a case for art, and human artists

dad riding a bike near our neighbourhood, winter-spring 2022

i remember there being a hyper-utilitarian mindset shift in the tech space (often associated with the now ridiculed “hustleset-grindset” culture). ok, admittedly it likely wasn’t necessarily a global shift, but more just me making my first foray into the space during the same time period. regardless, during that exploration, i observed a thirst to create value for other people and solve problems, and dedicate all possible time and energy to solving these problems, and therefore rejecting anything that doesn’t directly contribute to this mission, or that perhaps detracts from it. i still believe the intention behind this is deeply noble, but i think this viewpoint fails to consider something fundamental - the fact that first and foremost, we are human.

what i really think art is, is that it’s about humans, made by humans, and perhaps for other humans. beauty, for example, is often considered a vain luxury and indulgence with no particular positive impact on a more meaningful mission. however, in reality, beauty can be one of the most healing tools in medicine. pretty flowers decorating a long-term care ward in a hospital leads to better morale, which has a non-trivial effect on a patients’ prospects of recovery. furthermore, the improvements observed in patients with dementia when they are placed into beautiful environments (along with flourishing communities) is non-negligible. (it’s silly and i do wish this weren’t the case, but the reality is that this is something baked into us - and if we’re solving problems for other humans, we should understand what it is to be human first, no?)

anyhow, art is not just about beauty - it is also about horror, and tragedy, and it provides the opportunity to learn about ourselves, about our past and our future, and most importantly, about others.

for instance, i’ve read much criticism about music; that its addictive effects are akin to narcotics, that its capability of influencing us is insidious and that it must be kept at arms’ length. i don’t deny these properties, but… is it really something so bad, to be given the gift of accessing a world that an artist crafted for you with intention and care, and to be so connected with their work that in that moment, you lose yourself? there is so much meaning in these ephemeral sparks of true connection with others when we live such solitary mental lives in our own minds, and it’s something that i believe is truly worth treasuring. to be brought out of yourself and into something else, someone else, for once, is a kind of experience that could help anchor us as we drift through our brief mortal consciousness.

i won’t pretend to represent or understand the ideas of all artists, or even a handful of them; i realize that every person creates for very different reasons, informed by their own experiences. but i do believe one of the greatest pleasures of creating, is when all of the toil and sweat and intention converges into this singular work that other people get.

this blog post was spurred by a two-punch of youtube videos - one of them being a video essay speaking on the socioeconomics of being an artist as analyzed from the ground-shattering body of work that is the manga blue period, and the second a video about dall-e by vox (a very well-made one). going from a ruthless dissection of art becoming more and more a profession limited to those with sufficient pre-existing economic capital (unless one puts in a heavy amount of time acquiring other forms of capital, like social, cultural, or institutional capital, as well as a generous heaping of luck) into a wake-up call on the ease with which incredible artistic syntheses of concepts are created in seconds by midjourney and dall-e was an attack i definitely did not need at 10pm on a thursday night (but which i did willingly inflict on myself so whatever). i’ve seen the memes but i never really sat down with it (mostly because i didn’t want to), and man did that sit me down.

i mean, there’s already tons of great generative music out there too (i personally found this one by grimes really sweet). soon the newsletters and movies and games that make me cry will be easily conjured in seconds. so what’s the value of artists? i think, two things:

  1. intention & the labor of acquiring competency. in vox’s follow-up video to the dall-e op-ed, a couple artists mentioned the mindset shift of photography becoming so accessible that the medium has, more or less, become democratized. however, cultural perception around it is that there’s still value - value inherent in the time and labor it takes to acquire this craft (composition, timing, the technical aspects of manipulating a manual camera, lighting, etc.) and the subsequent expression of that skill in an artist’s work. part of it is simply how impressive it is to watch someone show off the culmination of years of mastery. also, a credo of mine is that any body of work made with thoughtful intention is worth something, and i do think that tends to carry over pretty well into general public perception of art. required reading here (though not tightly related to the thesis in this blog): paul graham’s essay on good taste.

  2. ai as a collaborator. linus of the sephist explains this concept so much better in this blog, but generally i think this is already pretty well illustrated in the relationship between humans making crazier after crazier prompts for dall-e only to be rewarded with some truly next-level shit, and learning ways to “game” it to get the most optimal results. i mean, the prompts themselves are almost poetry in their own right. i really liked what an artist said in the vox follow-up video, something along the lines of everyone becoming an art director and curator, and i think that’s a pretty cool direction to be going in - like calling to the collective consciousness and being able to have a back-and-forth. kinda wild. this isn’t something we could do before, mostly because these agents weren’t intelligent enough yet, and i definitely think it could revolutionize how we create. still bitter about the ease of execution tho :D

forgive me; a lot of this was so nebulous and pointless. it was really just me trying to pick apart this rising sense of discomfort and trying to make peace with it while acknowledging that there’s so much to look forwards to - a complete upheaval of how we think about art. i do think there’s a lot to be excited about. but i’m also scared. it’s a good thing - it means something big is changing.