5 Ways The Internet is Failing You As An Artist

And 5 things you can do about it

Van Gogh's self portrait trapped in the Matrix

Perhaps you’re one of the many artists who moved their activities online during the pandemic. I am one of them, too, and after experimenting with blogging, YouTubing and podcasting for the past two years, I’m worried — not because I think it’s impossible for artists to succeed online but because, in order to do so, they must make too many concessions to the algorhythms.

The internet is failing everyone, right now, but it is failing artists and art lovers in particular ways. Here are five of them:

1) The Attention Economy

Yes, art should grab and keep attention — but on the internet, the ease of rushing after what grabs your attention and clicking away the moment it loses your attention is unnaturally high. I would go so far as to say that the attention economy in its present form is intrinsically hostile to art.

I would go so far as to say that the attention economy in its present form is intrinsically hostile to art.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t small creators who manage to find their stride online, though there are very few. But these creators are not actually free to create what they want — they are beholden to the algorhythms which shape the kind of content they can create because…

2) The Internet Does Not Actually Support a Diversity of Content

If you’re seeking to grow an audience online, you have to start by talking about things people are already searching for, seeking out, and engaging with. If that aligns with your own interests and expertise while also not being saturated by other people making content about the same thing, great. But that shouldn’t be the only way of choosing one’s subject matter, certainly not if you’re an artist. And right now, for the most part, it is.

Is content that makes us stare at the screen for as long as possible truly the best, most thoughtful, most crafty, most true? Does this not leave out all that is challenging, uncomfortable, subtle?

The search engines and social media sites we interact with daily are all structured around the same thing — maximizing engagement. So, the content which maximizes engagement is the content they will proliferate. Is content that makes us stare at the screen for as long as possible truly the best, most thoughtful, most crafty, most true? Does this not leave out all that is challenging, uncomfortable, subtle? And should easily digestible, addictive content really be the only content which can be monetized? Not to mention the fact that monetization from views alone only comes after accumulating a fanbase much greater than used to be necessary to make a living. Of course, most of this does not even pertain to artists because…

3) Let’s Face It, There is Very Little Actual Art Online

In the end, most of the content online is not really art. A lot of people who make online content could, perhaps, be artists but instead they are opinion-havers, talking heads, hot-takers. They give neat, confident answers to complex questions, speak authoritatively on subjects they know little about, give inspirational advice which makes the world seem much simpler than it is — all that instead of, say, telling a good story, with all the nuance and moral complexity that storytelling involves.

Yes, even on the internet which seems to have space for an endless number of niches, there’s still too much that isn’t picked up by the algorithms. That includes content that doesn’t simply oppose something, explain something, or glamorize something. And those shades in between are where art lives.

Even I fell into this trap when I experimented with creating an online platform. Instead of focusing on craft and artistry, I was focusing, at least for a while during the pandemic, on think pieces and video essays. My most viewed content (since deleted) was stoking the fire of a music theory cancel scandal. My thought was: “If you can’t beat them, join them” and content that is supposed to quickly and entertainingly educate you on a subject (especially if that subject is a controversy that makes your audience feel morally superior) works all too well on the internet.

But this obsession with having a clear stand and making a splashy statement creates a very monochrome world. Yes, even on the internet which seems to have space for an endless number of niches, there’s still too much that isn’t picked up by the algorithms. That includes content that doesn’t simply oppose something, explain something, or glamorize something. And those shades in between are where art lives. And some of that glitziness has to do with the fact that…

4) You Can’t Make Art Without Engaging With Reality

Here’s a question: On a daily basis, how much information about reality do you glean from actual reality? I mean, the physical world around you? People you actually interact with in person? And how much do you glean from what you’re told about reality online?

One cannot express the human experience honestly without being very intimate with the physical world, the real world, and embracing all its messiness and unclarity and moral ambiguity. The internet protects of from that.

The proportion is going to vary from person to person, but I fear an increasing amount of people is being told what reality is instead of living it for themselves.

Yes, you could say art is a kind of mediated reality. But the reason we distinguish between art and propaganda is precisely because art should not be the simulacrum of a simulacrum. If art is to mediate reality, it needs to be plugged into it directly lest it become a kind of propaganda.

The reason we distinguish between art and propaganda is precisely because art should not be the simulacrum of a simulacrum.

Art, however fantastical or outlandish or speculative or abstract, succeeds when it is honest. But one cannot express the human experience honestly without being very intimate with the physical world, the real world, and embracing all its messiness and unclarity and moral ambiguity. The internet protects of from that. And it diverts us from fine-tuning our craft because of its focus on…

5) Quantity Over Quality

Any advice you will get about growing an online audience or getting more subscribers or gaining followers will have consistency and frequency of upload near the top of the list.

The pressure to produce — which I very much felt when I tried my hand at online content — makes us create things that are lower quality, badly researched, dishonest.

I can attest to the fact that quantity does trump quality online, to a great extent. Frequency and consistency of uploads (or posts in the case of social media) seems to be very important to the algorithms. The problem with this is that artists go through uneven times of creativity. And the pressure to produce and constantly stay engaged with the minutiae of various online groups and platforms — which I very much felt when I tried my hand at online content — makes us create things that are lower quality, badly researched, dishonest. Sometimes you need to take time, and that is something the internet simply doesn’t understand at all.

The Internet is Fire

In some languages, the saying goes: “Fire is a good servant but a bad friend.” I would regard the internet the same way. I am not, in other words, arguing that artists shouldn't use the internet in ways that help them — and there are plenty of ways it can help them communicate with and educate their audiences. But that communication, that engagement, should be seen as a means to an end, not the end in itself. In other words, I do not think artists can actually practice their art online, or become online creators without making too many concessions — not now, at least.

The internet did not bring about a democratization of art. It created a content monoculture in which only certain kinds of content can thrive.

Some content which has artistic components (comedy, video essays) may do well online and certainly has value. Much of what we think of as “great art” today was made as entertainment and it’s good that this artificial distinction between art and entertainment (also known as “high” and “low” art) has been breaking down again, after being amped up by Europe’s 19th century visions of grandeur. However, the internet did not bring about a democratization of art, as one would have thought. It created a content monoculture in which only certain kinds of content can thrive.

Now is a time to embrace the difficulty of art, its allusiveness, ambiguity, it’s search for truth more complex than a quick fix or a snarky critique. And since that kind of content doesn’t do well online, we need to turn away from the online space, until an online word emerges that is able to contain a greater diversity of content.

Here are some of the things I think you can do to support art that is not beholden to the internet:

1) Support independently-produced art (even more than established arts institutions)

2) Spend time with the work of a local artist. Make friends with a greater range of artists, especially struggling ones

3) Connect with your community — no, not Facebook groups, I mean the actual community of people in your physical vicinity

4) Engage with people from your community and ask them what art means to them. The answers may surprise you. Try to learn from them and think of how to apply them to your own projects

5) …and then, most importantly, execute those projects not on line but in the real world.

How to actually execute your own projects in the real world is a subject for a different article and there are probably as many answers to how to go about it as there are artists. That’s why I interview “indie” artists about their lives and work on my podcast. My hope is that, cumulatively, their stories can shed some light on the meaning of art in these times of too much certainty and too little attention.

Czech-American classical singer and translator based in Prague, Czech Republic. Blog/YouTube/Podcast for and about independent artists at onthevergetrilogy.com