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A Moment of Reflection: On the Paradox of Individual Creative Work

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2020

After producing over 220 art history videos in 6 years, YouTube channel The Art Assignment is going to take an extended break to “reassess what educational art content should look like in 2020 and beyond”. In the video above, creator Sarah Urist Green reflects on her experience so far and what’s happening next. I’m always interested in what people have to say about their projects at inflection points like this, but I was blindsided by the almost total resonance of Green’s remarks with my own thoughts about the advantages & limitations of how I’ve chosen to work here at kottke.org. Here’s an extended quote from the transcript of the particularly resonant bit:

I don’t actually enjoy being on camera, but individual authentic voices have always been at the core of what makes YouTube great. And I’ve been glad to be able to lend my own voice in the hopes of making art and art history more accessible.

Over time I’ve learned to appreciate the specificity of my own point of view — but also its limitations. I’m a person who’s more interested in art from the 1960s than the 1560s. I have a deeper background in art from North America than South America.

Making this channel has been a hugely rewarding way to stretch beyond my formal education and natural inclinations. But any channel on YouTube, and indeed any experience, is shaped by bias and perspective — both the content itself and the way that each of us interprets and responds to it. The fact that my voice sounds grating to some and comforting to others is a reminder of that.

I’ve also learned that these biases are often reinforced by the recommendation algorithms that govern the platforms we frequent. Whether we want to or not, we citizens of the internet work in collaboration with these algorithms to curate information feeds for ourselves. And even if our feeds feel objective, they never are.

The Art Assignment isn’t, and has never been, the history of art or an introduction to the art world. It’s always been my history of art and a glimpse into my art world. I hope that’s been part of what makes it good, but it’s also part of what makes it limited, subjective, and necessarily incomplete.

The more videos we make, the more aware I am of the vast amount we haven’t covered. Trying to make content on this platform that is both educational and also clickable can be a challenging task with many pitfalls.

We’ve used what I think of as a buckshot technique — making a huge variety of kinds and formats of episodes to see what might possibly stick.

In doing so, we’ve discovered that more people click on names of art movements they’ve already heard of, artworks they’ve seen before, and already famous artists (mostly male).

More people watch when I do a hot take about those rare moments when art hits the wider news, like a Banksy stunt or a banana duct-taped to a wall.

I’ve also learned what YouTube viewers are less likely to click on, which is artists they’ve never heard of, artworks they haven’t seen before, and topics that don’t court controversy or outrage. This says something about the YouTube algorithm, but it also says something about what kinds of information we’re all drawn to online. Who wants to watch an educational video when you can watch The Try Guys eat 400 dumplings? (Seriously, I just watched it, it’s great.)

But because I know what tends to get clicked on more and watched for longer stretches, I’ve been more likely to try to serve that to you. Not all the time of course, but even when served in moderation that’s not really good for art history. It reinforces dominant narratives and offers up the same boring old menu of famous artists again and again.

However, I’ve also learned that you all are willing to dive down lesser-known and unexpected rabbit holes of research and bear with me as I simultaneously cook poorly and attempt to understand the eating and cooking lives of artists. You’ve taught me you’re willing to reconsider art and artists you didn’t think you liked, and you’ve tried approaches to art that are far outside of your comfort zones and made beautiful and vulnerable work in response. You’ve tackled really difficult questions with me and been willing to linger in grey zones and leave questions unanswered. I mean we’ve never even established a definition of art on this channel.

Because of your capacity for the abstract and lesser-known, we’ve been able to keep going all these years. And, with the incomparable backing of PBS, we’ve been able to make content not just for the most people, but for an open-minded and discerning audience like you.

I can’t adequately relate to you how unnerving it was for me to hear her say all that — change a few specific references and I very easily could have written it (but not as well). Doing kottke.org is this constant battle with myself: staying in my comfort zone vs. finding opportunities for growth, posting what I like or find interesting vs. attempting to suss out what “the reader” might want, celebrating the popular vs. highlighting the obscure, balancing the desire to define what it is I do here vs. appreciating that no one really knows (myself included), posting clickable things vs. important things I know will be unpopular, protecting myself against criticism vs. accepting it as a gift, deciding when to provoke & challenge vs. when to comfort & entertain, feeling like this is frivolous vs. knowing this site is important to me & others, being right vs. accepting I’ll make mistakes, and saying something vs. letting the content and its creators speak for themselves.

I know that all sounds super dramatic — I don’t intensely feel all of that when I’m working, but that video made me reflect on it hard. And I suspect that many people who do creative work in public struggle in similar ways. Like Green with respect to PBS, I am grateful to kottke.org’s members (“an open-minded and discerning audience” if there ever was one) for their support of my work and trust in the limited & imperfect human who does it.