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SPILL IT! August, 2020

Is there such a thing as too much art?

Elyse Hauser discusses how creating art for the sake of popular appeal leads to a flattened, boring world with plenty of art, but nothing risky or interesting.
The digital age has given us what sounds like a happy problem: there is now an unfathomable amount of art in the world for people to read, watch, and listen to.
Part of that has to do with the expanding definition of art—we now have tiny poems posted daily on Instagram, and memes that jump into the realm of modern art. But even by the traditional definition, the sheer number of movies, shows, books, and other works of art in the world is purely overwhelming.
There’s a darker side to this pleasant issue, though: in the sheer quantity of art, we find limitations on quality. With so much competition, people now produce content based on what they think will sell, more than ever before. This impacts art on all levels. Book publishers are more likely to adhere to a well-selling trend (think vampire novels or dystopian YA fiction) than to take a risk on something unusual. Instagram poets are more likely to write in the style that gets them the most likes, and abandon the experiments that their followers don’t love.
Artists today increasingly create with the audience in mind, always seeking the next viral hit (and who can blame them?). But what does this do to the process of creating art? In the digital popularity contest, it becomes harder to find art for art’s sake.
Besides, pieces that are long, tricky, weird, or challenging often can’t find a home. We face an art world in which Les Miserables would not get published (too dense) and 4′33″ would not get performed (too experimental). So, even if artists still make work that is strange, difficult, and new, it will rarely find an audience. The only artists who can afford this risk are those who have already made a name for themselves.
To make matters worse, faced with so many works of art to choose between, we consumers often fall back on algorithms to tell us what to pay attention to. Algorithms govern everything from what we’re most likely to read on social media to what we’re most likely to watch on streaming networks. The algorithm technology shows us content that falls at the nexus of what’s popular and what we seem to like, which keeps us coming back for more.
But for each piece of popular, algorithm-recommended art, there are countless others that the digital age makes hard to access. Thanks to algorithmic recommendations, what’s already popular is likely to become even more so, and what’s not popular is likely to remain undiscovered. An algorithm typically won’t recommend something strange or risky, because then we might not like it. So, artists must try to make algorithm-friendly work: art that’s likely to be popular and easy to understand (like a skimmable piece of writing, or a show with a thrilling first episode). Artists who don’t try to appease the whims of the algorithm suffer for it.
As writer Kyle Chayka wisely observes in a piece on monoculture, “because of the pressures of social media and the self-reinforcing biases of recommendation algorithms that drive streaming, culture is becoming more similar than different.” That might seem bizarre, given that so much more art is being created in the digital age. But that quantity means next to nothing when algorithms prevent us from easily accessing its full range. And it means even less when artists and media outlets are vying to make the most popular art, rather than the most compelling art.
Creating for the sake of widespread appeal leads to a flattened, boring world, in which there is plenty of art, but nothing risky or exciting. Is that the future we face? Maybe not—but preventing that dystopia means two things. First, artists must fearlessly make work that may not sell well, simply because they think the world needs it. And second, consumers must go behind algorithmic recommendations to seek out that fearless work, even if it’s not always “good.” Are we willing to do it?


Elyse Hauser writes about a variety of topics, from politics to fashion, but she describes herself as a lifestyle writer because she is in love with the idea that lives can be styled.

To Elyse, the lifestyle concept means that each day is like a block of marble, poised to be carved into the shape that pleases you most. And creative content, whether it’s a beautifully curated outfit or a set of tips presented in thoughtful prose, can help us carve out our best days.

She also writes creative nonfiction, which, in a way, offers the flip side of the lifestyle writing coin. She has a Master’s in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph’s University, and was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency for her creative work.

When she's not writing, she's exploring her passions for dance, travel, fashion, and history.

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