Big Artist, Small Artist, False Dichotomies and the Nuance of It All

An assortment of thoughts inspired by the latest Discourse from the position of someone who is boringly a midcareer, midleveled artist. A Mid Artist, if you will.

1.

Last week, Discourse happened. Oh no, not again. Yes, again. This time, people are talking about the struggles of the “Small” Artist in contention with the “Big” Artist. And I use these quotes intentionally (rather than the ironic way I normally employ “” on my blog), because of issues with the mindset/definition of terms that I will soon elaborate on.

Anyway, the Discourse spun out of control because some people are venting their frustrations as “Small” Artists, positioning “Big” Artists as entitled, ungrateful or selfish for NOT performing certain behaviours. My first encounter of last week’s iteration of the Discourse was in the accusatory form of ‘Big Artists who only like Small Artists’ art but don’t retweet it, why don’t you?’. Then it spiraled into ‘I liked and commented on this Big Artist’s work but they never responded and that makes me upset’, ‘Big Artists should always RT Small Artists cos of Algorithm’, ‘Big Artists should etc etc’…

2.

“Small” and “Big” in the Discourse here is defined by size of a person’s follower count, which is believed to be directly proportional to their amount of prestige, access to Algorithmic Success and even wealth. Sometimes, even power. In addition to follower count, size is also measured by the number of likes or retweets that person obtains from their posting.

Even then, the definition is based on a vague, malleable metric. A moving goalpost. At what point do you stop becoming a “Small” Artist? When you reach 5k followers? 10k? If you subscribe to the 1000 True Fans theory, then a following of 1k is enough to consider you a “Big” Artist. But on Instagram or Twitter, 1k is small potatoes. Peanuts.

Still, regardless of whatever the Magical Number is that makes you evolve into a stronger Pokemon, must that come with regulation of how one should behave as a “Big” Artist? Who determines that? What is the expected behaviour? What is the difference between the behaviour of a “Big” Artist versus a “Small” Artist? Should there be a difference at all?

This is where the quotes “” become necessary: everything about this Discourse, and even the intellectual reasoning that led to the creation of the terms “Big” & “Small” Artists is oriented around the culture of social media, fandom politics and parasociality. These are very Online terms that only make sense if you truly believe

  • that the numbers given to you by mainstream social media are real and correlate to actual, significant, concrete impact on your career. Note: there is some nuance to this.
  • that numbers are units that can be purely earned as a result of Virtue (whether that’s talent, effort, beauty or moral performance) and cannot become meaningless from things like bot farms, bought followers, dead accounts, the passage of time, and Algorithmic tweaking.
  • that the Algorithm is a natural, immutable phenomenon that can be understood and gamified, and not an artificial illusion constructed by corporate capital.
  • that interacting with a popular figure (a stranger) with a mass following means you’re owed a response… or a bigger response.

3.

With Discourse, there is pushback. The opposition tends to counter with resigned explanations. They say, sometimes someone with a big follower count or plenty of career opportunities (these two are not mutually inclusive) may not respond because they happen to be busy or overwhelmed or offline. Or they treat their social media like a portfolio, so they have to selectively retweet. And besides, why do you feel owed to an interaction – whether a comment, a RT or a like, especially if this person is not your actual friend? That’s weird.

4.

There is one counterpoint that stood out to me. It’s this Twitter thread that led me to making this post. Not because of the counterpoint, but some of the responses to it.

if you’re wondering why people aren’t helping you as a smaller artist by not sharing your work or whatever else – try helping other people first and then watch all that come back to you, plus you’ll feel better being proactive instead of feeling down on yourself/others

it just makes me a bit sad that people would look at others as a means to get ahead rather than cultivate a real relationship and ask for help or whatever – if you see a larger artist liking all your work, try reaching out, clearly they like you and might be able to offer advice

(…)

the worst thing you can do is push back on basic normal advice with I tried helping people and it doesn’t work, it’s not supposed to “work”, it’s just a way of leaving a positive impact on your community. It’s not a transaction. If you think it is you will not ultimately be great

if you think that likes/retweets is you actively helping, it is to some extent if you have a large following, but to me that’s essentially thoughts & prayers. Talk to people, make discord groups, study communities, art challenges, real legitimate relationships with peers

also, I say this as someone who offered free advice for years, kept daily study groups and critiqued people with paint overs and organized challenges, etc for free – don’t do it with some expectation that someone owes you, just give back when you can – it does come back to you

– Dave Rapoza (@DaveRapoza) May 2 2024

5.

As Dave’s Twitter thread hints, some people have responded to him by telling him it’s not worth it. That they have been trying, but it never comes back. So they give up and will only contribute if they start getting a metrical reward for interactions with their creative community.

The entire Discourse surprised me with just how transactional some people are with their social approach to their supposed creative community. It’s an attitude I have previously noticed in comics as well, but not in the form of the “Small” / “Big” Artist. Instead it comes in the form of ‘We need a comics union. Where is it? I don’t want to organise, but I want to join one that is already organised. Also I don’t want to participate unless the union already has provied all of these benefits for me’. Essentially, people express a desire for labour solidarity, but don’t want to either organise or participate in an effort unless the benefits already exist for them to take, without understanding that in order for those benefits to exist, they need to actually help sow the seeds.

Anyway,

I understand the frustrations of people who are emerging artists, who feel powerless as social media collapses and they are at a loss of how to break into the industry. Any action they throw at comes back with what they perceive as a dull thud. These anxietes are valid, of course.

But discriminating the people you will work with into distinct adversarial categories such as “Big” or “Small”, and flattening your peers into units of networking whose value is determined by unstable artificial metrics… is unhealthy and detrimental to how you position yourself as a creator – if the stink of it doesn’t drive people away already.

You have to understand that in this space right now, you’re simultaneously existing in multiple polarities: Emerging, Midcareer and Elder. You will always be an unknown somewhere, you may become or already are known, and someday, maybe today, you will be a role model or mentor to someone younger. These polarities form a spectrum that moves backwards and forwards depending on where you are and who you are. “Big” or Small” has no place in this spectrum: it only restricts your ability to conceptualise modes of existing as an artist. It also locks out visions of success that do not hinge on what the early 2020s Anglocentric Online Algorithm decides is worth becoming viral. And finally, the “Big” and “Small” mentality stops you from recognising the people on your level, your cohort: the people with similar levels of craft and follower count who you will mature with.

6.

There is no such thing as “Big” or “Small” Artists – these are your peers at different, asychronised stages of their professional or hobbyist journey, all of whom are realising their growth in differing circumstances.

Numbers should never correlate to the value of other people or even your own self or work. In fact, the reality is that numbers don’t mean much at all if you’re assessing it on how reliable it is to produce success as an outcome. A successful artist can have 500 followers and be swimming in client work, and another can have 100k followers and not have wealth or opportunities (I know these two types).

Or you can be a so-called middling midcareer artist like I am: 20 to 30k followers on Tumblr and Twitter, 6k on Instagram, with 20 to 100 likes on average across all my social medias, barely a household name in the public (because I am currently not involved in a Banned Book scandal nor do I trade in trendy topics) but with some amount of recognition amongst my peers due to my community work, some award nominations, few moments of virality and more moments of posting into the Void, sales that are not blockbuster but enough to sustain me and whoever publishes me, and most importantly… all of this is allowing me to create the comics I want to create, make impactful contributions to the community and connect with peers globally to bring my beloved medium up. All in all, I am doing okay for myself.

In other words, it’s very difficult to determine the shape or trajectory or value of anyone’s artistry simply by metrics alone. You have to determine the journey and take agency of it, wrest it away from dependence of social media numbers/culture and onto something more whole and long-term. Yes, it’s not easy either to come up with an independent vision of your art journey – especially if there’s this particular framework already available -, but c’mon now, it’s 2024. The Internet is changing drastically, social media is crumbling, the bubble of hype hustle culture is deflating: sooner or later, that framework will break. It already is breaking.

This is going to be mean of me to say, but if you actually love and respect your medium, and actually want community, if you believe in labour solidarity, then you need to act like you seriously believe it. That means rejecting or questioning the premises of attitudes that undermine your connection with your peers.

If you still subscribe to the propaganda that Algorithm means Value, then you will be stuck with the mentality of a “Small” Artist, regardless of whether you make it to the top. Even then, I don’t think the mentality can last for very long once you get to that level. In the end you still have to destroy the C-Suite Corporate Hustlegrind Board of Directors in your mind that tells you your peers are competition and that a thing/person’s value is based on Numbers Go Up or how many hinges in the ladder you can cross by exploiting them.

So what will it be then?

Hello, hello

    • Ren
    • May 5, 2024
    Reply

    This blog post FUCKS ❤️‍❤️‍❤️‍❤️‍❤️‍

  1. Reply

    Thank you Reimena for diving into the Discourse so that those of us (me) who aren’t on these platforms can know what’s all the hubbub, lol.

    I think for some of these “Small” artists, making their homes on social media has stripped them of the ability to speak to their peers in a non-preformative setting. Since completely deleting my presence off of Twitter over a year ago, I have been learning how to reach out directly to other artists, my peers and friends, through email (!!), reading their blog posts and newsletters (if they have them) and commenting if there is a comment section or referencing back to them in my own publications, and talking with them in private chats and on forums. I’ve been even mailing out postcards and letters just as friendly greeting and to keep in touch, because nothing hits like sending and receiving snail mail 🙂

    Dave really hit it on the head when he said likes and retweet/blogs are like “thoughts and prayers.” They are the empty calories of communication; they take little to no effort and have little to no meaning in the end. All retweets are eventually lost to the algorithm.

    • Reply

      The Discourse comes to me whether I like it or not lol – this is the curse of still keeping that channel open just so I can get that hot goss.

      Yeah that’s true too – if they haven’t experienced an alternative or older way of existing on the Internet, they wouldn’t know that the Algorithm is a fickle construction. It’s simply reality to them. Shadows on the walls. I can sympathise with that, though I worry how that would affect the way they communicate with their peers once they break into the industry and start interacting with others in professional and casual settings where social media dynamics are not relevant. I cannot imagine having the imaginary “Big” or “Small” marker on someone’s head will make connecting with other artists any more honest. I can only hope that by expanding their conception of what constitutes success through meeting people of different ways of being an artist, that it will break them out of this rigid mindset and stop relying on templates for how to interact.

      That’s so nice and I am really glad you’re able to seek out alternative modes of connection! I hope to be able to do this more once my brainspace opens up. My lurker tendencies are still very strong though, RIP.

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.

Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur

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