We’re living in an age of fandom.
Not that we ever didn’t, because as humans it’s in our nature — for better or worse — to look to examples, something that (eventually, owing to the exponential growth mass media, through the advances in technology, experienced) turned into the phenomenon of fandom as we understand it today.
It’s accurate to say, by someone who knows very little about sociology and psychology beyond intuition and common sense, that they’re all rooted in this same human behavior, and so following celebrities on Twitter is fundamentally no different from the circle of followers of Homer or Plato, and the narrow topic of this article — fan-art and fan-fiction — is similarly an expression in the same way people treated the works of great artists for centuries, or the works from these now revered figures themselves (Shakespeare, for one, is particularly (in)famous for taking existing material and creating his own version of them that we now define as the cornerstones of English literature).
While we’re at it, our whole “celebrity-following culture”, including those that are considered “cool” (by whatever standard) and look down on “geeks” is the very same mechanism.
Not to mention the passion (read: fandom) we have for our families, professions, and basically anything we’re emotionally invested in.
So, in a way, we’re all nerds of this world.
Fandom is nothing new, but our relationship to it very much is.
While stemming from the same sociological/psychological roots (or perhaps because we only have accurate data we can evaluate that spans a fraction of the time this behavior existed), today’s perception of fandom comes in a variety of flavors, many of them not flattering.
This Venn-diagram (and, just to further demonstrate just how perception of fandom turned to the extreme, there was a time when knowing what it’s called by itself was a license to yell ‘Neeeerd!’, both literally and figuratively) that has been on the Internet for a long while (I got this one from Alan Irwin) and was used to define these three subsets.
Even with a much more nuanced approach, such as the following one from A Little Off Blog (by way of Tumblr) it still represents a ‘class’ of ‘outcasts’, compared to society in general. (Not to mention the association with mental dysfunctions, yikes!)
I talk about this because, derogatory as these approaches may be, they represent an important phase that we’ve moved away from by today, but still linger around.
I’m a geek, a nerd, a dork, and a fan in general (and proud of it!)
To me, and to a lot of people today, these labels are a source of pride, a flag of honor. We took them, in a very Zen-like way, and started to own them.
I’m obsessed with Marvel’s Iron Man, worship Joss Whedon and all his work (Firefly in particular), I’m in love with the words of Shakespeare, and a lot of other things.
At the end of the day, these words simply describe a certain pre-disposition or perceptional configuration, rather than identification with a community. Moreover, by going forward and readily accepting these originally derogatory terms showed that we’re not above of laughing at ourselves.
But we’ll be damned if we let others laugh at us.
Fans rule the world
As I said, we’re living in the age of fandom.
Today’s society is increasingly shaped, built, and lead by the very people who, just until a handful of years ago, were considered to be on the fringes of societal norms.
The irony, right? Or is it karmic retribution?
In any case, in my own limited perspective, I consider two major events that started this paradigm shift.
- The internet, and the rise of technology
I do think this particular angle is self-explanatory and in any case a conversation not suited within the confines and focus of this article.
Suffice to say that as technology became (and keep becoming) ubiquitous, not only people became more and more able (and used to) connecting with each other more easily, but the number and variety of platforms on which they’re now able to express themselves are itself worthy of many, many articles.
2. Fan culture entering mainstream
This is the part I’d like to discuss a bit further because it’s the one more related to my topic.
It’s somewhat unavoidable that my aforementioned predisposition would lend itself to such a statement, but even taking that out of the equation as much as possible, the 2008 release of Iron Man (and thus the unprecedented, seemingly unstoppable success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) marks the final turning point of the previously highly fragmented and highly isolated (again, from the perspective of society in general) becoming not only successful, but explosively influential and culturally important.
(Plus, you didn’t think you could get away without at least one Iron Man gif, did you? :-) Credit for the one above goes to a thread on SuperHeroHype, for I couldn’t locate the original. And yes, I know it’s from IM3.)
Of course there are a number of such occurrences, like Serenity (turning a “failed” TV-show into a major motion picture), the standout phenomenon of Star Wars, the universal success of Dr. Who (albeit for a long time limited to British audiences), the constant and un-judged success of manga and anime in Japan, and many others. Once again, I’m biased and nowhere near an expert on this topic other than being a part of it, so my sample quality is limited, and I’m writing this article, so back off and substitute examples from your own experience. ;-)
Fan culture became a driving force of pop culture.
Many of my alternative examples show a certain local quality, as in they were limited in scope, no matter if that scope happened to be larger than anything before.
That changed, however. And it’s a huge paradigm shift.
It was bound to happen, not only because of technology maturing to the point of being accessible enough to connect these pockets of fandom together, but also for the first generations that grew up reading comic books, speculative fiction literature, and watching movies like Star Wars to become adults with a say in how the world and its culture are steered and shaped.
What was written off as a childhood oddity became a cultural perspective that was passed down onto the next generations, which in turn was able to pass it down further as they have grown up. We’re now a number of generations removed from those first ones (I’m trying my hardest not to call them The Prophets — damnit! :-P ), and with each the number of such people grew, and the passion they passed on got stronger.
Rebels by any other name
Fan culture is still not “mainstream”, and by definition, it will never become mainstream either.
True, it has a significant influence on popular culture, no doubt about it, and acceptance statistics are growing in the right direction for a change. But by virtue of us fans being always more invested in our fandoms, it’ll always be at least a bit outside of what’s considered (whether articulated or unspoken) the norm.
And that’s alright.
What’s not alright, and in fact is almost barbaric when you examine it, is that being called a geek/nerd/dork still carries that original stigma. Kids (and an alarmingly increasing number of adults, too) are still getting bullied for their passions.
Which leads me to the original thought that sparked this article.
Fandom is a fragile treasure of humanity that has to be nurtured and protected
I came across a link on Facebook that struck me as offensive.
Okay, I’ll admit that the attempted humor did not get lost on me at first — and as long as we’re being honest, I also have to tell you that I’m ashamed of it.
I understand that art, elusive as it is to any attempt trying to define or normalize it (thankfully so), is inherently subjective, and easily lends itself to ridicule.
On the other hand, and this cannot be said enough times (if for nothing else because it seems to elude the understanding of many), art is personal.
It is personal to the extent that it equates attacking the art to attacking the artist.
In other words: you just don’t do it. Not ever.
There can be, and should be, discussions of art. There is science that is capable of creating such. Talent, in the sense people generally like to use it, is a simple spark, or in other words: a largely unquantifiable and subjective ‘thing’ that — depending on who you talk to — is either a mystical quality or a source for never-ending abuse (in case it’s perceived to be lacking.)
For me, and for the purposes of this discussion here, talent is perseverance at learning the craft of the art form that turns that spark into an expression.
I’m an artist, in the sense of that I have ideas (many, many ideas) that I, with painstaking work, turn into words and sentences, which in turn — hopefully — end up telling a story. I’m a writer, that’s my art. My talent, the way I see it, and the talent of anyone is not so much about how well we’re able to express ourselves, but about the level of insistence we muster in order not to quit.
That, by itself, should be reason enough to stop ourselves from posting things like The Poke did above.
Said article, however, goes one level beyond this, and becomes even more damaging — not just for these artists, but for the perception of fan-art itself.
Fan-art is an expression of passion
Then consider this. By the fact that fan-art is not created by professional artists (or those who aspire and work toward such), it comes from an overwhelming desire to express one’s passion.
They don’t do it for money, or for fame. They do it because they love the subject matter.
And as such the attack on the art not only becomes an attack on the artist (which is, as I detailed above, bad enough) — it becomes an attack on their passion, and in essence insulting them on perhaps the most fundamental level there is.
That is unacceptable.
It’s a cheap shot and a cheap trick in order to get more likes, shares, and drive higher advertising revenue.
There’s a different variant of this. Buzzfeed posts their listicles with:
- a clear byline to identify the author — something The Poke didn’t do;
- clear credit to the originals — something The Poke kind of did, by way of a three-letter parenthetical wedged between the last image and their paid content listings in small font, and not even a mention of a name;
- the clear understanding of the culture, and the respect with which they approach it, even if the subject is humorous, and the material is criticized — something The Poke didn’t get across in its two lines of original content within the entire article.
So there’s a clear difference in both journalistic integrity (and standards) and assumable intent, even if the format of their articles seem superficially the same at first glance.
What The Poke did, let’s call a spade a spade, is called upscaling bullying.
They took a piece of — by nature offensive — content created by someone else (best I could track, an Imgur user named shynodaluvor08) and gave it a megaphone to boost their revenue.
So there are faults on many levels, but let’s focus on just one for now, and go back to the original.
Is there such a thing as bad fan-art?
From the title of the article, my answer to this question is an obvious and resounding ‘NO’.
You can’t fault art that wasn’t created as such.
What you do, instead of providing valuable feedback for the process of the artist becoming better, is you’re insulting people’s passions. And you simply don’t get to do that.
That passion is what may very well be the most positive thing people will ever have (and desperately need) in their lives.
(As a quick sidenote, this is also one of the reasons why sanctions against fan-art from copyright grounds not only despicable but counterintuitive to the business model that is, in fact, fueled by this passion. It’s a much larger discussion of course, and my statement is limited to those who publish and distribute their works for no monetary gain, but a point not raised enough.)
Not only are you hurting the people at that very moment, you provide a perpetual discouragement for both them and anyone else who — as a precursor to their own venture into creativity — view these fan-arts.
(Credit for this image goes to Buzzfeed. Which article, case in point, can be a checklist for anything we’re emotionally attached to, not just colloquially defined ‘fandoms’. Again, because it’s true: we’re all nerds, in our own ways and in our own topics.)
This message is equally for The Poke, shynodaluvor08 on Imgur, and everyone else who think a cheap laugh is worth the possibility of crushing someone’s passion (that, psychologically speaking, can even lead to medical complications such as depression, since that enormous amount of positive energy, through its outlet, becomes infected with negativity), and that can even go as far as preventing someone else (who has the ‘talent’ — colloquially speaking, as in: the ability to make art that is professional quality — to satisfy your arbitrary understanding of art quality) to get started.
We need to look into ourselves, and try to be better at how we treat each other.
Cover image from Alan Irwin.