On art and literature, and why it’s not just “content”

Forgive me in advance for the incoming salt, but this is a rant I’ve been sitting on for ages. A tweet I saw only cemented my need for the aforementioned rant, so here we are.

A bit of context first. I worked at a bullshit, huge corporation for almost 6 years; after that, I’ve moved on to a corporation that’s way smaller and involves some actual work rather than bullshitting for 5 days a week, but it’s still a corporation. That’s a background experience I’ll be relying on, mixed with observations of the absolute hellhole that LinkedIn is, with a sprinkle of mainstream media attitude. For the sake of clarity, I usually refer to art and literature as “art”, but I’ll be using art&lit in the post. With that out of the way, LET’S DIVE IN.

If there’s one thing that’s aplenty in every corporation, it’s the amount of self-affirmative spam you receive every day. Department status updates, newsletters no one reads, trainings and videos to watch, and so on, and so forth. And it is, regardless of the corp and the type of spam, called “content”. It’s an apt name for it, because it’s neither art, nor anything useful. Just a barrage of words some poor soul had to put together. Oh, I’m sorry, not a poor soul. A content creator.

I can say I’m a content creator at my day job. I write software documentation and manuals. It requires some thought and some effort, it’s not a bullshit job I could ignore without any negative consequences to me or the company or the world at large. But it’s not art I create there. It’s content. It’s got no artistic value whatsoever except maybe for explaining concepts in an easy-to-understand way. The companies themselves have got no qualms about calling that type of fruit of their employees’ work “content”. That at least doesn’t bother me. “Content” is an adequate term for repetitive, artless form of work that require creating something out of nothing.

But when the same term is applied to art&lit, when artists and writers are called “content creators”, I grow spikes like a porcupine.

I understand why it’s easy to use those terms. They’re easy, umbrellous enough, and carry their meaning well. It encapsulates people who don’t do art&lit, but dabble in education, design, what have you. But the results of their work isn’t content as it’s seen at its core and at its roots.

You churn out content daily and often without effort. Those instagram accounts posting variations of the same photo every day? That’s content. A book written for 3 years and edited for the next 2, full of gorgeous prose and magnificent storytelling, or a painting that took weeks to finish? That’s not content. That’s art. And people who let it into the world by effort of their hands are artists.

That line of thought brings me back to that tweet I linked earlier. “Media consumption” is just as dehumanised, nebulous term for experiencing art&lit as “content creation” is to refer to the act of writing and painting/drawing. It assumes the interaction with content at the speed and rate it’s created. Which is: fast. Then faster. And faster and faster, until both you and artists end up in an ever-rushing cycle of more, more, more. (I already ranted about streaming and the effect it’s got on media, so I’ll stop myself from doing it again ;)). But, FOMO, anyone? I’m sure all of us have experienced it at least once at some point. Corporations and mainstream media have got a way of slithering into our lives and taking terms and things that make us happy for themselves. They also tend to flatten nuances, limit imaginations, and produce countless iterations of the same trope if only they realised it was popular. (Side note: it’s very obvious in traditional publishing when agents and editors seek stories centred around a motif for some 5 years after the first book with that motif made a breakthrough. That’s something to talk about for another time, though.) And after all traces of what made an idea unique and brilliant, after art&lit have deteriorated into simple content, then both terms truly become equivalent.

I don’t think that simplification is something we as a society should condone. 

On the transience of modern media, an observation

Unless you’ve been living under a rock¹, you must have heard of Squid Game. It was everywhere to a degree that even I noticed it². Or you know what? Replace Squid Game with a title of another series with all episodes immediately available to watch. It’s there for one hot second only to be gone in the next, another one taking its place, ready to be binge-watched and immediately forgotten.

This is something I’ve been thinking about (and discussing with friends) for a while now. Before I delve deeper into the matter, I’d like to reiterate these are only my observations. I’m not a scientist, culture studies weren’t my focus at university, but I remember what TV series and fandoms looked like before the streaming era³, so I thought why the hell not try to put it into words.

And so, here we are.

One of my best friends is a Trekkie. Her tumblr, like any other person’s, is a collection of reblogs, a great deal of it being Star Trek posts. There was a explosion of gifsets from the latest series, but it didn’t last long. Sooner rather than later she was back to the older series and movies. And it’s not like she didn’t like the new show! On the contrary: she loves it dearly, but somehow the blogs she follows post mostly about the olden days.

Meanwhile, I’m not a Trekkie. I’m a Star Wars and Stargate fan. Stargate, being dormant for years, isn’t a useful example, but Star Wars is⁴. I was amazed that the mouse decided to release The Mandalorian on a weekly basis rather than all at once, but it was a fantastic choice. All of a sudden, there was an influx of people interacting with the franchise. There were theories, new merch, new fascinating characters, new story that finally felt like the old Star Wars. And most of all, there was a build of anticipation leading to the climax—the kind of anticipation you can’t obtain in a series that’s available to watch in one go.

Do you remember Game of Thrones and the hype around it⁵? My gods, for years every Monday morning at work consisted of my co-workers huddling together and discussing everything there was to discuss about the new episode. Take Stranger Things as an example of a different viewing model. Yes, there was some degree of hype. Yes, they were discussing it for some time—I think it might have been about 2-3 weeks?—and then, silence. It was as if the series never existed.

I see this pattern often on twitter and tumblr. Something blows up, consumes everyone’s attention, and then it’s gone after a laughably short period of time only to be replaced by something newer, shinier, different.

On the other hand, you’ve got still thriving fandoms of shows years, sometimes decades old. When you take their age into consideration, they’re not that inventive or ground-breaking. On the contrary, I’d say: there are so many filler episodes sometimes, which from a storytelling perspective serve only to showcase the growing bond between characters and show the world at large. Stories structured like that presented to an audience used to binge-watching everything they can get their hands on would probably fail. Hell, I’m convinced The Mandalorian didn’t solely because it’s Star Wars.

All this rambling brings me to my main point, which is: the gradual build-up and continuous engagement with a book/TV series/films create fan communities. Series with all episodes available at once may result in hype, but it blows out too fast to result in a lasting fandom.

It’s the emotional engagement, I think. As story progresses over time, you get attached to it. You start wondering what happens next, start counting days until the next episode (mid-season hiatus, amirite 🙃), and moreover—especially if you happen to encounter other fans—you form an even greater emotional connection in the fandom’s echo chamber. But it needs time and constant nourishment to form. Without them, there’s a momentary burst of hype that doesn’t prevail.

Is there a point in all of that? I admit, I’ve got no idea. However, I do think we have to put conscious effort in not letting something we love fade into obscurity if we want to see it thrive in attention and its fans’ affection, especially when there are so many new shows constantly popping up everywhere. I also think that the streaming model instead of weekly releases is harmful, even though it fits perfectly into the current trend of more, faster, constantly, MOAR.

It does take an audience to keep a thing going.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! And thank you for reading my ramblings 😅


¹ Please don’t think I’m looking down on people who don’t follow modern media. I don’t. Everything I know comes through osmosis on the internet. And gods know you’ll have trouble finding someone who lives under a rock as big as mine.

² Noticed doesn’t equal watched. The easiest way to ensure I won’t watch something is for it to be everywhere. I’m petty like that.

³ With the lovely addition of being a few years behind with every show and movie, because this is what growing up in Eastern Europe in the 90s before widely accessible internet was like.

⁴ Episodes 7-9 aren’t Star Wars. They’re Disney’s very expensive fanfic that doesn’t even make sense, therefore I pretend they don’t exist and the Expanded Universe hasn’t been retconned. I’m not taking criticism at the time. Or ever.

⁵ Before it self-destructed and imploded, that is. Lol. That was one hell of a dumpsterfire to watch. It should be taught everywhere as what not to do with a story, be it your own or something you’re adapting from one medium into another.