Left Brain Generation
Art has long been the snobbish offspring of culture. Under the esotericism of the gallery world, the chichi of Hollywood, the godliness of musicianship, the creative sphere has maintained its closed-door policy as well as it has, paradoxically, its roster of mediocre members. Indeed, the genre seems to feed on its own elitism. Besides its ritual uses—evocation, compassion, relief— art, or more specifically the artist, is the platform upon which we build our dreams. Their existence helps us imagine, believe even, that our talents can propel us into similarly improbable success. Before we know it, we’re envisioning our futures by way of their trajectories: I’ll be as prolific as Stephen King; as profound as Terrence Malick; as timeless as Bowie. Chances are, though, you won’t—at all. This is the germ of art’s high society: if not for the aristocracy, everyone would be an artist.
Unsurprisingly, this rule falls flat among Millennials. My generation has packed more punch into creative professionalism than our parents did into free love. New York, on a finite level, is a viable example of this. In a few short years, we’ve refashioned nearly an entire borough into the artistic hub of NYC (it used to be just a couple neighborhoods in lower Manhattan). We’ve adjusted titles to sound more artistic (gardeners are now landscape artists, agents are creative consultants, Subway employees have “Sandwich Artisan” embroidered onto their lapels). We’ve made it a struggle to find a bar where every other person isn’t a musician, a filmmaker, an actor, or a graphic designer, a DJ, a sculptor, a stylist, or a decorator, a calligrapher, or a writer. And, if you so wish, you need only head to Bushwick Open Studios to find those of us who are “you know, just artists.”
My sarcasm, I know, is catastrophically ironic, but I feel this onslaught of artistic venture warrants some scoff. So be it if I’m a victim of my own mockery. Artistry used to be something people discovered in themselves—a feeling of duty fastened to the presence of a definitive skill. Now, it seems, we decide, on an atypical morning, the sun bending through our bay windows at some eccentric angle, to become artists. We’ve built a holier- than-thou construct around the word, upheld by a subculture that aggrandizes what’s “creative” and scorns what’s middle-of-the- road. The irony, of course, is that the former is becoming the latter. In the millennium, creativity is on trend: it’s a fad, not a calling.
The numbers back the anecdotal evidence. For the first time ever, the United States is graduating nearly twice as many students in the liberal arts arena than in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors combined. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students that graduated with a humanities degree has increased from 196,800 in 2001 to 306, 700 in 2011, or 33% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. In comparison, STEM majors make up only 16% of all graduates. In fact, the only field of study to surpass the liberal arts in popularity is business, with a total of 365,100 graduates in 2011. Moreover, a 2012 study by Georgetown University determined that unemployment rates for STEM graduates were below 6%, while those for students who studied architecture and the arts were 13.9% and 11.1%, respectively. We’re no longer looking to what might guarantee prosperous futures, but instead, to our ultimate aspirations.
This stands as a primary reason for the creative epidemic—and as a primary symptom of our upbringing. Unlike our Depression- reared grandparents, we grew up under Clinton’s economic boom, and the idea of what it means to be a supportive parent changed because of it. Our American Dream sounds much less like the practical version our parents were raised on (“Get yourself a family, pay off your mortgage—you can do it!”) and much more like that of someone out of their mind (“Make millions off your video installation, win an Oscar—you can do it!”). By way of prosperous childhoods, we’ve been conditioned to yield to our absurdist ambitions, and, perhaps more alarming, to believe in our talents ad infinitum.
Apart from our pandering baby-boomer parents, this inflated self-esteem is an effect of growing up technology-literate. Efficiency has become the mantra of technological innovation, making simpler (or so they say…) transportation, communication, medical diagnoses, finding a job, ordering take-out, renting a movie, solving a debate, and, the ability to create. In other words, it’s easier to become proficient at something.
Take photography, for instance. The digital camera (which, according to Samsung, 2.5 billion people own) has eradicated the need to know how the camera works. It has automated nearly every facet of taking a photo aside from choosing what to take a photo of. You need not know about aperture, shutter speed, nor development. If the photo is too dark or too light, run it through a filter. If it’s off-kilter, straighten it. If it’s compositionally mundane, crop it. If it’s not exactly what you were going for, take a hundred more. It’s not the availability of these options that’s harrowing; the same improvements could be made, to some extent, in a darkroom. Rather, it’s the accessibility of them. We’ve transformed the process of taking photos from something that required real, practical knowhow, to something that requires only judgement. “Does it look good?” is the primary function of our process.
A similar accessibility has erupted in nearly every creative field. With Ableton, one need not play an instrument to produce music; and with auto-tune, one need not sing well to have a winsome voice, albeit recorded. 3D printing has made sculpture possible sans hands, the thesaurus is a speedy alternative to racking one’s brain for the right word, and Paint By Numbers, developed in 1950, has become the template for a surge of painting software that simplifies color-mixing, shading, and texturizing, among other qualities. On top of that, if you don’t know how to use these technologies (although most of them are designed to be self-explanatory), step-by-step Youtube tutorials and a bevy of how-to websites can show you.
Contrary to my tone, I do not mean to denounce these new modes of creation as brainless. They all still require learning, intellect, a discerning eye or ear. And, however much digitalism may simplify the physical process of art, it can never touch the conceptual: we are and will always be wholly responsible for the ideas behind our art. I mean, rather, to point to a reason for the ubiquity of artistry among my generation. It seems a fundamental rule that if something attractive becomes more facile, more people will participate in it. The most attractive thing to Gen Y, evidently, is being an artist.
Now, this is not a bad thing. Creative endeavor is as much a friend to the blandest mind as it is to the most complex. From a personal standpoint, for instance, I support writing. I believe it has uncanny potential to ease sorrow, magnify joy, and help solve problems. Under that theory, then, I support anyone who writes. Keep journals, tell stories, inhabit your language as much as is possible. The same goes for making music, taking pictures, drawing, painting, dancing, sewing, sculpting; find the creativity that suits you and do it. And, by all means, use the tools at your disposal to refine your process—we’ve been afforded the technology, it’s right that we make use of it. Creation is a great thing, perhaps the best of things. It is a blessing that it’s become more approachable.
That said, the ability to create does not necessitate a creative profession. This seems where my generation has gone amiss. As mentioned earlier, we’ve developed, nurtured, and ceaselessly promoted the belief that succeeding in a creative field is superior to succeeding at, say, a blue-collar job (it’s not, by the way) and, more to the point, that if we can screw around in Garage Band with some competence, we are meant to be musicians—and none of it ever seems too farfetched because, well, because of the Internet.
The World Wide Web has expanded culture so profoundly that it’s no longer possible to keep up with all of it. There’s no longer a #1 song, at least not in the same way there was a #1 song during Beatlemania. We have so many resources for culture that, frequently, what is statistically popular does not match what’s popular in discourse. For instance, “Person of Interest,” the CBS crime drama, is one of the highest rated television shows in America with 16.2 million viewers a week. Until I researched these statistics though, I had no idea “Person of Interest” even existed. In comparison, the HBO hit “Girls” pulls in a meager 615,000 viewers a week, even though it was the only thing both the media and the population at large could discuss for about three months in 2012. Such discrepancy promotes our delusional thought processes on artistry. There couldn’t be a tool more conducive to the Millennial “Go For Your Dreams!” mentality than the Web. It affords us an audience so large— the world!—that someone somewhere is bound to take a liking to our work. So, why not become an artist?
The reasons are infinite. In many ways, it’s a selfish vocation. It provides a slim chance to support yourself, let alone a family. The allure of the repute is, perhaps, seducing us into the profession. I’m most concerned with this latter reason. There is no reckoning, as I understand it, with someone who believes they are destined to be an artist. (If we’re good at anything, us Millennials, it’s marketing ourselves. We talk in circles defending our brilliant script about a group of paraplegic teenagers on the Special Olympics version of spring break who row themselves home with their mouths after a fatal epidemic hits the island.) But it seems to me that the circumstance of the Internet—the possibility of supporters, or X amount of Facebook likes, or however many Instagram followers— is why so many of us are choosing to become artists in the first place. I’m concerned that the Internet is defiling our motives. Do we dream of making art so that we might put forth into the world (and into ourselves) something that affects people beyond the superficial; something that might help people feel and think outside their usual modes of sentience and thought? Or do we dream of making art so that we can embody that holier-than-thou implication we’ve bound so inextricably to the word “artist”? Are we becoming artists for the glory? And if so, what are these new motives doing to our art?
Now, as a writer who has daydreamed more times than I can count on my Oscar- winning speech, I can tell you that freeing yourself from the desire for recognition, especially in the digital age and probably long before it, is about as easy as going back in time and not being born. (Francis Bacon, who wrote during the 16th century, said, “All artists are vain, they long to be recognized and to leave something to posterity.”) Why do we do anything if not to be recognized by our fellow humans—if not to be affirmed of our selfhood by that healing I am with you. gaze/Facebook like? The question, for many, is rhetorical: we don’t.
It’s important though, I feel, to try to relinquish this desire—or at least rank it lowly. Not because we don’t deserve recognition but because the longing for it—our barefaced, brazen, self- aggrandizing hunger—taints our work. People like to complicate interpretations, but I’m a firm believer in the simple idea that one receives from art whatever it is the artist puts into it. You put in love you get love. You put in money you get money. You put in greed you get greed. You put in the present moment and you stand, before Bosch’s earthly delights or Van Gogh’s starry night or Monet’s lillies, defied by whatever you imagined existed besides right now. And if you put in a hankering for kudos, guess what?, you get a hankering for kudos. Art, it seems, used to be the one realm free of self-gratifying ulterior motive. Now, it feels rife with it.
It’s a subjective theory, entirely moot, but it has been preached before. History is abundant with great artists condemning the pursuit of prestige.
Watercolorist, philanthropist, and possibly the greatest art critic of all time, John Ruskin, noted: “In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.”
Thomas Carlyle, the poet, said: “It is a strange trade, that of advocacy. Your intellect, your highest heavenly gift is hung up in the shop window like a loaded pistol for sale.”
The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, wrote: “Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.”
And Jorge Luis Borges, in conversation with Fernando Sorrentino, an Argentinian letter writer, said: “I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called ‘success’ now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called ‘failure’ was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales.”
I understand these testimonies are ancient—spoken before the Internet. I acknowledge, too, the magnitude of difference between their times and ours. It’s simpler to say I need not your approval when there are few actually present to approve. But to say I need not your retweet, when it’s waiting for us, every moment of every day, hanging between potential and confirmed validation, requires greater effort.
I try to keep in mind that we are the first generation to be faced with this type of temptation; for all I know, we’re handling it exceptionally. And if not, we’re bound to develop only healthier ways of living in the digital age as it ripens. Regardless of new motives, which I’m sure, too, will evolve, art is certainly more democratic than it’s ever been. We have the privilege of creating and promoting our work on our own, often for little to no cost. Gen Y is taking stalwart advantage of that. We’ve pulled from the depths so many nameless and mighty talents. Perhaps the idea of an aristocratic art world is defunct in this epoch. Maybe we’re at the beginning of a break in hierarchy, a time when anyone capable of creation—and thus, everyone—can be saluted for their contribution. If that’s the case, then righted I stand, for I can’t think of any art as beautiful as that.