Paint By Number Culture

Walking in any shop by the magazine aisle now feels like a Philip K Dick novel. I see magazines featuring people with mentions of going-ons in their life: a new baby, an argument with a spouse, a disruption of lifestyle. While these events are important to the person experiencing them, they matter little to a stranger. All these people on the magazines are strangers– I have no idea who they are, what they do and why I should care. Sometimes I feel as if I have slipped into an alternate universe where things are a bit different, such as Dewey defeated Truman or Buddy Holly is alive. I feel like a character in a Philip K Dick novel wondering how I ended up here and if I’ll need a canister of Ubik.

I wonder who these people are and why they are famous or important. No one– even adoring fans– can tell me why.

Ultimately it seems they are famous for being famous.

In the BBC documentary Synth Britannia, part covered the rise of Gary Numan and his first breakaway hits. Gary Numan is as pop as they come, albeit a bit odd sometimes but still pop. Other electronic pop musicians were astounded as even in the same scene and location they had never heard of Numan. His music striked a few people, who told a few others, and soon he was on Top of the Pops in the UK performing. This is not the process today. I have no illusions that culture was driven by much more than sales in the past, but things are different. Rather than an artist’s ‘work’ attracting the attention of people, its just the artist. The son or daughter of a pop star, wrestler, or whatever is the commodity, not the work. The ‘work’ is added later– dubbed in, greenscreened, and composited as an afterthought. The usual formula for fame today consists of staring on a reality TV show such as American Idol or The Bachelor. From there it is up to the producers, investors, and executives to mold the person into whatever they think can bring a profit. Perhaps they consider themselves artists, crafting the pale facades dubbed the celebrity.

I believe the celebrity is not art, its rudimentary mimicry or “Paint by Number.” Paint by Number, a once popular activity but by no means obscure, provided a canvas with predefined areas labeled by number. The owner of the kit could then fill in the shapes by following the directions. Few Paint by Number enthusiasts would call themselves artists as they were simply following a predefined set of metrics. Something similar happens with marketing and ad sales people: there is a set of definitions which are then executed. Like any system of finite input there will be only finite output: much like paint by number or computer programming. Garbage in, garbage out.

The reduction of creativity seemingly spans across all forms of culture: music, movies, books– everything. As Jason Kottke noted, only one of the top twenty highest grossing movies in the 2000’s was an original screenplay not adapted from elsewhere: Finding Nemo.

The rest were made by combing attributes geared towards profit. Take the Transformers franchise for example: take a popular toy, add a dash of explosionporn from Michael Bay, toss in a healthy portion of a sexy actress stir and taste the blockbuster. Oh, and a plot, well, that can just be kinda fudged in later. If I made soup like Hollywood makes movies I would simply add some of my favorite foods (say gin martini, salmon, curry, green tea ice cream, spicy brown mustard, and jalapenos) in a large pot and expect it to taste delicious. Somehow I don’t think gin, ice cream, spicy brown mustard and jalapenos go well.

The result is culture products with carefully chosen content (Vampires, LOLcats, superheros, Twitter, ’80s retro) commodified into a package then distributed by a chosen ‘famous’ person who meets a similar set of trending buzzword statistical attributes. This is how a stock broker works, not an artist. We all know how successful those stock brokers are these days.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to finish something for Simon Cowell where he’s a vampire LOLcat superhero that uses Twitter in the ’80s.

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