As I inch further into this whole business with which I’ve occupied myself in the last four weeks, I notice how my thinking has shifted squarely away from “musicians” or “artistic types” and, for better or worse, toward “content creators.” In the past I have been irritated by this rather unwieldy phrase, thinking it to be dull and meaningless. But now I’m inclined to think it’s a better term than “artist.”
Who is an artist? My formal education is in music so I’m used to narrow definitions of artistry. Sometimes people take it to mean profound technical mastery of some craft or other, or on the other hand, pure, uninhibited self-expression. But over time I’ve come to view it more broadly as the extent to which one dares take ownership of their work; how much of yourself—your own personality, beliefs, values, quirks—you allow it to reflect, no matter the form: literature, music, software, business, whatever.
Take the world of classical music, for example. Again and again one encounters people who are masters of technique, but are peons under established standards of acceptable expression. Unsurprising; after all this is an industry that appeals mainly to a specific kind of taste, rather narrow and unresistant to shock. They have their place in the world. But why are we so ready to call any of it artistry?
On the other hand, there are those masters of expression, to whom I’m generally much more sympathetic. The problem with them is that they’re no good at thriving in society, whether it’s their own fault or not. History is full of examples of great creators who went unappreciated in their lifetimes: Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Herman Melville, and the list goes on. That this is so says something about how society at large relates to artistry—that most of the time, when it comes to art, we probably have no idea what we’re talking about.
Now, we have content creators. I happen to think that genuine artistic talent is rather rare, just as the movers and shakers of other disciplines are rare. But the average content creator need not be concerned with such lofty notions—there is joy in creation, enough to reverberate visibly, even without reaching the highest possible levels of mastery. There is an element of artistry in allowing work to reflect even a little something of its maker; yet the quality of content is irreducible to self-expression only, but always tempered with needfulness. The word content itself implies that it does not and cannot exist by itself: it must fill a vessel, or a need, or else it’s irrelevant.
Content has no need either to be as polished as the great examples of art; but we are given the chance to see it become more and more polished over time. Perhaps when creators let go of the baggage associated with artistry, they are more able to create without fear of mediocrity, and not have to wait until they’re dead to find appreciation.