No One Wants You to Become an (App) Artist

by Sean Miller

25 August 2015

So where can we exiled life-of-the-minders, expunged from the academic system as waste, take our once-cloistered but now liberated creativity?
Generate (Hybridity Media, 2015) 

Former Yale professor and author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz, wrote an essay for the latest issue of Harper’s called “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold Its Soul to the Market”. It’s a thoroughly damning portrait of the corporatization of higher education in America. But to be honest, nothing new here. Puritanical preachers have been railing against the insidious creep of Mammon-worship since the inception of our fair colonies.

It’s also nothing especially new for those of us who are refugees from academia. As Marc Bousquet has so elegantly put it, when you’re “expunged from a system as waste”, one benefit is a heightened capacity to sniff out the bullshit emanating from said system.

So where can we exiled life-of-the-minders, expunged from the academic system as waste, take our once-cloistered but now liberated creativity?
  
There’s an ad in wide circulation these days on Hulu for a computer maker hoping to sell a few laptops to kids heading off to college. In the ad, our young hero goes into a box store and tells the salesperson that he’s looking for a laptop that’ll do double duty. It needs both to support his studies and to further his startup, which apparently is designing vintage race cars. Deresiewicz would undoubtedly see the irony in this portrayal of career-hedging, oblivious as it is to the nobler purposes of a liberal arts education. For the purists, American colleges and universities are officially now part and parcel of the American Prosperity Gospel.

One paragraph from Deresiewicz’s essay jumps out in this regard:

“Creativity”, meanwhile is basically a business concept, aligned with the other clichés that have come to us from the management schools by way of Silicon Valley: “disruption”, “innovation”, “transformation”. “Creativity” is not about becoming an artist. No one wants you to become an artist. It’s about devising “innovative” products, services, and techniques—“solutions”, which imply that you already know the problem. “Creativity” means design thinking, in the terms articulated by the writer Amy Whitaker, not art thinking: getting from A to a predetermined B, not engaging in an open-ended exploratory process in the course of which you discover the B.

In a recent post, I invited app artists to write me about their work. I was happy to get responses from a number of them. In the coming months, I’ll be featuring a few of those artists and their apps.

But I want to take the opportunity now to clarify one point of confusion. I’m afraid the distinction between an app that’s art and one that’s artsy may be lost on some developers, much in the same way that, following Deresiewicz, creativity has become a business concept rather than a cri de coeur, or at the very least, an exhortation to épater la bourgeoisie.

For apps that are artsy, what drives the maker from “A to a predetermined B” is the desire to please. While giving pleasure is certainly a crucial part of any art, surely it cannot be its principle reason for being. Two standouts help exemplify the difference between art and artsy.

Moonbots Studios touts their Moonbeeps as “beautifully simple apps” that offer “play and exploration for kids”. That sounds endearing enough. But as the parent of a four-year old, I must admit that I’m wary of the entire tech-for-kids genre. Call us Luddites, but my wife and I have taken pains to limit our daughter’s exposure to digital media. We’d much prefer her to run, draw, build, playact, or garden—to interact with tangible things and people in the world. She’ll have plenty of opportunity to become a Snapchat junkie when she’s a teen.

Moonbots Studios suggested that I have a look at a recent effort called Fireflies. Here’s the product description:

Fireflies were the staple of our childhood. We loved playing and exploring with our jar of new friends. Now that many of us live in the city, we miss those little guys lighting up our nights. We wanted to create a fun app so that anyone, especially our kids and little friends, could catch fireflies.

I invited my daughter to play Fireflies on the family iPad. The white-gloved prompts that hint at how to interact with the app were lost on her. It’s funny what we assume when we’re adults that symbols that are obvious to us are also universal. It may have to do with her general software illiteracy. But, let me tell you, in spite of our rationing of media, she’s picked up alarmingly quickly the iPad’s vocabulary of gestics, the swipes and taps that let you navigate its environment.

I resisted the urge to intervene—to show her how to work the app. But eventually there arrived a crisis point where I either had to show her—to unscrew the jar lid to release the firefly humming around inside—or she’d abandon the whole enterprise. Once she got the hang of the app, though, it took her all of three minutes to get bored.

Don’t get me wrong. Fireflies has a lovely, thoughtful design. There’s a soothing soundtrack by The Polyphonic Spree. As you move along a path with a gracefully receding horizon, you’re blanketed by looming trees of purple foliage. Fireflies spiral in and out of view below a starry sky. You tap a firefly and it drifts into the jar. When you’ve collected to your heart’s content, you swipe to unscrew the jar and set them free.

Fireflies is more than nostalgic. It’s lyrical. But therein lies the rub. Consider the inspiration, that “fireflies were a staple of our childhood”. Now that “many of us live in the city, we miss those little guys”, which prompts the question: who is this app really for?

Kids who grow up in the city don’t miss fireflies, since they’ve never experienced them. What Fireflies offers these city kids (like my daughter) is what Jean Baudrillard has famously called a “simulacrum”, an imitation with no origin. And, frankly, that’s just sad. I’m not quite ready to willingly expose my daughter at her tender age to the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the hyperreal.

Another app with artistic ambitions that never makes it beyond artsy is Generate, by Hybridity Media. Generate emerged from the inaugural class of New Inc, the “first museum-led incubator”. The museum in question is the New Museum in New York City. New Inc advertises itself as “a shared workspace and professional development program designed to support creative practitioners working in the areas of art, technology, and design”. By appropriating the term “incubator” from Silicon Valley startup culture, New Inc also would seem to be endorsing “creativity” as a business concept more than as an artistic imperative.

Here’s corroborating evidence: full-time membership in the incubator will set skint artists back US$600 a month. The incubator’s advisory council and benefactors come primarily from the Manhattan corporate elite, the same folks who probably have little compunction in driving up the auction price on a Rothko or giving a thumbs up to the cash purchase of a hybrid megayacht.

The app Generate is an audio-visual editor that “turns your mobile device into a digital media production studio”. Its copy confidently proclaims that the app is “revolutionizing the way we share and create moving images on our devices today”. Apparently, Hybridity Media has also bought into the Silicon Valley penchant for irony-free hyperbole.

In effect, Generate has you upload or capture photos or video. You then impose on your digital compositions filters with names like “Prism”, “Pop”, “Kaleido”, “Toon”, and “Pulp”. When you’re happy with your output, you share it with the Generate community in the app’s “Gallery”. The most interesting feature is called “Audioreact”. It lets you transform your video—say, of a plastic bag wafting over a heating grate—into Ibiza psychedelia. Whatever creativity users of the app long to express is rigidly defined by the constraints of its editing tools. I recommend that when the startup founders court VCs for a Series A round they pitch the app as “Instagram for club kids”.

What do you think distinguishes art from artsy?

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