A year and a half ago I wrote a piece for a Creative Writing: Nonfiction class about the internet and how it’s changed the way we live. In my pre-writing work for this article, I revisited Sophomore Eli’s writing, and, like my old piece prophesied, the piece was out of date. “Even to speak about the internet (or write about it, in this case) is a somewhat futile effort,” I wrote. “The internet, and the culture surrounding it, moves faster and faster every single day. A joke you see on Monday will be run into the ground by Wednesday afternoon, and by next year it will somehow be funny again. As soon as we begin to understand the internet and its current obsession or phase, it changes, leaving us in the dust to restart the process all over again.”
This paragraph transitioned into an explanation of the Bernie Sanders mitten meme, which, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is extremely out of date. So, there we go, point proven. The internet ages like milk. Consider it established.
The more fascinating aspect of the internet’s lifecycle, for me, comes into play when we begin to think about how artists utilize social media. Obviously, yes, the internet serves to disseminate your art to people who otherwise would never encounter it. Tik Tok and Spotify have given the Indianapolis-based band, Honey, Be Well, fans far outside of their immediate sphere of influence in central Indiana. This, in a world where art and profit are forced to hold hands and walk into the sunset, is a good thing. The internet serves to bring new artistic experiences to those who might not otherwise encounter them.
However, and this is the kicker, the internet has created a brand new type of media: content. Content used to refer to the things that make up a piece of media (think of “adult content” or “sensitive content”). Now, content is an entire subgenre. From my observations, the term “influencer” has largely been replaced by the term “content creator.” The dilemma is this: where do we draw the line between a content creator and an artist? I’d like to examine it as more of a Venn diagram than firm segregation.
To help with this analogy, let us consider the differences between a cheeseburger and a hamburger. You may be thinking, “Eli, I know what those two things are and how they are different. What more could you tell me?” The difference is in more than the content (see?) of the burger—the difference is in its preparation. A cheeseburger is a burger that is cooked with cheese on it. The cheese is melty, blending with the meat of the burger itself because it sat on the grill or in the pan while the meat was still cooking. A hamburger, on the other hand, is both a burger without cheese and a burger that was cooked without cheese but later had cheese put on top of it. When cheese is added after cooking, its effects are diluted. These are what I call “grad party burgers.” Extremely efficient, very consumer-dictated, and not always super delicious.
So, while a hamburger can have cheese on it, that does not make it a cheeseburger, in the same way I believe that content can be artistic while not being art. Content and art also differ in their marketing, consumption and availability, but those discussions will be saved for another time.
Artists who have had to adjust to this new digital landscape are faced with what I believe to be the ultimate question: do you want to make art or do you want to make content? Here at the Anchor, I work to remind my staff that we create journalism rather than content. Content belongs to the internet and will age at milk speed. Content will drift away in the cyber winds with trends and memes and all the other cultural phenomena that come and go. Art, however, has the potential to stick around and be relevant for a long time. There’s a reason people still watch movies and listen to music that is decades old— while it was influenced by an era, it also acted as an influence to the next.
Don’t misunderstand my argument. I am not of the opinion that everything new is “unartistic,” nor that this new content is inherently bad. Consuming creative culture falls on my shoulders as much as anyone else’s, and I, too, promote this fast-paced, algorithm-based world in which we live. My point is that artists of this generation face a unique challenge in that their choices are to sell their souls to an algorithm or to their work, and it seems that all too often they choose the former.
The solution to this, in my own personal artistic practice, is simple: choose the work. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” This, for me, is reward enough. While there is joy in sharing work, sharing undoubtedly being part of the artistic process, the magic of creation is in the creating.
My belief is that the responsibility of an artist is to the craft itself. While the traditional “content” of the internet is undoubtedly artistic and takes practice to achieve proficiency, the urge to be relevant has become seemingly more important than the desire to create work that is designed to last. Let us return to the old ways, practicing isolation and devotion, utilizing silence and the voices we were given, the voices we cannot change. Let us further lean into developing a collection of work that offers the only thing any of us can offer—our whole selves.