VH1’s Pop Up Video helped me discover how much more interesting the background trivia can be, often more interesting than the art itself. If you look at a painting in a gallery, you’re looking at it at the most simple level. It’s paint. On a canvas. It’s of a woman. She has black hair. Whereas the same painting, looked at by an art historian might know that the painting is notable for being the first time the artist experimented with mixed media. Or maybe it was the last painting the artist did before their untimely death. Or maybe the painting got them banned from the Vatican. Same painting, but now far more interesting. The art is the work, but the context provides essential flavour.

For all the time people spend rhapsodising about the beauty of the early web, you’d think it was an infinite canvas of cool people sharing cool things, where everywhere you looked was another rabbit hole of amazing works of art to appreciate on any level you want, either superficial or at a deep craft level. I’ve been online since the 80s, and I was one of those strange people doing internet things. With respect to my fellow greybeards, I think they’re misremembering things, and I think they’re ignoring how rich today’s experience is. Today you can find an artist’s work, support them on Patreon, follow their newsletter, chat with them on social media, find a Discord channel of like-minded people, and do it all with a simple Google login. Back then we didn’t have micropayments, we didn’t have person chat servers anyone could spin up with no tech background, we didn’t have nearly infinite and nearly free internet hosting, there was no concept of single sign-on, and let’s be honest, the art and code sucked. It sucked hard. Like, you couldn’t resize a browser window without making Netscape Navigator 4.7 reload the entire page. If you were lucky. More often it would crash, which would crash your Mac, because Mac OS X hadn’t come out yet. It sucked. Now is better.

But a funny thing happened with that VH1 context. On one hand, we’ve entered into a world where most creative people think they can get by with a Link Tree. You go to artist’s name dot com and it’s like “Hi. Find me on IG, Patreon, and Discord. Ok, bye.” And that’s their website! Obviously some people put a little more oomph into it, by putting a portfolio up, or an about page. But a lot of artists plugged into the big companies, and I don’t blame them at all. Why bang your head against the wall with CSS/HTML if you can just use a theme? Why try to figure out how to host an email newsletter product when you can just use one? Creative people went down the list and outsourced all the boring grunt work to other companies, which was The Right Answer as far as I’m concerned. And the tradeoff was going to be More Time You Get To Spend On Your Art, and — you think I’m going to say they didn’t, but surprise! They did! — we have never had more high quality YouTube content, high quality newsletters, high quality artists on Bandcamp, freaking everything. The artists showed up and shared their talents with the web, and we’re all benefiting from it. LFG.

But, see, now I’m finding my tastes shifting as a result. It’s not hard for me to find The Best Prestige TV and The Best Illustrations I’ve Ever Seen and The Best Indie Soundcloud Rap and so forth. I’ve got all the glossy, polished, high quality, best thing ever, blow your socks off content, paired with the perfect social media posts and the perfect Patreon gift tiers and Reels for days. I’ve got it, in more than enough quantity. Even the stuff that’s not polish is Not Polished in the most perfect way, so I can pour it straight into my life with no bitter aftertaste. It’s all operating at a really high level, even the low level stuff. Everything is aiming towards the ideal version of itself.

I want to talk about backstage stuff. Like, as a forcing function, let’s say I died this week. I’m an artist, and proud of it. So what would I want people to know about and see? Increasingly, I want to give people a tour of the metaphorical woodworking studio more than I want to give them perfect, I don’t know, wood candlestick holders.

Let me be more specific. I have this long-running series of fantasy stories I’ve done for years with my kids. There are a lot of characters involved, worlds, plots, different things I’ve poked at through my writing. Do I want people to go read them? Eh, if they want. I think I’d rather share about the work, in a non-linear way. A lot of the work doesn’t even work in a linear, front-to-back way. Increasingly the in-canon lore is this side thing over here, or the web app I used to do this side thing, or the behind-the-scenes video for how I made it. That’s the really fun stuff to both create and consume, from where I sit.

Or what about my made-up band, that goes on a made-up tour with made-up songs and playlists? The product itself is fine. But my impassioned explanation of why the heck anyone would do this is a lot more entertaining, in my view.

If I died this week, I’d want to call out five of my best projects, not to get people to care about them directly, but to just be aware that they exist. Not to read them front to back, but to read the premise, maybe skim a bit of it, think “huh, that’s an interesting idea,” and get on with their lives. Some people would want to dive in deeper, and they’d discover a lot too. But all art is received at a skimming level first. Why not make the skimming level the main event? What if you wrote a song with the sole intention to make a VH1 pop up video that you knew would be more entertaining than the work itself?

I’ve had an art show concept for about 20 years. Imagine a gallery with 10 pieces of art, each a solid colour on a small canvas. So you’d see a canvas of red beside a canvas of blue beside a canvas of forest green. Boring, right? But then beside each lonely and low-effort piece of art would be a ten foot tall wall of text. An explainer for the art. And I’d go out of my way to make the “artspeak” as impossible to read as I could. You know the style I’m talking about. Like “This is an exploration of the duality of man when faced with existential, postmodern dread in an ever-increasingly blah blah blah.” You know, bullshit. It would be a gallery of bullshit art speak, and the central point of the exhibit would be to point out how banal and self important artspeak is. At least, that’s what I used to think. I used to think it was a parody of pretentious art. I used to think that’s what I wanted to say. But what if I reversed it?

What if, instead of making the words purposely silly, I wrote something real on those walls of text? What if, after chuckling at the simplicity of the simple squares of colour, you turned your head upwards and the writing could actually make an impact on you? What if I could find a way to help people see the beauty of the artist’s intent when spoken clearly, apart from the artistic artefact itself? What if I could take people backstage, have a real conversation with them, person to person, that stood alone from the figurative show that happens on the stage itself? For me, the backstage chat is better than the show it’s enabling. If I died tomorrow, I’d want people to understand the intent more than I’d want them scratching their heads at the simple canvases themselves.