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#35 Artistry vs the Algorithm
Who am I writing for?
I am on holiday in Far North Queensland and I sit on the end of the sun lounge, hunched, chin in hand. My belly rests in my lap like a small warm appendage or a cat and there is comfort in the soft way of it. For once I don’t think, ‘I need to do something about that.’
The pool I’m sitting beside has been designed to look like a lagoon; wonky and ringed by fine white sand and palm trees. Thick armed, red nosed Australian men drink from yellow cans. Faded tattoos on freckled backs at the swim up bar. Women in floppy straw hats and black one pieces read brightly coloured novels. Children only communicate at pitch and their parents stand up to their knees in the water, one hand on a hip and the other white knuckling a large frozen cocktail that is always threatening to slide deftly into the warm pool. Plop.
As I sit here today, I think about something I’ve been thinking about a lot: living in obscurity. The way I am right now. Just like 99.92% of people in the world. Just like everyone here with me, squealing and sweating and applying sunscreen.
Labouring in anonymity. Having a small circle of friends and living by a body of water (fresh or salty, still or running, I don’t mind). Making jammy gin at home with mason jars and huge cacophonous ice cubes. Reading at least 15 books a year. And learning to love a life that is regular and also lusciously, sickeningly first world. A bit of financial stress, a dull ache about the vast expanse ahead, how will I fill it? The mundanity of signing emails with kind regards, the fatigue of wondering what to cook for dinner, again. And the truth of no one really knowing who you are beyond the 9 people you could bear to speak to on the phone.
I’ve been thinking about obscurity and anonymity and mundanity, precisely because the sense is that to be a creative person who peddles your own product, you need to be at least a little bit famous in order to be the vaguest kind of success. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. And also illustrators, writers, ceramicists. And also comedians, furniture makers, tailors. All of us need to have a gorgeous website, a relentless online presence and a fresh take on the same things people have been doing for hundreds of years.
Sometimes I long for another time where a knack for writing might only have been observed on the back of a postcard. For 1975 where back rooms and backyards and studio apartments were the places that creativity played out. The work unseen, except perhaps by a friend who might distractedly pick up the charcoal likeness of a quince, hold it to the fading light above Fitzroy St and raise a brow, ‘this is really quite good’. I long for the kind of creativity that is private, with slow iterations and the sense that this practice is mostly for pleasure.
But here and now, making for the sake of making feels like a foreign language. I don’t speak it. I am too used to perception and observation like everyone else who consumes the lives of other people as they lie in bed. Creating in public in 2023, where feedback is expected and prolific, the final product can’t be unthreaded from the truth that people will see it and give it a value; it could have been better, shorter, longer, different in some pivotal way. So that even when I am writing I am thinking of readers, what will they think of my terrible grammar, etc.
In his piece in the Atlantic titled The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur, William Deresiewicz addresses this new expectation.
“The Internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution… Everybody gets this: every writer, artist, and musician with a Web site (that is, every writer, artist, and musician). Bands hawk their CDs online. Documentarians take to Kickstarter to raise money for their project.
“Just get your name out there,” creative types are told.”
Here on Substack, I am sent thing after thing about writers who are “making more than they have ever made” on this platform, who are celebrating their book deal or announcing their milestone of 5k, 10k, 50k subscribers. And amidst my bitterness and jealousy (or because of it) there’s a scene in my mind that plays on repeat; crowds of people are inexplicably released into the darkest depths of the sea. They swim hard and fast and wide-eyed for the dappled light dancing above them. The air, the bright sun and the surface. They won’t all make it, but they use each other’s bodies to grab hold of, push off, pull on.
A thumb in an eye. A fist closes around a floating hem of dress. Being creative online can start to feel like this, a desperate rush for the top. That, or you are the spruiker in the mall, appealing to hurried hordes -”stop, look, see.”
And we do it, because fame seems just as likely an outcome of creativity as obscurity. The wheel of fortune lands blindly, spun by the hand of luck, tick tick ticking through brilliance and resting on, maybe brilliance, maybe not.
And of course, this prerequisite for attention, the absolute necessity for mainstream approval shapes our work in some way. It has to. Again, Deresiewicz; “It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favour work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—more like entertainment, less like art. Artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say.”
I am reminded of a scene in the documentary, Miss Americana. It is Grammy nomination morning in 2018, Taylor Swift is chin in hand on the edge of a grey couch and she is finding out, in real time, that her sixth album Reputation was not nominated in any of the major categories. She is quick to respond, “You know what, this is good, this is fine. I just need to make a better record.” The preposterousness of her words didn’t (and still haven’t) landed in the culture. Because these words were uttered by a woman who on that very morning had a net worth of $320 million. An artist who on that very morning, held the status of globally adored lyricist, with multiple Grammy, Billboard and Country Music Awards under her belt. All that approval and all that adoration and still it would seem that her whole body of work was, and still is, hunting ceaselessly for the love of as many people as possible. What would she create in an anonymous backroom, without the fickle promise of that love?
When I first started writing this newsletter my main thought was ‘who cares what you have to say’. But I kept gently reminding myself that if every single maker of books and art and film and music thought that and did nothing the world would be so joyless and cave-cold that it wouldn’t be worth living in. The only saving grace would be the trees and bird song. And anyway, what would we do without Mary Oliver writing about the trees and birdsong so lovingly? Maybe we wouldn’t love the rushing rivers and the geese strewn skies quite as much, maybe we would thrash them more than we already have. If not for art beauty showing us real beauty.
I started this newsletter, as bumbling and low-fi as it is, as intermittent and rudderless, because I wanted to write more. I wanted to get better at articulating my ideas, I wanted to practice the craft of writing. And I wanted to become a successful writer. All the things except the last have happened.
I don’t have a way to tie these loose lines, running race horse divergent but connected at the source. Fame and creativity, art and performance, talent and money. Just that the parallels exist, perhaps more now than ever, the sense that you might be watched by the right people and end up somewhere sparkly and plush. But there are so many of us, and so little room on those high rungs. Better enjoy the snow-pea seedlings pushing through dirt in the backyard, and the kookaburra song and the way gum leaves look made of gold in the 7am sun, when they flap like bunting in a high wind.