hustled to promote their work but today social media is the hustle. There is no other destination. The goal is not to direct people to your website so they will listen to and hopefully buy your album, but rather to stay there and become your follower on TikTok to watch one-minute outtakes of your bloodless covers of classic rock songs because those generate the most views from the algorithm.
There are some wildly talented young artists running so hard on this fickle hamster wheel that has become, if not the only stage that matters, certainly the biggest one. So, what’s the problem? Am I just a grumpy, out-of-touch old man? Don’t answer that.
I think the problem is that increasingly we will not even be making art for other people, but for the algorithms that decide who gets the spotlight. This is not a wildly original theory. It’s already happened with websites and search engines. People don’t write original content on websites hoping humans will search and find it. A.I. engines write terabytes of “keyword-dense” generic content that ranks higher with their A.I. brethren at Google. In short, humans aren’t writing or reading the content. So what is the actual point?
My Tawdry Tango with the Socials
Before you begin to think I’m somehow above it all or that I’ve refused to acquiesce to the socials siren’s call, I will endeavor to disappoint you. As a struggling independent artist, I can’t afford to overlook any channel that might help promote my work so I have been dipping my toe into the greasy waters of Instagram and yes, TikTok. Here’s what I’ve learned over the course of a couple of months.
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