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Five Obstacles That App Artists Face

Luxuria Superbia (Tale of Tales, 2013)

An opportunity presents itself now for a new kind of art, an art that takes the Minotaur of our times, the internet, by the horns and twists it back in on itself. What we need are more app artists.

Art is hard. It's hard to do. And when it's done right, it's hard to fully appreciate. You have to work at it. Most original art is initially met with indifference, if not revilement. Of the two, indifference is the most common reaction and the hardest to stomach. At least scorn is a reaction, however nerve-rattling it might be. It's something to work from, to work against.

One lament about indifference is that it leaves the feedback circuit between audience and artist untriggered. Being ignored gets the artist no closer to knowing whether the art fails to connect because it's too "out there" or merely because it sucks.

Actually, when you think about it, there's something worse than these two extremes: mild interest. It's the tease of interest that quickly dissipates within the noise of other distractions. Unfortunately for artists, mild interest is the prevailing state of attention in the age of the internet.

Paul Mason wrote recently in The Guardian that information wants to be free. By design, all communication on the internet gets flattened into the commodity that is information. Mason is optimistic that this abundance of information, whose production costs continue a relentless march toward zero, is leading us to a "postcapitalist" utopia. In an ostensibly "postcapitalist" society that enjoys an abundance of cheap content, the artist, as a professional, becomes the canary in the economic coal mine.

Art has always been what Steven Levitt famously called a "tournament economy". Many must sacrifice so that a few may achieve exultation. But in the internet age, where all content -- reduced to packets of 0s and 1s -- wants to be free, artists are forced to contend with the twin pressures of increased competition and decreased opportunities to make a living.

Ours is a snowflake culture where we're all special, where we all have something beautiful to share with the world. Ours is also a culture where we, as consumers, insist on getting something for nothing. Into this scarcity masquerading as abundance, the artist must commit not only to a medium, but also to a means of acquiring a paying audience.

David Byrne opined in the New York Times that musicians, as artists, are by default entrepreneurs. He calls for transparency in the pricing of music streaming services, which have increasingly come to take the lion's share of revenue as musicians hustle to peddle their bared souls on the open market. Similar problems face artists across the spectrum of media.

Amidst all this turmoil, an opportunity presents itself for a new kind of art, an art that takes the Minotaur of our times, the internet, by the horns and twists it back in on itself. What we need are more app artists.

As far as I can tell, though, there are at least five obstacles facing app artists. These five obstacles (each one formidable in its own right) explain in part why there are so few artists working within the medium of the app. The obstacles are not exclusive to app art, but their confluence makes doing apps as art all the more fraught.

Obstacle 1: App artists must master an array of skills, among them are: coding, graphic design, writing, and, perhaps most importantly, self-promotion. These artists must be polymaths. App art strains the plausibility of the lone artist wrestling in her atelier with the eternal truths. App production, whether artistic or commercial, is becoming increasingly a team effort, with all the compromises that inevitably emerge from such collaborations.

Obstacle 2: There's no clear market for app art, nor a tradition of app art patronage. For the app artist struggling to find an audience willing to pay for the privilege of experiencing her art, the three major funding blocs feel equally as unsavory: the rich, the mob, and the Ivory Tower.

Let's face it. There's nothing more repugnant than the one percent clamoring to outbid each other in a vulgar display to appropriate the prestige of, say, a famous Impressionist work. The fact that some status-hungry bourgeoisie would pay millions for the right to hang a Van Gogh in his 15th bedroom is not only an affront to the stark realities of the artist's actual life, but also to any sensibility that aspires beyond an ethos of winner-take-all. But for the rich, it's much harder to fetishize an app -- all ethereal electrons -- than the dusty heft of an oil painting.

The mob, while not as vulgar in its outsized avarice as the rich, is just as fickle. There's nothing more terrifying to most app artists, I'll wager, than the prospect of having to cater to the crazy of 1,000 "true fans".

Lastly, we have academia. Even if some MFA in app art existed, which as far as I know doesn't, there's no reason to expect that the forces that produce the mediocrity that is academic creative writing wouldn't also have the same effect on app art. The MFA cultural complex is, after all, a highbrow Ponzi scheme meant to fleece neophytes in our snowflake culture who pine for a winning ticket to the Powerball lottery that is professional artistic success. In some respects, it's a blessing in disguise that no such fine arts programs in app-making exist. What remains is the dignity, however gladiatorial, of the market.

Obstacle 3: Art consumers are lemmings. No one is really an early adopter. When it comes to the new, we all take a "wait and see" attitude. This quote from the behavioral economist Dan Ariely elegantly sums up this phenomenon:

Think about the Mona Lisa. Why is this portrait so beautiful, and why is the woman’s smile mysterious? Can you discern the technique and talent it took for Leonardo da Vinci to create it? For most of us the painting is beautiful, and the smile mysterious, because we are told it is so. In the absence of expertise or perfect information, we look for social cues to help us figure out how much we are, or should be, impressed, and our expectations take care of the rest.

Any artist committed to originality cannot but be depressed by this sociological fact.

Obstacle 4: App art lacks a critical framework. There are, as of yet, no app art critics working to define excellence in the medium. Because of Obstacle 3, app art desperately needs arbiters of good and bad taste, experts who can tell the mob what it should like. At the risk of coming off as an egomaniac, I'll pull a Vasco Núñez de Balboa here, wade out in full armor into the proverbial Pacific and proclaim myself the World's First App Art Critic.

Obstacle 5: This one is perhaps the most daunting and is also related to the first obstacle. App artists must confront and tame the overwhelming plasticity of the medium. It is visual, tactile, textual, dynamic, interactive, and perhaps most intriguingly, distributed. So much is possible with apps. And there's so much yet to be said about the app and its place in our ever more digitally-mediated culture.

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