Thursday, 15 March 2007

Crap Art

Originally posted on my Cityside blog on Thu, 09/03/2006 - 4:42pm.

I'm old enough to remember the early 1990s from the perspective of a young adult, and one of the things I remember - along with the mullets and the satin shirts* - is desktop publishing. The promise of desktop publishing was this: Anyone could now produce professional-looking brochures and flyers.

Well, actually, no. Anyone could now produce amateurish brochures and flyers. While layout machines cost tens of thousands of dollars, only professionals operated them. They did it all the time, and (with the usual variation) they knew what they were doing, they were trained, and what they produced was generally professional in appearance and quite frequently spelled correctly.

Once a computer capable of producing a brochure was available for maybe $5000, any idiot could - and many idiots did - sit down and produce one full of poor spelling and grammar, in sixteen different fonts and with the layout all over the shop. Desktop publishing, by granting access to a much wider public, vastly increased the quantity of badly done material in circulation - as well as lowering the cost and the difficulty of producing good material.

It was neither the first nor the last technology to do so, of course. Printing itself was an order of magnitude cheaper and more accessible than manuscript copying, and by the 19th century it had been around for 400 years, industrial processes had recently made it even cheaper, and increasing literacy had expanded the audience in a bootstrap effect. (Cheap printed books make it worthwhile for people who have less money to learn to read, which increases sales of books and makes them cheaper to produce because of economies of scale.) This was the era of the "penny dreadful", a precursor of "pulp fiction" (which itself was named after the cheap paper on which it was printed in numerous magazines which flourished before World War II). These were novels of, basically, zero literary merit which were sold very cheaply to the newly literate lower classes. Great outcry was had over them at the time. (These days, there would probably be rejoicing that people were reading books at all.)

And since the 1980s, technology has continued to roll on, and now you can use your computer not only to produce brochures and flyers, but to record music or even make films (with the addition of a video camera - new ones of which are now selling for under $1000 even here). Additionally, our friend the Internet provides locations where you can self-publish your novel "print-on-demand" at no or very little cost, put up your comic, your music, your movies, your digital art, your photographs, your short stories, your Harry Potter fan fiction (the opera of the fandom), and make it available to anyone who's interested - or just have the satisfaction of having produced it. You now don't need a studio behind you to make a movie or a CD, just a bit of relatively cheap gear and lots of time. Movies have been made for under $1000; people have sold their old banger of a car and financed a movie with it. The barrier to entry is incredibly low.

This means two things. The thing which is publicised, especially by the sites concerned, is that now if you have talent you don't have to convince a gatekeeper like a publisher or record company or film studio; you can go direct to the public. And this is very fine, I am 100% behind it, and I am not suggesting that the sites are being misleading (unless they imply that you will automatically be successful as a result). Publishers, record companies and film studios (and large videogame companies, who are in a business which out-earns the movies now) have a built-in problem: They are risk-averse, because they are big businesses. This means that what they make is generally what was successful last year. But what was successful last year was usually successful because it was different, not because it was the same, so what these large companies are giving us is not, in many cases, what we actually want, or what we would choose if we were aware of some of the properties that are being blocked out by the big companies because they are too different.

More and more, it is the case that we can be aware of such properties, and this is fantastic for us and for the creators, and alarming for the big companies, who see their easy money walking across the street from their symphony hall and being dropped into what, to all intents and purposes, is a guitar case on the footpath.

The other thing all this easy access means, of course, is that there is now a vast amount of crap available from which we need, somehow, to filter out the good stuff (for our definition of "good"). If it's easy to make a movie it's easy to make a bad movie (after all, the big studios manage it regularly, using professional casts, crews and scriptwriters and spending millions of dollars - as a visit to any video store underlines). This has led to at least two things: Recommendation networks, using that same Internet technology, which help us find things we'll like based on the experience of others who like the same stuff; and the Crap Art Movement.

The Crap Art Movement celebrates how easy it is to produce bad art. It seems to come from the position that the process of producing art is worthwhile and enjoyable in itself, even if the product is something that nobody else would be interested in. Pretty much the same rationale used by kindergartens, in fact, and you have to wonder, why not? If it's good for the kids to make stuff, even if we wouldn't hang it in a gallery, then maybe it's good for us to make stuff that is (allowing for better hand-eye coordination and so on) not actually any "better".

Often, Crap Art takes the form of art produced very quickly. There are film competitions in which the whole film must be scripted, shot and edited within 48 or even 24 hours. There is National Novel Writing Month, where every November people from around the world (the "National" is basically irrelevant) attempt to write an entire 70,000-word novel between the first and the 30th of the month. There is even a site called Album-A-Day, explicitly part of the Crap Art Movement as such, which promotes the creation of an entire album (20 minutes or 30 songs) in a period of 24 continuous hours, and lets you post the (probably) crappy result.

A famous scientist, and unfortunately I can't remember who (not Einstein), once suggested that the essence of innovation was learning to fail really quickly. To me, what these sites are doing is not only encouraging people to explore their creativity without obsessing about the quality or, importantly, the marketability of the product (which is a significant thing to do in a consumerist society), but also providing a context for people to fail really quickly and so move closer to the next really exciting innovation.

I remember giving a talk to the New Zealand Christian Writers' Guild sometime in the mid 1990s, when self-publishing was becoming more and more accessible (though not anything like as accessible as it is now). I had been asked to speak because I was then working in the publishing industry as an editor. My advice, as a young "expert" who was very conscious of the amount of value I added to the book publishing process, was "We're trained professionals. Don't try this at home."

I would now give rather different advice. I am probably going to self-publish at least one, and quite likely two, books this year [Note: That didn't happen], largely because the kind of books I'm writing don't fit into publishers' neat categories. (I had a rejection letter from the acquisitions editor at one very major publisher that made this clear: "While an interesting idea, I am afraid that this is not suitable for our list". Of course, she may say that to everyone.) My plan is to mobilise my network, which includes people who have done book design, people who have painted book covers, people who read a lot of books and people who have a lot of contacts who might be interested in what I'm doing. I want to produce good books, but part of my preparation for doing so has been writing some pretty bad books in the past and learning from them. Perhaps if I had been doing so more quickly (and exposing the results to the world) I might be further on than I am.

So I suppose what I'm saying is: If it's important to you to do a good job of your creativity, good for you, and take advantage of the technology which now makes it possible to do the job at all. But if you just want to have some fun and aren't too worried about the outcome, consider making some crap art. You might also learn something.


Comic Genesis hosts webcomics for free.

Myspace hosts music for (I think) free. hosts poetry for free (though they will try to tell you that your poem is good in order to convince you to buy vanity merchandise from them).

Cafepress produces books (and CDs and T-shirts and lots of other stuff) print-on-demand with no setup fee.

Lulu also produces books print-on-demand with no setup fee. They have added DVDs, CDs and calendars recently - also no setup fee.

ComixPress produces comics on-demand for cheap (they charge a setup fee).

Customflix produces DVDs on demand; they charge a setup fee and an annual renewal fee. (Disclosure: The link there carries my C-Side Media affiliate number, so if you buy anything or use their service I will get a cut.) lets you release your photos to the world for free, as long as you use a Creative Commons license.

Zoetrope welcomes your screenplay and offers tools to improve it and maybe get it filmed.

According to Wired News, "amateur" Internet TV is the next big coming thing.

[Incredibly, this was written before YouTube. Yes, it's that recent.]

The 24-hour film contest

National Novel Writing Month

Crap Art: Album-A-Day

I have also collected a couple of thousand categorised links for creativity resources of all kinds on C-Side Media, which itself will host your creative works for free (only charging a percentage if you sell copies).

I welcome suggestions of other good sites for getting your creative work to an audience cheaply or for free.

Addendum: I got a further insight into Crap Art when I read this in David Weinberger's book Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A unified theory of the Web (p. 79):

"The imperfection of the Web isn't a temporary lapse; it's a design decision. It flows directly from the fact that the Web is unmanaged and uncontrolled so that it can grow rapidly and host innovations of every sort. The designers weighed perfection against growth and creativity, and perfection lost. The Web is broken on purpose."

Which kind of reminds me of Mark Pierson's "anti-excellence".

* I should mention that I never had either a mullet or a satin shirt. I remember them on other people.

No, I'm serious.

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