Needles in haystacks still shine


If you were born in a more distant decade of the 20th century, then you might have grown up with the sense that creative effort is not fully formed until it is printed, made into a record, hung in a gallery, or screened in a cinema. Until the advent of the ‘personal computer’ (a charmingly archaic term) it was difficult to create print that looked professional: in other words, like something you’d read in a book.

This created a mythic place in the imagination – a portal guarded by shadowy gatekeepers who could bless creativity with a validated state.

Only once work had passed through their cabbalistic hands was it transfigured. Until this happened, people could only desire the title of their craft: painter, actor, poet. For a writer, typesetters and printers worked with hot metal and ink, the alchemy for their particular validation. You couldn’t do this sort of thing on your own, even with a typewriter.

It’s said that creators are solely creators, and need someone to help their work find an audience (or – hushed tones here – sell it). I was sitting in a café not long ago overhearing a meeting between a couple of artists and someone who was going to market their work. The artists’ meek attempts to get a better deal were berated, having tied themselves to particularly harsh terms, and to my mind, were being fed upon.

And yet, creating is a process that doesn’t always sit happily with articulation, seeing opportunities, finding an audience. To be ‘validated’, in the way we inherited from pre-digital ways of doing things, someone has to pick the work out and take it through the portal. It needs tremendous drive, confidence, energy – and time. Lots of time.

Before the internet, we couldn’t see all the creativity and talent going on behind closed doors in village, town or city. We relied on what we were given by the papers, the library, two or three TV channels, the radio and galleries. It created a perception that these outlets brought the artists into being: other creators were forever ordinary.

There was a column for photographers in The Guardian recently, where unremarkable photos were transfigured by dubious text articulating their value for us. But with the internet we have easy access to any number of ‘unvalidated’ talents and can see that photography is no longer a mysterious skill. There are so many questions about how we respond to art here, and what it is, that I’m entering a viper’s nest. But any image, any work, must speak with its own voice.

Ability to create is within all of us, and there are far more people out there who do it, and do it well. Does it matter if photographers become ten-for-a-penny? Or if there are hundreds of female singer-songwriters with a love for Victorian fiction, electric guitars and a mandolin? Only that less people can earn a living from it.

We’re told that the world is now fluid, that there aren’t any boxes to contain anymore. Creativity cannot be fenced off as the preserve of a few – ideas, songs, images, paintings all flow fast as spilled water.

It’s a massive democratisation of the ‘validation’ process in art and artistry. Industries once needed to create things in a professional manner are being swept away, replaced by a few buttons that will make ideas just as perfectly manifest. If you weren’t born into this technology then it can take longer to realise what has happened.

I’m not suggesting the old punk take on art of anyone-can-do-it. It’s the idea that gatekeepers aren’t needed to validate all the work going on. They are still there, with an ability to articulate and sell, but their words create an illusion of visibility, respect and quality.

Music festivals let us discover bands that might exist in a tiny bubble, and yet through their artwork, web spaces and so on, they can create a world of the imagination for us to connect with. It’s barely making a living for them, but their art has been given form, and can equal the visions of any marketing machine that surrounds bands with a huge corporation behind them. A reviewer telling me it is good or not is now an irrelevance.

Thousands can flock to an event, directed by the gatekeepers, and twitter their attendance to their peers. But is it a more valid experience than following the grandmother taking pictures for the first time and posting them on the internet? Isn’t art about interpreting the world and our lives, and reaching out and making connections?

If her photos make us stop, think, or see something anew, then isn’t she validated already? And it is these voices that are the most beautiful: existing without concern for peer pressure or trend, or appropriation by a tribe.


5 thoughts on “Needles in haystacks still shine

  1. Yes I’m in two minds here – I applaud the democratisation of art and ‘marketing’ by digital means which open it up to everyone. However I do also think there is a place for criticism and for experts in all fields including art. There is also a role for making quality judgements. There is a danger in thinking anyone can do anything which tends to devalue those who have more to offer in qualitative terms as well as experience or ‘craft’ learnt over many years.

    • Absolutely Diana – and it’s a hard topic to express and I know my argument is fairly riddled with contradictions! I tried to make sure that I put it’s not about the punk anyone-can-do-it approach. I firmly believe in know-rules-to-break-rules etc…

      I do think if a piece of work has impact and speaks without direction of the viewer’s thought to reach those conclusions (the kind of thing which reminds me of ugly sisters and the ill-fitting slipper) then talent wins through, as it always will. And great copy alongside a piece of work might convince followers of trends but not those who have sweated at the processes of creation.

      I’m thinking of how the gatekeepers to this vague notion of validation are, particularly now, more about marketing than ‘quality control’. I did put in this paragraph which I left out:

      “If you didn’t have a creative background, then anyone who grew up through the 70s could still benefit from some truly mind-opening publishing or broadcasting. There might have been gatekeepers, but there were also a lot of things commissioned or created simply because someone liked it or believed in it. There wasn’t a need to take the rough edges off anything by mangling it through a focus group or a committee.”

      Partly my argument stems from a sense that marketing in any discipline leaps upon artistry and then creates niche definitions – in order to create a profile of a target audience. And these are our modern gatekeepers.

      As an example, I think of the tag ‘new naturalists’. Before you know it the whole thing results in an upmarket theme park mentality, with organic venison to takeaway instead of a Macdonald’s… and in whatever discipline this happens in, some true craftspeople get lost in the undertow. ‘Newness is all’ as they used to say in marketing departments…

      I think I probably failed in my post which was really that artists need not be at the mercy of companies willing to invest money in marketing them. In the 20th century, I think the quality of ‘expert’ was more concerned with making the market fit or letting the art find a home. Now it is making the product fit the market, and we lose a lot in that. The rest is the equally old-hat realisation that individuals can create a workable presence for their music, books, or paintings without needing the patronisation of an organisation to make their work manifest – which in previous decades stopped a lot of creativity happening in the first place.

      Long-winded, but your comment demands that respect!

  2. A beautiful post, which I don’t think failed in any way at all… As I read it, I loved the way you held things in balance, allowing all those enmeshed complexities and tensions to emerge organically in your exploration. And I loved that main gleaming thread through it all (the glint of those needles in the haystack) celebrating the beauty of the authentic voice/ vision/ talent – and the truth it speaks to us which, in itself, is its own validation.

    Sometimes the gatekeepers are not facilitators – as you say, they are not always focussed on the work or on providing a space to let it breathe for what it is. There’s an unwillingness to take a chance to experiment, or to throw something out there because it adds another gleaming facet to the whole complex face of art. Often the focus is on a narrow, proven market and just the turnover of more of the same.

    The questions and arguments about value, what is true art etc. is, as you say, like entering a viper’s nest. But your point about so much that is of real beauty and value – the photographer grandmother etc. whose work, in the past, would have remained hidden and ignored – and the chances now to develop talent, to rise to the surface and break out beyond the gatekeeper constraints, is a crucial one I think. Even then, the value can be undervalued. In the case of the band of the brother of a friend of mine (they played the gigs, sold their album and band t-shirts to what seemed to be quite a following, have a MySpace page etc) I’d often end up wondering, “Why that band on TV – and not theirs?” In my judgement, I couldn’t see that there was any difference in talent level. Who judges what band gets on TV? Is getting past the gatekeeper too often about marketability – being of the “right” tribe – rather than about innate quality?

    Sometimes the gatekeepers and critics are wonderful, with a discernment and engaging talent of searing insight, coupled with hard won experience and knowledge. Sometimes, I read stuff by professional critics and can’t help comparing them unfavourably against the wonderful, erudite and engaging reviews I’ve read on blogs or online discussion forums. There are many amateurs out there who have also earned their (unacknowledged) stripes; who have the expertise and insight, but never had the break, or the chance to follow that path in the past. It’s wonderful to see those needles in the haystack shine now. (Sorry for the long ramble!)

    P.S. I love the images you’ve blended so well with the post…

  3. thewitchspromise

    I feel what the internet done is remove censorship by middle men. The world is much more exciting now, anyone can publish their thoughts, feelings, art. We don’t need stuffy judgements anymore, the young publish away to their heart’s content. The making of money by art is another whole area though, the internet has changed that too. Musicians must literally sing (live) for their supper. Some of what the gate keepers decide is alright for me to read is decidedly awful and maybe not what I want at all. I sometimes thing authors must have slept with their agents or publishers to have got their scrappy words or plots into print. I take a tired view of the world, I know, but I find the new freedom inspiring and massively rebellious. Bring it on!

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