Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 09/06/2016

Amateur creation from A to Z

Every day, Instagram mobile app users share 80 million pictures, including selfies, artistic photos, holiday snapshots, photojournalism, and funny images Every minute, 400 hours of video are posted on YouTube by one billion users . Since its creation in 2001, the website DeviantArt has received 300 million drawings, animations, graphics, and pieces of fan art produced by amateurs . Digital has enabled this visible explosion in amateur creation, from photography to video games to music, film, animation, short stories, novels, graphic design, knitting, embroidery, and more. Extremely rich and active online databases have developed in all of these areas.

How and why does this continuous stream of work by ordinary people develop? How are artists and institutions addressing this phenomenon? Is digital turning us all into creators? Those are the burning questions addressed by this topic, which will be posted article by article over the next twenty days.

What does amateur creativity signal?

Beyond the sheer quantity, which is impressive in itself, the extremely varied goals of these creators and creations are striking. The media are constantly showcasing stories on works and artists that came out of nowhere and have achieved worldwide fame - sometimes inadvertently. Some enjoy just a few days of fame, while other, like French Youtube stars Norman and Cyprien , have built full-fledged artistic careers. The majority, however, remain virtually anonymous, known only to a tiny public or the fellow amateurs they discuss chat with. Their work also meets a wide variety of fates: a few songs have become hits, certain photos are displayed in museums, but most of these amateur creations seem destined to feed ephemeral content flows within very localised conversations and sub-cultures, where the relationships formed around them take precedence over their artistic merit.

This raises the question of how we should interpret this trend: is creativity becoming more widespread, generating a renewal of cultural forms? Or are we seeing the emergence of a cult of the ordinary, a race to the bottom, and an acute case of "participationitis"? Sociology research unfolds these questions and provides answers based on precise studies. The first aspect assessed is the real extent and exact nature of the creative activities in question: who are these amateur creators? What drives them, what satisfies them, what are their backgrounds? The second is the works themselves: going beyond the apparent disorganization of online creation sites, what are the codes and qualitative criteria which govern these works? Are they good enough for the market? And if they are, who makes money on them? The third and final aspect is the relationship between cultural institutions and this movement: how do artists, museums, and producers take into account the fact that members of the public are also creators?

Amateur creativity unleashed

Even before internet use became widespread, studies of cultural practices showed an increase in amateur practices, linked to the general rise in educational attainment and skill levels. Digital has accelerated this trend by making the tools needed for creation and publication more easily accessible. The trend is particularly clear in certain areas like photography and video production, which have gone from esoteric to majority hobbies. All of these activities do, however, remain structured by social inequalities: educational attainment, age, and years of internet use have a major impact on involvement in online creativity sites. Social distinctions are particularly strong in areas involving writing. Nevertheless, the internet is extending the pre-existing trend of the spread of amateur creativity.

Digital encourages the quantitative distribution of cultural creations; it also transforms them in qualitative terms. Publishing works enables comparisons, discussions, and reciprocal influences among amateurs. Studies have shown the infinite diversity of online creative collectives, and the wide variety of rules and forms of encouragement and emulation among creators. Whether the art in question is photography, novel writing, artistic video production or knitting, digital transforms amateur creation by making it collective and offering the option to join vast numbers of networks and groups. Practices are transformed by the quantity and easy accessibility of advice and templates available to provide inspiration and enable improvement. Surprising as it may seem, their rigour and high requirements are usually close to professional levels, to the point that researchers have coined the term "pro-am" to describe these quasi-expert amateurs.

Does that means that amateurs now constitute massive competition to professional artists? The profile revealed by sociology studies is that of an enlightened amateur, for whom joining online groups is a way to find a public for their work, obtain forms of recognition of their worth as creators, and improve their work through observation and discussion. Most of them do not aim to become professionals. Certain trajectories, which are the statistical exception, do show a transition from the pool of digital amateurs to professional creative work. Either the artist's published work - appreciated by a large public - serves as a calling card and demonstration of skill in order to obtain a professional position, or they independently combine different forms of monetization to create a business, like YouTube performers and certain musicians.

A source of artistic renewal?

How can we determine the worth of this continuous flow of content, mainly produced by amateurs with no intention of starting a career? The initial impression of a vast bazaar, home to an endless array of clumsily spontaneous examples of artistic expression, should be called into question. Studies have shown that, regardless of their degree of maturity and completion, the works produced and posted online do follow artistic codes and conventions and fit into specific genres or formats. For example Youtubers are distinguished by whether they produce podcasts , tutorials , parodies, imitations , special effects , video game tests , or commentaries on clips . Self-production platforms have thus contributed to the emergence of new genres. In fact, involvement in creative practices can be described as learning a set of codes in order to become part of a reference community (with its pioneers, its stars, and its emblematic works) and a specific social group. Certain well-established genres now have the authorities which grant recognition and legitimacy which are typical of the traditional art world. To name just one example, machinimas, audiovisual works based on video games, have their own festivals, critics, and expert producers.

However, it is far from clear that these amateur works are a part of the art world. Certain observers believe that amateurs are killing the culture of quality and are driving cultural and artistic production to increasingly low levels. This reaction is particularly strong when professionals see the emergence of amateurs as a direct threat, as was the case with amateur digital photography. In his book "L'image Partagée" (2015), André Gunthert opposed the idea of "amateur competition." He demonstrates that amateurs have created a genuine aesthetic and cultural revolution (gifs, selfies, parodies, etc.), and are thus a part of the vast trend of the democratization of culture.

Beyond the question of symbolic value, what about the economic value generated by amateurs? Taken as a whole, the works produced by amateurs draw massive audiences. Partisans of the theory of digital labour claim that the value created by amateurs is entirely appropriated by blockbuster producers and especially by platforms, mainly in the form of advertising revenues. Should amateurs and fans start to see themselves as exploited workers with a right to demand access to the products of their work? Maybe. But the idea of amateurs and fans as exploited workers doesn't correspond to their experience. They see creating, publishing and discussing their works as an exciting form of involvement in a chosen practice, pure pleasure rather than labour.

Amateurs and cultural institutions

Faced with this visible effervescence of amateur activity, professionals in the art world - artists, museums, produces, distributors - are considering what kind of space should be opened up to amateurs. The question can take more or less radical forms. The moderate position consists of taking audiences' creative activities into account without questioning the clear separation between the artist - exhibited, published, commented on, sold - and the public. In this case, the idea is to draw on amateurs' activities to support the artist's work: by compiling concert videos, reserving space for fan art in museums and publications, encouraging active participation in artworks, etc. Another, more radical, position argues that the current trend is leading to the emergence of a world where we will all be artists after our own fashion and strives to take that position to its logical conclusion: if everyone is a creator, the very idea of what it means to be an artist should be called into question, as should the capacity of cultural experts such as museums, producers, and distributors to determine what has value. An intermediate position consists of considering the space to allow amateur creation and curation within institutions, alongside professional artists.

For artists, this debate once again evokes a decades-old question, which dates back at least to Duchamp, on the role of the public in a work's creation and existence/ Since the earliest days of digital, artists have taken full advantages of the possibilities offered by new media, such as interactive art and net art, to create works which bear the marks of actions by members of the public, and whose form and content depend entirely spectators and participants. While visual artists often use digital to create a space for public creativity, the same is less often true in cultural industries, where the public is generally reduced to commenting on the works produced. The same debate exists in cultural institutions like museums. While there are a wide range of approaches to encourage visitor participation, ideas which call into question professional expertise in selecting the works displayed or focus on non-professional artists remain occasional experiments. The creative effervescence of the internet remains largely outside the established boundaries of the worlds of art... But it may well be sneaking in through the windows, all the better to shake up existing hierarchies.


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Thierry Taboy
Thierry Taboy 13/12/2016 15:04:06

Le croisement de vos visions sur ce dossier nous conforte sur l'importance des ateliers terrain du DSF qui offrent partout en France et désormais à l'international l'occasion de développer les échanges, de confronter analyses, expériences et points de vue divers dans une dynamique collective et positive.

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