Art can be a private experience, but, now more than ever, it rarely is. Art witnessed only by its creator effects no change except in how it makes the artist feel in creating or viewing it. Others cannot be inspired by it. No matter their preferences, the viewer cannot learn from it—their mental model of Art cannot be shaped through it. The consumption of art was once confined to the aristocracy—the invention of public museums in the 17th century brought visual art to the masses. As social media platforms have made it easy for artists without the support of those Big Art institutions to get eyes on their work, art has become even more of a public experience.

This shift is not without consequence. Consumers have become desensitized to art and to the effort that goes into creating it. Art has become disposable, so while there is more art available, much of it is of lower quality and is highly derivative.  Anything can easily be taken and used for anything, by anyone. Sometimes, the people who benefit from your work the most are also the people who are the least grateful and show you the least respect. The overabundance of new, free art has created a race to the bottom in terms of the lifespan of each work and of the money others are willing to pay for art. Everyone's got an opinion, and they also have a direct line to the artist themself, and to the rest of the world, should they wish to share it. People's opinions are highly influenced by the opinions of others. One comment early-on can set the tone for a piece's overall reception, in either direction. Every artist has their own approach to dealing with feedback, but there's a reason why so few artists turn comments off entirely: people want to engage with art in a communal way, so turning comments off, or leaving them unread, is markedly disrespectful to the audience.

By sharing your art with others there is a trade-off happening. The audience is giving you their time and attention, allowing you to become part of the public consciousness, and you are giving them the freedom to have their own relationship with the work. Artists have differing opinions on this—on who is able to define art and dictate its meaning, or if one should try to at all. At least at the moment I'm in the camp of "Artists can tell if they'd like, and consumers can choose to listen." (They cannot tell the artist they are wrong.)

"We're going to come to your art for what we need, not what you need. You got what you needed by doing it...The door has opened up and you're allowing them to come in within your world, finding what they need to make their world better...and that's when it's Art with a capital A."
— Steve Huston on the Draftsmen podcast

Oftentimes artists are offended when they revise an old piece and someone says, "I preferred the old version," and it's understandable. However, it's also offensive to the audience to say, "The thing you liked was actually shit and you are stupid for liking it," in effect, by revising it. I rarely revise old works, for this reason and others.

Countless misguided game remakes and "remasters" spit in the face of fans of the original work, oftentimes providing a worse experience than the original and undoing elements people always enjoyed. The legacies of all your favorite animated Disney movies are now muddied by uninspired 3D recreations full of modern CGI goop.

I don't know anything about the Spidermen, but even if due to human error, there is little reason to have revised these scenes in Across the Spiderverse post-release. These types of edits are a waste of resources and create divisive discourse for fans of the original work (Han shot first, etc.) A lack of creative conviction in decision-making is what facilitated the supposed need for a movie patch in the first place.

Almost all of today's big movies and shows are remakes or reimaginings of decades old properties. These projects do not honor the creators of the original work; they are an exploitation of peoples’ predispositions to spend money on what they are already familiar with, as well as an implicit suggestion that the original version was not good enough. The studios tell us, "Eat the nostalgia slop," and we open wide. Here comes the train, choo choo. 🚂🚂

Every artist is faced with two paths:

  1. Do more of the same
  2. Do something different

Most people just want more of what they already know and like, so the total audience for artists who choose Path 1 is very large. Fortunately, people are capable of enjoying more than one artist, even when they are doing similar things, but the cap on your reach and your effect on the world may be limited if you're not the person who popularized the style (not necessarily the same as the person who defined/created it.) It's not really possible for people to be equally excited and also the most excited about many individuals providing the same thing. I'm sure Taylor Swift is like a lot of other artists, but there is only one Taylor Swift.

Path 2, doing your own thing, is much riskier, especially because the prospect of "What if no one else likes my thing?" becomes much more personal when your thing is authentic to you. I like to believe that artists who choose the first path are also being authentic to themselves, in that the type of work speaks to them just as much or more than anything else they could choose to or are able to create. Maybe they are getting what they need, as Huston says, by creating it, if what they need is to feel like part of a greater movement, to feel accepted, to feel like there is a place in the world for them, etc. Whether they realize it or not, somewhere down the line, the primary inspiration of every Path 1 artist is a Path 2 artist. Even if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, surely it stings to be that Path 2 drowning in a sea of Pinterest-fueled carbon copies. The average consumer does not know who the originator is, and they probably wouldn't be able to differentiate it even if they did. It's easy to be a proponent of a "post-authorship" world when you're someone benefiting from the paradigm.

There is no formula for success. However, people like things more the more they've been exposed to them, and they like things that are similar to things they already like, but with a twist. [1] In our IP-centric, consumerist culture, things are legitimized and given contextual value by being known by many others and/or by being tied to brands. Reimaginings of old material or mashups of multiple IPs are examples of this idea applied to artwork (drawings of cat memes, Mario dressed as Sonic, etc.) Any artist will tell you that fan art almost always performs better than original content. Popular music is now heavily sample-based. Both fan art and parody are good ways to generate engagement, because they automatically trigger the pleasure center in people's brains. The consumer (if they are familiar with the reference) is bringing hours and hours, if not years or decades, of baggage to the table. Assuming the artist is actually a fan of the source material, they do the same in creating it. The artist has not had to craft a story or world, and the viewer already knows how they feel about everything. They do not have to develop a new relationship with the work; they are deepening a preexisting one.

In this environment it makes sense that most artists choose the first path, the creation of highly derivative works. The alternative is for those who have no choice—they are unfulfilled otherwise.

One issue persistent for artists on both paths is regarding the evolution of their craft. Similarly to the way in which remasters are often received poorly by fans of the original material, once consumers are accustomed to a certain type of work from a certain individual, many will resent any alteration to the style and/or content in that artist's new work. To these people, the work defines the artist. To the artist, their work is an extension of themself. It's only natural that as they develop, so should their body of work. What's the use in making the same thing over and over again? They've already proven to themself and to others that they can make the thing; the idea has already been presented. For Path 1 artists, whose work is already limited in range, this development may be met with more rejection than a Path 2 artist. However, if their work is authentic to them in some way, and their audience appreciates whatever that quality is, maybe they will be more open to new expressions of that, but probably not.

When the Venn diagram of things consumers like and things you like to make happens to have overlap, however briefly, consider yourself lucky, and don’t tempt fate by changing course too soon. Your good fortune will attract imitators, but nothing exists in a vacuum—innovators have influences too. Other artists are very much a part of the communal experience.

Have consideration for those that engage with your work, or don't, but art is a two-way street; it's a dialogue between the creator, the consumers, and other artists alike. What you choose to release, and subsequently how you choose to maintain and engage with that work over time is as much a part of your offering as the work itself.

  1. Hitmakers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is an enlightening book on these topics that I recommend. ↩︎