Art Doesn't Have to be Viral

First published on .

The promise of the internet is one of instant fame, and if you play your cards right, fortune that can literally take you to the starsSee the recent SpaceX launch funded by the internet fortune of Elon Musk. Of course the reality is that the fame is short, fleeting, and hard to catch β€” the fortune even harder.

Art in the internet age wants to be instantly famous. Artists look for high traffic places for their photos, art, poems, and novels along with the monetary hook β€” song is on Spotify, like and subscribe for more content, or my personal favorite


Whatever your medium, the internet provides unparalleled tools to self-publish. Youtube, Instagram, and Twitter all allow you to build your following and have algorithms that may one day smile upon you. The muse of old has become an algorithm, but they are no longer a personal muse, unique to every artist but a single impersonal algorithm β€” trading the strict demands of absolute beauty for the shifting sands of popularity.It is certainly true that good and beautiful things are often popular but it is also false that all popular things are good and beautiful.

It is not all bad - not even close

The internet has also given us unparalleled tools for creation. In my computer or even my iPhone I have limitless tools for creation. There is paid and free software for typsetting, drawing, photo editing, design, and writing. Less than a century ago many of these things required entire rooms of equipment and years of experience β€” now they sit at our fingertips.

And as impossible as it may be to strike it viral, the internet allows us to pretty reliably communicate with our community β€” now not limited to a single place. Odds are good that if you’re reading this you are friends with me, related to me, or at least acquainted with me.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece reflecting on the 55 books I sold in 2019. In some ways that number disappointed me β€” I would have loved to make it big writing poetry β€” or at the very least, break even on the money I had spent on the project. But art does not need to be viral, in fact it is better if it is not.

Art is better if its not viral

Viral art must appeal to all people everywhere, a task that is always difficult. But art that has to appeal to everyone also loses its punch. It is hard to critique, nuance, or issue a call to action that will appeal to everyone. More importantly as artist Makoto Fujimura articulates in Culture Care β€” great art is written in and for specific communitiesSee particularly Chapters 2-4 of Culture Care and artists are often on the border of these communitiesFujimura uses the anglosaxon term mearcstapasm or border-walkers, to describe artists, seeing the world and their culture from a very specific, relational point of view.

Perhaps in this internet age all our art should be created with the people we know in mind. Hand crafted websites for the person we love, cinematic family videos of the

, a beautifully designed family cookbook that will only ever sell 10 copies, or a thousand other small projects made to cultivate our communities into better places; to make our friends smile, laugh, or cry; or to make our small connected worlds into a better world.

And maybe if we create art like that, we’ll realize that art was always supposed to do just that.

Art helps us to see our neighbor

Art has great power to change the way we think about the people around us. As C.S. Lewis said:

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.C.S. Lewis, An Experiment on Criticism

And in our current era of divisive polarization, where it becomes more and more clear that we do not see our neighbor, the temptation of a silver bullet β€” a piece of art that will transcend all our disagreements and cause everyone to see one another for who we really are β€” becomes even more appealing. But that temptation ignores the fact that real change has always happened in communities β€” communities in an incredibly small relational sense. If you want to understand and love your neighbor better you have to get to know him or her directly. You have to put aside what you want out of a situation and listen like a friend, even when you think you disagree.

Justice and beauty are connected.Culture Care, 68. Art shows us the world as it is, and points out where it is not as it ought to be. A viral video, a picture with a million likes on Instagram, or the next popular summer blockbuster (whether it is read or watched) will not change my life or your life. Only relationships can do that. And art that facilitates relationships, conversations, growth, and reconciliation must start by being close, immediate, and connected to us and those we love or are learning to love.

Works Cited

Fujimura, Makoto. Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life. Intervarsity Press. Print.

Other things to read

  • Another
    Without another eye / to move my gaze from where it rests / I would not see the little things; / my words could not astonish me.
  • A Cold Encounter
    A poem by D.S. Chapman
  • A Benediction on Marriage
    A wedding poem by D.S. Chapman


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