Oct 4, 2023

forms of flattening

Amen to Jason Bailey on the inherent diminishment baked into the word “content”, flattening all artistic work and social media uploads and sponsored blog posts into the same banal and interchangeable thing:

In practical terms, “content creator” neatly accomplishes two things at once: It lets people who make garbage think they’re making art, and tells people who make art that they’re making garbage.

But the news is more dismal still. Folks on the right think artists are over in the corner expressing their feelings, so they don’t need to support it or take it seriously as cultural inquiry unless it’s a very clunky one-to-one illustration of a preapproved and laudable sentiment. They flatten art to instrumentality. Where’s the outcome, they ask? The one I can see?

Folks on the left flatten art to autobiographical reportage. If you occupy an identity of some kind, the story is “yours to tell,” because it happened to you. Having had an experience makes you…automatically…into someone who does the work of an artist or writer or filmmaker?

I am finishing up a reported narrative piece for a magazine, weaving history and analysis with multiple scenes involving half a dozen people, all of whom have to confirm every last fact and claim in the piece. They are unquestionably the authorities on their experience. So we swap out words here and there to get it all accurate, just as it should be. But as my film editor husband says: one change makes seven.

Getting the story right about what happened is the very first step in a much bigger task of craft: We put in a word where a phrase had been, and now we need to check that the word isn’t repeated in its vicinity, that the sentence still makes sense and doesn’t introduce other ideas too early or late. We then need to smooth the sentence itself as a whole. Would an em dash now set the idea off with a bit more emphasis? Is the length of the sentence now too similar to the ones before and after? You need dynamics and variability in sentence structure. The musicality of the voice matters. And within each paragraph, each section, when you’re describing complex social phenomena, you need to distill, recombine, cut to meet the allotted space while keeping complexity. You need a swift-moving intellectual elasticity for making the words sing. The reader needs to experience the easiest tripping-along quality as their eyes glide over the words, and that easy experience needs to contain within it the most precise but surprising redescription of the world they thought they knew.

When Final Cut Pro software came out two decades ago, people said: this tool will democratize the field. Now everyone can be a filmmaker! My husband was skeptical. He said: The most important things I know about editing I learned from many years of reading and watching movies, from studying how narratives work. It’s great to have a cheaper tool, but the tool is the least of your concerns. If you want a democratized artistic and storytelling culture, invest in the humanities and fine arts for everyone — because making art is work. Consider the follow-on changes I just listed for a hefty piece of literary journalism, and then make it exponential for film: The notes he gets on, say, a two-hour Frontline about American involvement in Syria? Hundreds of hours of working and reworking every frame, constrained by multiple language translations, archival permissions, representations of history, fact checking in every direction, and the biggest qualitative concerns of all: Is it watchable? Does it flow and make sense? Do we care about the subjects who are walking us through? Let’s just say I’m very sure his job won’t be disappeared by AI. Because making art is not “content.”