Why do we judge creative decisions as simply good or bad?
Examining her decade long experience in the creative industry, Yumna Al-Arashi questions where our relationship to judge creatives as “good” or “bad” stems from, and where we could collectively go next.
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Our world is experiencing a long-needed reckoning with its morals and values. Having survived for this long in the creative industry, a sector which more often than not runs on the exploitation of both its workers and consumers, I propose we ask why the dichotomy between good and bad could exist in this world on such simple terms. This is not a 12-step guide to being a better creative. Instead, I suggest we face this volatile moment head-on and begin to answer difficult questions to establish new growth.
The perverse distinction between good and bad rests comfortably in places like religion, the law and, of course, politics. These institutions create fictions which provide the tools we have used to build civilizations, guiding our movements and opinions for millennia. With the rise of capitalism, neoliberalism, our relentless societal addiction to social media, and good ol’ Hollywood, the creative industry sits atop a throne, floating in the ether of our modern-day Vatican City. In effect, it is our new religion, our politics, our home. We strive to follow what it says, we listen when it speaks, we buy, we cancel, and we create gods and demons out of those whose livelihoods are financed by advertising to us.
How did we get here? There are many places one could start to speculate from, but I believe it makes the most sense to start with the image. I’m not just talking about photography; rather, I want us to focus on the image at large, the images we project of ourselves as creatives, the images we deliver to advertise products and the images which change worlds.
I often think of imagery to be more powerful than language – it supersedes borders and cultural differences. I’d offer an image of Jesus on a cross and, though most have different relationships to it, we can usually agree on the image and the power behind the man it depicts. I think of Alan Kurdi, the image of whom forced our world to reckon with the horrors of an ongoing migration crisis. As an American citizen, I think of the almost-daily images of brutality at the hands of our military and police forces both nationally and abroad. Growing up in a post-9/11 America, as a young Arab person, I think of the power which drew me to becoming a photographer in the first place. I wanted my images to save the worlds which other images destroyed.
As most of us know, social media is changing our brains. Social media platforms often give creatives clout, a clever strategy to keep our dopamine levels high, our attention engaged, and thus, spreading the addiction even further. We are addicted to creating, because we receive an unlimited amount of praise for the work we share. Agencies and production companies scour these platforms for “up-and-coming” creatives to cash in on the rise of these engagement magnets. Creatives, often without realising it, are creating free content which in turn keeps social media platforms alive and running.
I sometimes catch myself staring at peers with their heads slumped over, scrolling through a never-ending stream of images and wonder: Do we even know what we’re consuming anymore? Is the image so powerful that a split-second scroll past one could influence us to buy a product? To tug at our emotions? To sway our votes? I am frightened by our lack of critical thought, lack of boundaries for which images enter our consciousness, lack of time to reflect. I’ve found that my peers involved in the creation of this noise also tend to be the ones consuming it the most as well.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to challenge myself and delete my social media accounts. I saw this strange time as an opportunity, albeit difficult, to challenge my normal way of living. I wanted to step outside the routine, the noise, and the constant engagement to really tune in and see what it is that I want, who it is that I am, without the creative world consuming me at all times of the day.
I felt nervous that I would become irrelevant; an anxiety that my work would have no ground if I was not actively feeding a machine which gives feelings of worthiness based on likes and follower counts. Outside of my own practice, I wondered how much my non-consensual attention to celebrity culture consumed my time and how my comparison to others had become detrimental. I wondered if I was doing enough about the current crises of our world if I didn’t engage and share my opinions online. I even wondered how my friendships would exist without social media.
To my surprise, the first and most powerful difference I noted was a weakened desire to buy things. My mind became clearer and I felt my attention to present moments grow. Creatively, I have been able to challenge myself, my process became slower, more researched, less rushed.
The question of good vs bad in creativity is a conundrum creatives have discussed for decades. The First Things First manifesto, a call for visual communicators to challenge their contributions to an increasingly commercial culture, first signed by 22 people in 1964, and renewed by 33 in 2000, saw its signees dedicate themselves to putting creative work to meaningful use. In 1967 French Marxist theorist, philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord touched on similar themes in writing Society of the Spectacle. Theorising the driving force of capitalism, he proposed that “just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.”
Almost 60 years after the writings of these texts, it seems the powers of our economic reliance on capitalism have only become stronger. Though the answers are not yet clear, I feel comfort knowing that these solidarities among creatives have existed for so long. The structures that uphold our current economic ideologies are more than powerful, and collectively, they form the labour practices, economies, trade routes, and industries which have shaped our modern world. Change seems attainable, but my fear lies heavy in the way we as creatives believe individuals can change it on their own.
The truth is, creatives are at the lower end of this economic chain, although our egos might sometimes like to think otherwise. I do not believe for one second that by refusing a job with a corporation you disagree with (are there any you truly do agree with?), you will bring the monster to its knees. Maybe you’ll get a few re-tweets for your brave act, maybe you’ll feel morally superior for a flicker of time. But at the end of the day, your job is replaceable. There will always be someone else willing to do it. In fact, the act of disengaging with, saying no to, or outright speaking about the problem (hello) is a privilege. I cannot judge my fellow creative for taking a job with a problematic institution when I know she is struggling to pay her rent.
At this moment, fostering long-term change requires time, money and freedom. In our modern world, these things are privileges one cannot afford by simply disengaging at all times. We need new methods. I cannot and should not blame the individual for an institutional problem. I can, however, critically engage the ways in which the institutions and platforms uphold the problems I am most concerned with. Coco Fusco writes: “Equity won’t be achieved by a new biennial, another emerging artist of colour survey, or a record auction sale by a Black artist. And while justice and equity may be goals for a democratic political culture, they have never been the principles that drive the most powerful patrons and artists of the art world.” Although she speaks specifically about the art world, I believe the same applies to the creative industries in general. I am horrified by the immense amount of judgement passed, anger spewed, cancel-happy noise I see tearing us apart from the truly important work. This is not growth, this will never be productive. We must stop.
I also ask us to use our free will to read, learn and think critically. Let us collectively investigate the spaces in which we spend most of our time. Who is really benefiting from your time on social media? What creative agencies are behind the work you produce and what supply chains are these agencies connected to? Bill McKibbon has investigated creative agency connections to problematic fossil fuel campaigns, and the slow but sure divestment these agencies are realising they must take to survive from here. Taking note, I beg of us to ask the questions that can allow us to each find the ways in which we can help cultivate change and come together to share it with one another. The problems our world currently faces are unmoved and exploited for engagement in the echo chamber of a social feed. I beg us to reclaim our space, our time and our attention. I ask us to remember the always-brilliant words of Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So, ask yourselves, how will you and your community move forward from here?
I do not have all the answers, and that’s okay. What I can do is share the things which have helped me to begin to think differently about this world we live in and our role within it. The soil is ready for seeds, the landscapes will change fast and we must be able to move forward productively rather than collectively repeating the same old mistakes. The stakes are far too high to ignore any longer.
The words of Yvonne Ranier’s 1965 “No Manifesto,” ring strongly in my ears, and in honour of creating maps and standing strong in one’s values for change, I have made my own and encourage you to do the same.
No to celebrity culture.
No to bad.
No to good.
No to fashion.
No to online activism as enough.
No to comparison.
No to the trance of scrolling.
No to complacency.
No to spectacle.
No to ignorance of data exploitation.
No to waste of time.
No to the other.
No to hate.
No to projections of pain.
No to saviour syndrome.
No to obsession.
No to corporate activism.
No to noise.