The Rise of the Casual Creative (Part 1)

From Cave Paintings to Michelangelo and Adult Fans of LEGO

by Adam Huttler

Lorenzo de Medici: amateur artist, generous patron, and big-time gatekeeper.

Let’s begin with a brief history of culture.

For 10,000 years or more, the professional artist didn’t exist. Cave paintings, fire dances, songs about heroes of old — we did these things not for passion, fame, or fortune but because they affirmed our humanity, reinforced communal bonds, and propagated tribal identity from one generation to the next. In this world, everyone was an artist and no one was an Artist.

Not too long ago, around the time of the Renaissance, all of that began to change. With Michelangelo and the Medicis came a paradigm shift in society’s relationship to culture, as artistic endeavor became steadily more stratified and commercialized. The era of Institutional Culture was born.

This top-down paradigm was slow to evolve, with aspects of the old ways remaining stubbornly in place until the modern era. But it eventually reached its pinnacle — and near total dominance — in the late twentieth century.

Mass media, broadcast and distributed by a handful of powerful corporations, dominated our living rooms. Nonprofit arts institutions lorded over high culture. Both realms were ruled by gatekeepers: media executives, agents, newspaper critics, artistic directors, curators, foundations, and other ostensible experts. Using the power of the purse and control over distribution channels, the gatekeepers decided what voices could be heard.

Then, the internet arrived.

With it came a host of technologies that disrupted the gatekeepers’ power. Crowdfunding allowed artists to raise money without professional fundraising staff or access to institutional capital. Digital cameras, pro-am editing software, and other tools made professional production possible on a shoestring budget. Online social networks and distribution platforms opened access to an audience of billions at the click of a mouse. Collectively, gatecrasher technologies like these spawned a DIY Revolution and the subsequent rise of Indie Culture, marking a shift from the top-down paradigm to a more democratic, bottom-up model.

But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, another movement has quietly emerged that may turn out to have far more sweeping implications.

Meet the AFOLs

After seventy years of toy-making, The Lego Group had lost its way. In a misguided effort to compete with companies like Mattel and Hasbro, Lego’s products had drifted ever further from their roots as a platform for playful, creative design. The nadir was the notorious Galidor line. A subject of derision by fans, these toys resembled poorly made action figures more than they did any traditional Lego product. Worst of all, they included many parts that were simply incompatible with the classic Lego brick system. By 2003, The Lego Group found itself at the brink of bankruptcy.

But in 2004, a new CEO arrived. Under Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, Lego embraced a new strategic focus that would become a driving force behind an extraordinary corporate renaissance: AFOLs or Adult Fans of Lego.

“What good is Galidor to Lego fans? Galidor appeals to kids who don’t like construction toys. The Lego name on a nonconstruction toy is a contradiction in terms to a casual consumer and outright blasphemy to AFOLs.” — Customer feedback to Lego in 2005
For the first time in its seventy-year history, the Danish toymaker began to focus serious attention on its adult customers, who had become a quiet but critical contributor to Lego’s bottom line.

While AFOLs made up just 5 percent of Lego’s customer base, the average adult fan was spending twenty times as much as a family purchasing the toys for children.

Aside from their economic contribution to the Lego business, AFOLs had coalesced into an international community of brand apostles, ferociously dedicated to the classic Lego system as a unique creative medium. Over sixty fan-created websites like Brickshelf, Bricklink, and MOCpages provided a foundation for the AFOL network. In cyberspace, users would post photographs of their creations and give each other aesthetic and technical feedback. In meatspace, they traveled thousands of miles to assemble at events like BrickCon, Brickworld, and Brickfair.

Want to learn how to make Brickfilms? Check out this fan-made beginner tutorial. Note the extensive use of consumer technology. Fifteen frames per second means shooting 9,000 still photographs for a ten-minute film. Without cheap digital cameras and easy editing apps, this would be too expensive and complicated for most fans.

Perhaps most ambitiously, as both artists and fans, AFOLs gave birth to a new media genre: the Brickfilm. These stop-motion animated films used Lego bricks and minifigures to tell original stories. While production value tended to be minimal, the end result was often charming and undeniably artistic. AFOL-made Brickfilms have even been screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

The gorgeous Parisian Restaurant set was not designed with kids in mind.

Instead of ignoring these die-hard devotees, Knudstorp’s strategy was to actively engage them. Under his leadership, Lego introduced the Creator Expert line of sets, including the wildly popular Modular Buildings, which were unusually large, complex, and expensive.

As of September 2017, the latest accepted Lego Ideas project was the Old Fishing Store, designed by AFOL Robert Bontenbal.

More dramatically, the company launched Lego Ideas, an online platform where AFOLs could post their own designs to be voted on by other AFOLs. If a design receives 10,000 votes, it is formally reviewed at Lego headquarters and may be released as an official set. When that happens, the AFOL creator gets 1 percent of the profits. As of September 2017, eighteen sets have been launched from Lego Ideas submissions, including some of the most popular in the company’s product line.

This community-centered strategy was a driving force behind a thirteen-year run of eye-popping revenue growth. After bottoming out at 800 million Euros in 2004, the company enjoyed double-digit annual revenue growth throughout the Great Recession and alongside industry competitors growing at a paltry 1 to 3 percent per year. In 2016, Lego’s revenue topped 5 billion Euros, an increase of nearly 450 percent since its strategic shift. Even more impressively, it surpassed Mattel to become the largest toy company in the world — an extraordinary accomplishment when you consider that it only has one product line.

This phenomenon could not have occurred without the AFOLs.

But what is it about the AFOL community that made it such a powerful reservoir of social and economic fuel? And why did it take seventy years of Legos before it took shape in a meaningful way? To answer these questions, we must first understand AFOLs in a broader social context, including their relationship to Institutional Creativity and the DIY Revolution.

Like a DIY artist with a day job, a typical AFOL invests enormous amounts of time and money — to say nothing of psychic energy — in her creative practice. There are some critical differences, however. Few AFOLs self-identify as “artists” and (save for maybe at the Lego headquarters in Billund, Denmark) fewer still aspire to make a living from their art. Likewise, while most DIY artists have formal training, there isn’t a university on Earth that offers an MFA program in toy brick building. Instead, practitioners learn the art and craft from personal experimentation and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing in online communities and annual conventions.

In these respects, AFOLs are emblematic of an extraordinary new phase of humanity’s relationship to creativity and art-making. While Institutional Creativity dominated the twentieth century, the internet democratized access to creative tools and disintermediated artists and their audiences, spawning the DIY Revolution at the dawn of the twenty-first. Not long after, but with much less fanfare, another player arrived to usher in a major new wave of artistic production: the Casual Creative.

Enter the Casual Creative

Casual Creatives are people:

1. For whom some kind of artistic or creative practice is an important part of their lives, identities, and senses of purpose or meaning.

2. Who generally do not identify as “artists” or are at least reluctant to do so.

3. Who neither earn, nor aspire to earn, significant income from their creative practice.

Since leaving office, former President George W. Bush has gotten heavily into painting. Never before has an amateur artist received such publicity or scrutiny.

Among professional artists and critics, amateur or hobbyist art-making is often viewed with patronizing amusement at best, outright scorn at worst. Yet remember, for most of human history, the notion of a “professional artist” was practically a contradiction in terms. Since the dawn of culture, “art” was simply something one did to express and reinforce one’s membership in the group.

This paradigm remained dominant until the modern era. As Walter Houghton wrote in The English Virtuoso in the Seventeenth Century:

We are misled by derogatory connotations which, in the course of time, got attached to ‘virtuoso,’ ‘dilettante,’ and ‘amateur,’ but which clearly did not belong to their primary and normal meanings; a ‘dilettante’ in the seventeenth century was still one who delighted — and it might be seriously — in learning and art.

Indeed, the word “amateur” itself comes from the Latin “amator” for “lover.” An amateur, in other words, is one who does something for love rather than money.

Since 2004, hundreds of “paint and sip” franchises have sprung up across North America. The clientele, mostly women and nearly all without any formal training, drink wine and learn to paint in a low-pressure social setting.

The condescension with which unpaid artistry and craftsmanship came to be viewed was largely a twentieth century phenomenon. This should not be surprising, given that this was the century of Institutional Creativity, dominated by self-appointed (or peer-appointed) experts in the roles of corporatized gatekeepers. After all, a gatekeeper’s authority stems from a collective belief that, as a professional, he sees and understands things that the rest of us don’t, especially with respect to the work of other professionals.

This is not to suggest that professional critics, professors, curators, and media executives are just so many minor league emperors bereft of clothes. When most adults spend over 50 percent of their waking hours working for money, it’s axiomatic that someone paid to practice can spend more time at it than someone who must squeeze it into her limited “free” time. With sustained practice and attention, artistry becomes more refined and craftsmanship improves. It should be uncontroversial that in most endeavors the average professional performs with more skill than the average amateur.

However, in the twentieth century, the passage from amateur to professional — from love to pay — was controlled by gatekeepers whose functions were largely economic.

In a multitude of ways, gatekeepers have served as intermediaries between artists and audiences, protecting the latter from being duped into giving money to “unworthy” members of the former. Since true amateurs are not looking for paying audiences in the first place, gatekeepers are theoretically irrelevant to their ability to thrive.

While this was nominally true in the era of Institutional Creativity, two factors remained that seriously limited the growth and vitality of amateur creativity. First, was the extent to which certain art forms (e.g., filmmaking, recorded music) depended on advanced technology, and were therefore too capital intensive for most to pursue outside of an institutional context. Second, was the psychological difficulty of sustaining a creative practice without an external audience to provide social validation.

We have already mentioned the myriad ways that twenty-first century information technologies radically reduced the capital required for serious artistic production, financing, and distribution. As for the second obstacle, the internet — with instant access to audiences and the capacity for geographically unconstrained community development — has offered an indirect solution, and it is a major factor behind the rise of the Casual Creative.

To be continued…


In Part 2, we’ll explore (and possibly butcher) Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the virtual echo chambers that have made casual creativity the predominant artistic mode of the twenty-first century.