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Essay: “Consuming culture – Artists appeal”

Now that I have joined the vast community of creative individuals that work and practice in the world today I can’t help but take a closer look at it, pick out the slight differences that exist in what we produce and what gets readily consumed by the public. The arts, which is what I like to call everything that we all produce, whether it is traditional art, comics, literature, music, more cinematic endeavors or something else altogether all have different penetrating power and different appeal. What is the most common form of culture that we serve up to the masses? And what does that say about us as a creative community and society at large?

On the level of creation I believe that all arts, all forms of culture has equal worth. A webcomic, a poem, a song or a movie by Ingmar Bergman has just as much worth. Both forms can deal with the same heavy subjects, just in different ways. Art has a worth in itself, but it is a worth that grows when it is shared with others. Yet, when it comes to the receiver, the consumer, there really is a clear difference in what gets consumed, which culture is regularly ingested.

One only has to turn on the television, or browse the program line up on your TV-Guide or your TiVo, to notice the cultural forms that get a lot of exposure: Music and movies. While MTV very rarely shows music videos anymore, other media outlets have stepped up to replace it, ensuring that in any given day we are flooded with different kinds of music, from commercial jingles, to trailer music, to the hold music when we call customer support, to reality TV shows like the various national variations of Idol, where new musical talent starts is washed out from the thousands of grains that show up during the audition tours.

Music and its close companion dance is probably the one form of creative expression most everyone have tried to dabble in in some form, even if all of us might not do it that well. We go out dancing in clubs every Friday night and we take our friends out for karaoke on Saturday night. We sing in the shower and particularly talented and edgy musicians are raised up to some god-like status, but only as long as they don’t reveal themselves to be too human, too vulnerable.

And there is a very good reason why music exists everywhere, why most teenagers dream of the life of a rockstar or popdiva. Music is, more or less free. Napster might have been a good scapegoat at the time for pirated music, but the act of copying and sharing music has been around since they first made music tapes, allowing you to share your record singles with your friends. Music is also played on the radio, both the traditional stations, but also on streaming radio stations online. And let’s not forget YouTube. So, it’s not strange that music is all around us. You don’t need a degree or any special knowledge to enjoy music; it’s just there, as long as you can listen.

Movies and TV-series might be a runner up for most common culture consumed. Like music, movies and popular TV-series can be steamed on sites like Netflix and Hulu every hour of the day, they air older movies on TV networks and if you have a decent income, you can purchase your own copies to keep on Blu-Ray or DVD, for your brand new flat screen TV. It might not be a forum all of us can contribute to, though here again YouTube and the popularity of some of its stars have caused people to invest more in what they put up on the, so far, free media site. Movie stars and directors, creative people in their own right receive the same kind of godlike status as musicians and performers and their lives thus become just as hard. Yet, here we begin to see a clear divide between so-called “mainstream” movies and “artsy” movies, the former that are seen as mostly lighthearted entertainment, while the latter explores the boundaries of the craft and almost always have some form of message attached.

And every Academy Awards ceremony is usually accompanied by discussions about the winners and whether they truly are the kind of movies a regular old Joe would like to see. The critics and the movie goers agree on some movies, but certainly not all. This divide, between those seen as more educated and those sorted into the “regular consumers” widen if we look at other forms of entertainment.

Literature is another large form of expression, creating things for public consumption. With the increased ease of self-publishing thanks to the e-book format and self-publishing services online, writers seem to appear everywhere, willing to publish what they’ve written in their spare time, though not often to huge success. But here we see the divide clear as day, between the books worshiped by critics and the books read by the masses. This is where the educated mind suddenly speaks up more and louder. What makes a book good, what makes a writer a hack that only does it for the money? Prolific writers are compared and contrasted with award winning writers with fewer books written.

The writer is suddenly elevated to some special status, the starved writer living in poverty, like something out of 19th century bohemianism. This is complicated by another factor and that is that books do not sell as well as they used to, though e-books might be helping slightly. Music and movies are still easily found and supported online, where iTunes is a good example of selling individual songs for just a buck or so, to help less popular musicians earn money off of their craft. Yet this is not as easily applied to books and other literature, further complicated by the fact that reading is a skill you have to learn. If you have some form of reading disability or just never found any love in the act, then you will just consider reading a chore and anything longer than a magazine article gets showed into some vague “someday” status. Why would you care to support something like that with your wallet? I myself have always loved reading, but I know I should not judge those who unlike me found the school projects and compulsory reading to be a chore, some people might not have the patience for a 1000 page tome about some fantastical world of might and magic. And that affects the community that would be the recipient, the consumer of anything produced by a writer today.

But I do think that we do us all a disservice by lumping books up in “good” or “bad” literature. Heck, such labels damage all forms of creative expression and they can only further divide those infrequent consumers of literature and art. A “good” book can be perceived as too hard to get through, too difficult to understand. Even I have felt that kind of pressure at times, that my writing must be special and clever to have any merit, and that any book I write must be as multi-layered as an onion.

It really is about time to admit it, that some forms of creative expression are dependent on social class and education. The forms of expression that does not require some extensive prior knowledge will have a larger consumer base, while the more difficult ones, the ones that require a certain income to imbibe like theater, poetry or fine art will not reach as many people. Yet, it bears repeating that they all still have merit.

So, where is there a problem? Well, it comes back to that question of how the creative individual is supposed to support him or herself, because without creative people there can be no art for the rest of us to consume. There is nothing wrong with an artist or a writer receiving the well-deserved reward for his labor, because it is a kind of labor, though done more with the mind than the body in most cases. If you have worked hard for many months on a book, for weeks on a piece of art, and slaved away every evening on your webcomic, why should you not be able to feel like it was worth it, that other than that creative satisfaction it did help you support yourself financially? Yet, to receive a reward, you need a consumer; you need someone to buy your book, your art, to read your webcomic. And to achieve that, we must ensure our craft is more welcoming and most of all available to anyone who might be interested.

I don’t think there is an easy solution. We can try to not judge those forms of expression that have more mainstream appeal as too shallow and those creators as being sell-outs. We can make our craft seem more appealing by removing that stamp of academia on it, prove to more people that reading does not have to be hard, that art does not require a college degree to enjoy. Though the artists deserve payment for all that they create, perhaps something could be done so more people can afford that access to certain forms of culture, that so called “higher” form of culture like theater and art museums.

Culture, no matter the form is takes helps make our world more beautiful and rich, more humane and vibrant. It only loves and never kills. So the more of it that’s available to everyone to enjoy the better, don’t you agree?

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