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Don't Call My Art "Content."

The World Doesn't Need More Content. It Needs More Art.

By Oliver DahlPublished 2 years ago 13 min read
Photo by Oliver Dahl

I am a photographer. A writer. A creator. An artist. But don't even think about calling me a "content creator."

I think our words have power. The way we refer to things can have an impact on how we think about and value them. (Which is probably why your mom wouldn't like it if you called her "woman.")

It's not that being called a "content creator" is inaccurate or untrue. Even if I am a "content creator," it's not a label that I want to be called. As cringey as I think that title is, what seems even worse to me is when my work itself is referred to as "content."

Like... go ahead and just call my beautiful result of time, talent, effort, and practice "intellectual property." Reduce my art into a commodity that simply fills real estate on a social media feed. It's just fluffy spacers between ads, after all.

This relationship between art and content has been on my mind for a long time. (Like... literally years.) This week I took some time to try to articulate my thoughts on the matter: identifying some problems and solutions, and the benefits that come by asserting artistry over content creation. Leading up to writing this, I discovered that more and more people are thinking about this issue as well.

The Devaluation of Art

While I'm writing this through the lens of my own experience as a photographer and writer, I think my overall message is applicable to artists (and "content creators") of all mediums.

In the "age of Instagram," tens of millions of photos are posted every day. That's everything from infographics, people's lunch, cats, selfies, vacation photos, and everything in-between.

People talk about inflation and the devaluation of the dollar. With millions of photos posted to Instagram and other sites every day, it's easy to wonder if photos might be experiencing the same kind of devaluation. (The same concerns might apply to the blogosphere for writers or YouTube for videographers, or to the internet as a whole... because there is only ever more content added.)

But I don't think it's the sheer quantity of content that we have to blame for the "devaluation of art." (In fact, I think the growing quantity can even be seen as a good thing!) What's to blame is the way we look at, think about, and treat art on the internet. Platforms, creators, and audiences have increasingly come to see everything that is posted on feeds, boards, and inboxes as "content." And they may not be entirely wrong to do that.

Defining Art vs. Content

Before I dive in, it's important to remember that at the end of the day, labels, categories, and even words are ultimately made up. Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is cereal soup? These words and categories just aren't definitive, and neither are the ideas of "content" or "art." They're open to interpretation. This is just how I am choosing to look at it right now.

The way I see it, all art is technically "content," in the way that all people, places, and things are technically "nouns." At the same time, not all content is art. While the little graphic I made below seems to suggest a hard-and-fast line differentiating art from content, I don't think that's actually the case. It's probably more of a gradient/spectrum. (And the breakdown isn't to scale, either.)

All art might be considered content, but not all content can be considered art.

Just because it isn't incorrect to refer to art as content doesn't mean that we need to embrace the label. (To use our earlier example, your mom is a woman, but again... would probably prefer you call her "Mom" instead of "woman.")

The broader label of "content" is still useful as a sort of catch-all in which I would categorize things like most Amazon product photos, email newsletters, and Wikipedia entries. Content is often functional and provides some sort of commercial or practical value. Content is created to fill spaces and meet needs.* On the other hand, it is often also consumable, temporary, and commoditized.

*I think brands and "content creators" often mistake their own content calendars and posting schedules as spaces to fill and needs to meet, and make the mistake of creating empty content that doesn't actually fulfill a purpose outside of those self-imposed demands.

Defining art is a difficult undertaking (that I won't even try to attempt here!) but an important differentiator for me is the idea that it is generally a self-motivated means of self-expression. (Though making art for pay or commission in no way lessens its value!) Art goes beyond function and evokes emotion. It can still fit within the purpose of content, like filling a space--whether on gallery walls or Instagram feeds or in the pages of a book or website. But instead of art being created for a space, the space is generally created to accommodate or display the art. This idea becomes important as we look at the spaces online where art and content are shared.

The Medium (or Platform) Matters

How art is portrayed and received has a great deal to do with the artist and their choices, and maybe just as much to do with the space, medium, or platform in which the art is presented. I think platforms and brands are really the ones to blame for this devaluation of art as "content."

A short story published in a leather-bound collection may be no better than one buried in an online forum, but the medium matters. (That is, people not only judge books by their covers, but also by how they are functionally presented.)

This is one reason why I love prints and photo books so much--these mediums feel like the best way for someone to fully enjoy everything about a photo. The tactile paper textures and thoughtful sequencing makes it more of an experience than a brief distraction as you scroll through a timeline. The physicality of it makes you take the photos more seriously, consider them more openly, and notice the small details more easily. You might compare it to watching a film in a movie theater as opposed to on your phone. (Which is another good example of how the medium/presentation can affect how people enjoy the same piece of art.)

I think Vocal is a great example of a platform that values the "content" its users share every day. Instead of calling blogs like this one "posts" or "content," they're called "stories." It may seem like a small thing, but it shows me that Vocal cares about what is effectively its own lifeblood as a website. Yes, it needs "content" to be active and to rank in search engines and to be profitable. But more than that, Vocal needs stories and artistry in order to remain a relevant, valuable hub for discussion and culture. Vocal even emphasizes this priority by curating the best of these stories and directly paying their writers a small amount when they feature stories on the front page or on their social media channels.

Vocal's site structure and treatment of art struck me as a much better platform fit than Instagram or Twitter for sharing my first conceptual studio shoot, THANK YOU FOR THE LOVE. On Vocal, I could share more than 10 photos at once, accompany them with the longer amounts of text necessary to explain the concept's meaning in my artist statement, and could also include things like gifs and videos on a minimal, ad-free platform. I still shared a few photos from the series on other platforms, but only as a means of directing people to the full series, hosted here on Vocal. The amount of positive, thoughtful feedback I received about it has been unmatched.

Instagram Gets its Own Section

On the other hand, it seems like Instagram is built for "content." Despite its original identity as a photo-sharing site, it is no longer a platform truly conducive to sharing visual art. It crops photo uploads to specific ratios, (unlike Twitter, which just expanded its vertical crop preview size this month!) and compresses images to lower resolution files. Its algorithm often buries artists' posts beneath feeds full of influencers, feature pages, and ads every 3-4 organic posts. Engagement and growth are held for ransom... unless you create content for them on their latest feature, Instagram Reels. (Or if you pay to promote your posts in a way that treats them like ad content... sometimes just to get in front of the people who already chose to follow you because, oh yeah... they only ever show your posts to a fraction of those people to begin with.)

Instagram also rewards posting often--something I try to do... at the cost of burying my "old content" (work that I'm still immensely proud of and that I want to be frequently appreciated!) The fact of the matter is, as much as I would love for people to treat my Instagram profile like an art gallery, and wander aimlessly through endless hallways, enjoying years upon years of what I consider my best work... people just don't do that. After a few months--or even weeks--today's posts are virtually buried--never [or at least rarely] to be seen again. At the end of the day, Instagram isn't an art gallery or a photo book. It's built around serving content.

As one more example, I think YouTube and Spotify do a great job of treating their content in a more "evergreen" kind of way. (Where old content is still valued and circulated by their algorithms.) While they both help promote and encourage newer releases, they will often also actively recommend older videos and songs based on past user behavior and interests. (Instagram could never.)

Instagram's approach of emphasizing content over art has been extremely profitable for them--at the expense of smaller creators and businesses that they could help, but seem to exploit instead. (For example, if they really supported small businesses, they would allow swipe-up story links for accounts with fewer than 10,000 followers.)

Now, none of this is to say that art can't survive on Instagram--it absolutely can. I'm inspired every day by other photographers and the analog communities that post incredible work there.

(And I still plug along there, too.)

But for art to thrive, it needs to go beyond Instagram.

I'm not so traditional as to suggest prints, exhibitions, or photo books are the only ways to branch out--but even artist websites, online portfolios, or accompanying artist statements and blog posts can be impactful ways to present your work.

Remember how spaces are usually made to accommodate art, rather than the other way around? Go utilize those existing spaces and platforms for what they offer, but take the time to carve out places of your own, too--whatever that looks like.

These other mediums can allow your work to be enjoyed longer, appreciated more, and ultimately treated more like art than content.

The Role of Art in Content Creation

A part of helping art be properly valued is helping people recognize more art in what we would usually call content.

With this in mind, it feels important to re-emphasize the fact that the line between art and content isn't absolute. Trying to categorize every possible thing as either art or content is impossible--and more importantly, not the point. There are times when we treat our own art more like content, or feel pressured to create in order to satiate an algorithm with something short of our best work. And there are other instances where "content" is able to go above and beyond to become something more artistic. (And who am I to say that the graphic designer(s) behind the incessant Dominos Pizza emails aren't artists in their own right?)

There is a time and a place (and usually a paycheck!) for "creating content." But there is also room within content creation for making art.

I've done "content writing" for clothing brands and life insurance settlement companies. (So... about as dry as it gets!) And I've also taken photos for brands and local businesses. In each of these assignments, I was given creative freedom (within some appropriate constraints, as you might expect) and tried to add some amount of artistic flare. Whether that was a pun or some dry humor in the life insurance blog posts, or color grading my photo edits to match the company's brand colors, these little touches helped the "content" to succeed and lean a little bit closer to art on the spectrum. More importantly, I enjoyed myself in these creative processes and was happier with the end results--all while still fulfilling the original commercial purposes the content was designed to accomplish.

Regardless of what a brand's job description might say, they aren't really looking for a "content creator." Content creators are a dime a dozen, and the surge of influencer culture is proof of that. What brands really want... is an artist. Someone with a vision and a style that they want to associate themselves with.

Artists will answer the call for content by creating art instead.

Example: Product photography is a type of content that has seen a lot of artistic growth recently. Below is an example of a functional photo I would label as "content," followed by another example made by a friend that I would label as "art."

Whether you're creating for yourself or for brands, I think there's a real benefit in going above and beyond, and in associating yourself with that next level: creating art, not just content.

Make the Mental Shift

We might laugh at Subway calling their employees "Sandwich Artists," but let's think about that for a second.

Image via Feeldesain (10/10 would recommend)

Overstatement or not, I think there's something to be said for sandwich makers and "content creators" raising their expectations and setting their sights on the notion of artistry.

No more folded meat falling out the side of the sandwich, leaving the dry bread in the middle to sop up condiments and pickle juice. No more making empty, recycled content just to feed an algorithm and keep up appearances on a dying app. Let's dream a little bigger here!

Say it with me: "I am an artist!"

[Collective readership: (motivated and inspired) I am an artist!!]

I'm not sure I could've said it better myself--@theharveydean's testimonial here is about as good as it gets. Making that mental shift affects the way you approach your own work.

When you're an artist, you create for people, not just an algorithm. You don't just fill existing spaces, you create entirely new ones! When the Instagram algorithm seems invested in your downfall, you know that's only because they're treating your post like content, and that your like count is not a reflection of the value of your art. (Although believe me, if you still want to rant about Instagram, get in touch cause I'm happy to join you.)

So don't call me a content creator. And more than that, please don't call my art "content." Platforms and consumers may see it that way--but we don't have to. Let's move on. Let's evolve. Let's recognize our own and others' worth!

Cut those pesky "content creator" labels from your social media bios. Even if you don't feel like an artist, start telling yourself that you are one. Start thinking of your "content" as art. Start making it art. You are an artist.

Find ways to enjoy and savor art beyond the platforms that treat it like content. Support your local art museums and artists. Go to film festivals, commission painters and graphic designers, buy prints and books and concert tickets and tip your photographers. Life's better that way.

The world doesn't need more content. The world needs more art. And you're just the person the world needs to see it from.

- Oliver Dahl

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About the Creator

Oliver Dahl

Oliver Dahl is a published author and photographer from Boise, Idaho.

He currently studies marketing at Brigham Young University.


Instagram: @OliverWDahl

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