A face in the crowd will never create great art

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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The idea of funding unique and original work from internet canvassing ultimately compromises the concept, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Another week, another request for money that could: “make a dream come true” – the dream being a film about chessboxing which David Britton from Toronto, Canada, wants to complete. I don’t know Mr Britton and I had never heard of chessboxing before I received his e-mail with a link to a website, where there was a video and a puff piece about how great the documentary could be, explaining that it will transform our understanding of the new sport; a combination of brain and brawn.

Britton needs cash to get the film through production. We – you, me and the bloke next door – could be the answer. We can donate anything, from just less than a pound, to help him along.

This solicitation came via Kickstarter; a US based company that provides a platform for individuals to raise money through crowd funding. Funding by the crowd is the relatively new thing, a process of contributing not just money, but also content in some cases; Wikipedia is updated by self-selected contributors from all over the world and despite the grumbles about accuracy it is a pretty good starting point.

Of course, crowdsourcing is not completely new. The Oxford English Dictionary has received information about language from the public for about 150 years. But, nonetheless, this method of raising money and contributing creative ideas is increasingly widespread and there are novel aspects to the approach that we should note – as well as question.

Jeff Howe, an editor at Wired magazine and Mark Robinson, the features editor, coined the term “crowdsourcing”, after noticing that businesses were using the internet to outsource work to individuals. Howe commented, as far back as 2006: “Smart companies in industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television discover ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.” He understood that technology had dramatically increased the ability to reach out to people.

Crowdsourcing sites, including “Kickstarter”, “Indiegogo”, and “Crowdfunder”, have since sprung up for the arts, design, business, even politics. They showcase projects for art, fashion, film, technology, and writing, for which creators need money. Those involved with the project choose a deadline, the minimum amount they need, and off they go, counting every penny. The models differ. Some offer good feelings in exchange. Others offer a say in the design, content, and a financial return if successful. And there are success stories. A number have not only raised the money required, but received critical acclaim. The Pebble watch, a smart watch, was funded via Kickstarter, raising over $10 million in one month after it failed to secure investment from traditional sources. Two short documentaries: Sun Come Up and Incident in New Baghdad were each nominated for an Academy Award.

One aspect that is new is the soliciting of contributions from a large group of people, especially from an online community, rather than from traditional funders, advisors, or employees. It means that instead of going to the usual people, you go out and reach an undefined group. There are great benefits in doing so. In this economic climate with funding cuts and limited pots of money, being able to reach to massive amount of people who you do not know, with little expense and in no time at all, is incredibly useful. It could make all the difference to realising an idea.

But there are also limitations. Namely, the projects are realised through the minor contribution of disparate individuals in a short space of time. Depositing a pound or two can be done so quickly and easily the support is likely to be ephemeral. The relationship is too transitory to build anything long term and is not the way to cultivate a group of supporters, or to forge a community of interested people who will get behind your next project, or stand by you if you fail.

It is likely that the projects that will be successful are those that are easy and predicable, the ideas that please the eye without an argument. Any that are not fashionable, or that don’t catch the zeitgeist, are likely to be overlooked. These kind of initiatives need long-term backing from funders who are known and will take a risk with you. It is no way to fund the experimental, difficult work which requires a visionary who can spot what no one else can see. As a consequence, the filmmaker or author in search for money could take the easy route and go for what they think the masses want, omitting that which they think could be off-putting.

It’s not just the breakthroughs in technology that has enabled crowdsourcing. It’s a change in attitude towards the public as well as a shift in the idea of the author or editor. Crowdsourcing has the appearance of involving more people than ever before, and thus has been spoken of in the language of democracy. There is the occasional pretence that the author or creator is less important. For example, the artist Gillian Wearing is currently creating a film in which she has invited the public to contribute. Your Views will include films that people have made of their curtains or blinds opening to reveal their view, which she will incorporate into her final art work. It is spoken of as an inclusive and participatory piece of work. But is it?

Take the idea of this work (as it’s not finished) and compare it to the past when public art served a clear purpose – to celebrate achievements or commemorate great individuals. Then it was rooted in a community or interest group and represented a body of opinion. Wearing’s work, for all the talk of inclusion and participation, reduces us to individuals that are simply consulted.

The crowd isn’t a community. It’s a collection of anonymous people connected for a brief moment in a transitory project in which they ultimately have little say. Besides, when it comes to art, at least, it is most successful where there is one creator. If we want good art, crowdsourcing is not the answer.