Democratizing creativity

27 Feb
February 27, 2012

Unless this is literally your first day on the internet (and there is a meme for that), then you’ve probably already seen at least a few of the popular memes floating ’round the internet. Things like this :

Now, you may enjoy these memes or you may think them insipid bullshit, whatever. It’s not the content that interests me the most. What I find fascinating is the phenomenon at work here.

A while ago I found myself mulling on what ‘art’ is. On New Year’s day, actually, so it was after a night of rather heavy drinking. Which is how I explain the fruity turn my thoughts had taken 😉

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that art is essentially ‘expression’. I know, that’s both trite and rather trivial. Of course art is expression. But it’s also so broad a category that it includes practically anything. Yes, that’s the point. I came to the conclusion that we’re all artists, and we all create art. What separates ‘normal people’ from ‘artists’ is not what they do so much as how well they do it, how much time and focus they give it. As well as some degree of good taste when it comes to their art form, though whether that is innate, learned or a combination of the two I cannot say.

The most noticeable aspect that seems to separate artists from normal people is actually the most trivial, the mechanical skills of the trade, though those skills take incredible amounts of time and effort to acquire. The skill to play the guitar, the knowledge of light and form and anatomy needed to paint portraits, that sort of thing. This mechanical proficiency is something that artists acquire in order to enable their expression.

But that brings us back to this phenomenon I was talking about. The internet, by enabling real-time connections between humans across the planet, has pumped steroids into the human propensity for language and cultural formation. Ideas, words, pictures and movies flash across the world at the speed of light, becoming part of the mass psyche, the zeitgeist. These ideas become mental icons, cultural reference points. And, through the miracle of Google and Photoshop, these cultural reference points are available for recreation and remixing as never before.

Take a look at this Penny Arcade cartoon :

What do we have here? Well, it’s a commentary on something, Mass Effect voice commands on Kinect. To ‘get it’, the reader needs the cultural reference points of a particular subculture, gaming. The humor comes from how Mike and Jerry embed their commentary in a fictional scenario, the expression part. And last but not least, it’s rendered through the mechanical drawing skills of Mike.

Now compare it to this meme :

Again, we have a commentary on something, the addictive aspect of Steam sales. To get it, you need to know the cultural reference points, both in gaming and in fantasy movies. The humor comes from the scenario of Boromir saying his famous line in the context of a Steam sale, the expression part. And the rendering…that is handled by copying and pasting images and text.

Now, I’m not saying that the meme joke is on par with the skills of the pros. But I find it interesting how the technology and connectedness of the net is enabling people who wouldn’t otherwise have the technical skills to express these aspects of themselves. Sites like 9gag aggregate the best of this expression, creating a sort of “webcomic of the mass consciousness”. Not only are we all artists, we’re all comedians.

Remember, when I say we’re all artists or comedians, I am not saying we’re good at those things. Professionals will produce better work, more nuanced work, and consistently. I might make a funny joke once on the spur of the moment, but I can’t do it twice weekly, every week.

It’s fascinating to watch this phenomenon evolve. Every week, it seems, a new ‘noun’ or ‘verb’ is being added to the iconic ‘language’ that is being built here. Some new image, some new clip, is being turned into a hieroglyph.

But at the same time, these new language-symbols being created have an incredibly short shelf-life. They’re based on fleeting pop culture, and I can only imagine that each new generation will re-invent them to fit their own frames of reference.

How long before the Hipster goes the way of the Hippy, in the public consciousness? How long before there is a new teen heartthrob to rip on and sneer at?

Some days, I think I should have studied Anthropology. The rise of social technology makes it an incredibly exciting time to work in the field.

1 reply
  1. smehur says:

    Hm. Perhaps it’s ok to say all art is expression but I don’t think all expression is art. To draw you own comic – sure. To stick a phrase under a screenshot from a movie or a game – for me, that’s pushing it. Is it art when I express my appreciation of your blog by saying “you do good work, Gareth?” No? Then why would pasting those same words over some picture, which was not my creation, make it so?

    But I’m yet to figure out what a “meme” is, so maybe I shouldn’t be the one to talk.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *