Art, Consumerism, and Pandering to the Audience

This isn’t a post about pop culture. I want to make that clear, because I don’t want to get bogged down in debates over the things that I’m about to cite. My point is a larger one about writing, and the creation of art, and what impact the consumer public should have on the artist. I’m tired of the expectation that creators should always be pandering to the audience.

I’ve seen some reviews of the new Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker. One repeated criticism is that it panders to a particularly vocal corner of fandom, those who were especially critical of the previous movie. Rather than continuing along the lines of the last episode, this one backtracks. It minimizes or outright retcons characters and events that some people didn’t like. The film seems designed to please, rather than to be a logical continuation of the story that was already in progress. The problem they’re solving for is box office dollars.

Martin Scorsese is still catching hell for comparing Marvel Studios movies to theme park rides. Rather than pausing to understand what he meant, or to see how he was defining cinema, fans of those films rushed to be offended. When someone who’s been making movies for over 50 years expresses an opinion, I’m at least curious to what he has to say. He has the bona fides. It’s sad that his views were dismissed with an offhand “okay boomer” because people took it personally that he doesn’t like the same things they like.

In my own day job writing and publishing, the most frequent criticism is that I don’t do things like everyone else does them. It’s about process over content. To meet an expectation for presentation is more important, it seems, than being useful, or entertaining, or even objectively good. Conformity is what matters, moreso than any other sort of merit. Yet even on a purely commercial level, “more of same” gets killed by the law of diminishing returns.

Art, Consumerism, and Pandering to the Audience

Fun is good. I like fun. The purpose of life, though, isn’t to be entertained 24/7/365. There is also no entitlement to get our way all of the time. In fact, I would argue that one of the purposes of art is to challenge us. Whether it’s film, or writing, or games, art should present at least a little bit of content that requires us to engage critical thinking skills. Showing people and situations other than those we’re already familiar with builds empathy and compassion. Trying different things, breaking away from the established standards, is how innovation happens.

When the problem you’re solving for is making money, I understand the desire to pander. It makes people feel heard, at the very least. For some it makes them feel powerful, because their complaints caused a creator, or even a corporation, to bend to their will. That’s an awful way to make art. If the effort is made to create something good, that is useful or entertaining or both, then it will find an audience.

Writing a novel is a messy process. That’s why I’m doing it. I could be playing video games, or binge watching television shows, or doing something that was more fun for less effort. After a while, pop culture simply isn’t edifying. It’s all surface. There is rarely any emotional depth, no true explorations of complex ideas. I’m not saying that it doesn’t have its place. I do think that the net effect of pandering to the audience, over time, has been destructive. We now have a culture that values the easy to grasp. Sameness and familiarity are virtues. All in the service of an emotional immaturity, a sense of privilege, and a need for art to do nothing other than make us feel good.

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