The Consequences of Playing “The Game”
Or how wrong things become the new normal in culture
By MARTIN REZNY
While I do appreciate the overall sentiment of Todd’s article, and am a fan of being reasonable, I really believe no one should follow this advice. First of all, it’s already unfair to frame fair criticism of unfairness as whining because that turns an important philosophical argument into a personal attack. But more importantly, ignoring the equating of principled artists to a bunch of crybabies, let’s try to answer Todd’s question that’s constructed to imply “why not”:
Instead of whining about how unfair the Internet is, why can’t you just create the best content for people?
So, why can’t I just create the best content for people? Well, right from the start, I don’t exactly know the meaning of “best”. Using a word like that in this way usually serves more to give a warm, fuzzy feeling rather than a useful explanation. Based on what Todd talks about as content, I have to assume he means that content is the stuff that’s quantity-driven, disposable, attention and wallet-grabbing, and something at best for the mind, not the soul.
At which point I have to assume that “best content” means “successful” or “effective” content by the standard quantitative measures (views, clicks, cha chings, etc.) Even so, there’s still some confusion left to disentangle. Todd first spends a lot of time bashing on content in comparison to art, which makes his argument seem like “content is bad, so why don’t we do it anyway”, but then he briefly adds that he sees content as something useful to people and even himself (pointing to lists with writing advice as an example).
Of course, put this way, it implies that art is not useful and that lists or writing advice can’t be art. But hey, I’m not going to assume that he meant to say those things. It doesn’t really matter anyway that some content can be helpful to someone, because if one’s focused on making the best content, any helping it might provide is accidental. That’s not the goal — success is. It also wouldn’t matter if art isn’t helpful to anyone, since art at the most basic level doesn’t need to serve any practical purpose. It often does, but that’s not a requirement.
I’m just mentioning these implications because they are subtle and wouldn’t be fair, and because I believe it’s the intention and purpose that are important here. What I propose is that maybe we should think about what it is that we’re doing and why. Todd doesn’t really provide much of an answer to why anyone should write content instead of art, apart from saying that talent should be sold if an opportunity arises and that he would prefer for some art to still be made. Or in other words, let’s do what leads to the opposite of what you want and hope it’ll somehow won’t make things worse.
Feeding the Wrong Wolf
You know how the saying goes - there are two wolves inside of us, one feeding on fear and the other on hope, and it’s up to us which one of them we’re going to feed. The problem with doing what you don’t want for some sort of material gain is that in that way, you’re contributing to and legitimizing the whole system of producing what you don’t want. The more anyone decides to write content instead of art, the more content there is and the less of art, shifting also what gets financially rewarded to what extent.
I get the typical human reasoning in a situation like this — I need to make money somehow, and I can write, so let’s write what makes money, even if I don’t exactly like writing the kind of content that makes money right now. Unfortunately, typical human reasoning is not immune to fallacies. For example, people tend to misunderstand everything about what money is and how it works. People think they’re doing things because those things are where the money is, when in reality, the money often is there mainly because people are doing those things.
Or in other words, people write content instead of art because content pays, but content pays more the more people are writing it, and conversely, there’s less money in art as fewer people are doing that instead of content. If you try to logically disassemble this vicious cycle, it essentially means that people are writing content instead of art because people are writing content instead of art, and this becomes more true at every next step of the cycle.
You may think that the whole process is instead driven by audiences — by what people choose to read or watch. Certainly, our unwillingness to pay for news or art and easy falling for clickbaity nonsense and cat videos is a failing. On the other hand, that’s just one step of a cycle, and the authors of the world may have chosen to fight rather than feed this bad instinct. Instead, most of the media organizations immediately jumped on the bandwagon, sold out culture and allowed news to get destroyed, consequently lost all credibility, and prepared a fertile ground for the rise of anti-democratic political forces.
The Power of Saying No
Let’s take a step back and think about it for a second. What’s the main reason why it’s so hard to sell art now, compared to a few decades ago? The deluge of blah content in which it’s hard to find good, or any, works of art. Someone, in fact many people, must have produced that deluge of blah content. If they hadn’t, there would be no problem. Also, if most or all of those people producing content instead produced good works of art, or at least some works of art, there would have been a deluge of art — an embarrassment of riches. It would still be hard then to get noticed and paid for art, but in competition with other artists, not content spewers, which would favor people with greater artistic skill and better salesmanship of art.
You could try to blame the technology for it, just like you could blame the invention of knife for a whole lot of killing sprees. Or maybe you could try to blame people for how they chose to use the new information technology. Internet is not telling us what we’re supposed to create. We can use it to create and distribute anything. We have chosen to act on a belief that making a profit is more important than making what we want to make or believe needs making, or to act that way even if we don’t share that belief.
But it’s really nothing new. Technology has always been evolving and people have always been people. There have always been hacks, gossips, and charlatans, lowbrow tastes, greed, ignorance, and partisanship. So how come journalism hasn’t always been mostly rubbish? How come some periods of human history at some places have been more creative and artistically impressive than others? Well, sometimes it’s a famine or an epidemic that turns people one way, but usually, people use their agency.
When books were invented, philosophers from oral cultures were worried that it will ruin culture. When printing press was invented, priests with monopoly on reading and writing were worried it will ruin culture. Then came television, then the internet. The worry is always the same — now just about anyone can publish and consume media! Everyone will get dumber and chaos will ensue!
And yeah, as soon as people switched to written word, the nature of human knowledge lost some aspects as it gained new ones. As soon as everyone could read and write books, religious wars started in Europe. As soon as newspapers became a thing, the first incarnation of tabloids, the yellow press, appeared. Then television was invented by the Nazis to spread propaganda, and finally, internet allowed literally anyone to have a publication or a channel without any guarantees of good editorial process.
If people are so dumb and tasteless and technology so compelling, why haven’t we forgotten to speak and memorize things after we started learning from books? Why haven’t all the newspapers always been tabloids? Why isn’t all TV fascist propaganda? Why are there places on the internet where facts live? Frankly, it’s because someone somewhere refused to create or publish nonsense, however successful it would have been, because they had some standards, sense of moral obligation, or more important things to say.
Culture is What Humans Make
It’s actually one of those things that’s so simple it escapes almost everybody — our culture is what we make it. Since what we’ve been focused on making lately is money, that’s who we are and what our culture is. It answers all the questions. What’s the best art? That which makes the most money, sells the most copies, has the most views or clicks or whatever. That’s what most people aspire to make. That’s representative of the largest number of works that are being made. Has it always been the case everywhere? Of course not.
There have always been popular and lucrative forms of art and people who pursued success in them, sure, but not always to the same extent, or even most of the time in most places. There have been many communal, collectivist, or communist cultures where one wouldn’t get riches as any kind of artist or where artist wasn’t even very much of an individual profession. There have been many elitist cultures where artists competed in the heights of sophistication rather than over popular appeal, backed by rich patrons. Or sometimes they were aristocrat scientist engineer artists. There have been many spiritual cultures pursuing deep, serious meaning, as opposed to our materialistic secular ironic one, and the list goes on.
Every kind of culture has its upsides and downsides, its strengths and weaknesses, and the greatness of our culture mainly shows in the size of budgets, number of publications, and the extent of application of flashy technologies. It’s the “more and bigger for less” approach, and within reason, it’s definitely not the worst thing ever. There are successful products of it that still keep their artistic integrity, like the Marvel movies which broke new ground and are respectful to the comics that they bring to film, in a kind of pop culture multiverse that’s only possible thanks to the internet.
Writing and reading of books is also doing quite well today, and when it’s applied to television, you get a true cultural golden age with shows like Game of Thrones or The Expanse. As always, there is great and successful art being made today. And as always, something like Transformers is making more money, but why do so many people choose to care about that? Why have journalists given up their standards? Similarly, unlike books, television, or whatever Marvel is doing, Hollywood films and AAA computer games are slipping down the hole of more content than art for more moneys.
Do they have to be like that? No, they don’t. They could be making more movies or games with smaller budgets but higher artistic value (by which I mean any kind of artistic value, not only the sophisticated elitist kind). That’s what used to be the norm in both of those industries, and that’s when they had their golden ages. That’s what still can make money, just look at Deadpool or Minecraft. Things done for mass appeal can also be done well and people will still watch/play/read them, but I guess it takes an artist with money to invest in art rather than content when either can make a profit.
When a Culture Breaks
In my country, now the Czech Republic, the previous communist regime used to sponsor art heavily to show that even such a small nation can have great culture. Whatever was made, people read and watched it, and largely, it was pretty good. Today, thanks to capitalism, only the lowest denominator crap gets produced in Czech language because ours is a small market. Guess what, people still read and watch whatever exists, because what else are they gonna do, and they like it, if that’s all they know. And just like that, in a span of two decades, our national culture finds itself between seriously downgraded and gone.
That’s the real damage of substituting content for art — people have to live in it. It informs their taste, limits their knowledge, shapes their language, and affects their personality and habits, their relationships. Culture’s purpose is not primarily to make someone rich, it’s not primarily to ensure a career, it’s primarily a form of self-expression and a social service. Every time you produce an artifact of culture that somehow fails at both, you have made life worse for everyone, if only by helping obstruct someone else’s actual artistic contribution by taking away available resources or visibility.
My advice would be, if you don’t like something, don’t make it. If someone offers you money for making it, refuse it. That may seem like it’s not accomplishing anything, but by only that, at minimum, you have made sure there’s one less author of crap in the world. Maybe even one more author of something worthwhile. That could easily mean hundreds, if not thousands of works of a difference over a lifetime. Believe it or not, every change is happening one person at a time, and there were quite a few single persons that made a lot of difference in art and culture.
The ultimate fallacy of the quantitative approach is that bigger audience means greater impact. Influencing deeply only a few people, if they’re for whatever reason the right people, can make much more of a difference than having millions of readers who give you as much attention as they would a cat playing a piano. Sure, more readers is still better if you somehow influence all of them deeply, but you’ll never going to be able to do that with mere content which by definition is disposable.
We all need to make a living somehow, I get it. I’m on the same boat, doing a job I rather wouldn’t have to be doing. But if it can’t be something we’d like and enjoy, like making art, if it has to be something that sucks, how about choosing something that doesn’t pervert what we love and wish to stand for. Writing content instead of art is like a trained doctor selling people cigarettes, a vegan working at McDonalds, or a clown who’s a dentist (you’re welcome for the nightmares). How about no.
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