Sunday, January 9, 2022

flowers of the machine, part 3: gamelon of the floating world (II)

In case you missed our last episode (and I don't see how a 6000-word blog post about the evolving phenomenology of the art-object shouldn't be at the top of everyone's reading list), we're scrutinizing the techno-sociological paradigm which the Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab instantiates. Excogitations upon the trivial can sometimes illuminate more of our world than an enquiry into a grand figure or theme, and while I can't promise that will be the outcome here, maybe we'll get lucky.

For the ReAnimated Collab version, see here.


A decade ago we all assumed, or at least hoped, that the net would bring so many benefits to so many people that those unfortunates who weren't being paid for what they used to do would end up doing even better by finding new ways to get paid. You still hear that argument being made, as if people lived forever and can afford to wait an eternity to have the new source of wealth revealed to them.
—Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (2010)

Who makes art?

An unusual feature of the modern epoch is the new inequivalence between this question and the more generic "who makes things?". 

For the most part, ancient civilizations didn't assign sculpture or painting a loftier position in the hierarchy of handiwork than shoemaking or metallurgy. The people of classical Athens and Rome certainly appreciated statuary, but the upper crust disdained the men who made it. 

This attitude may strike us as odd: our conception of the artist still bears the imprint of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the Western bourgeoisie started revering the exceptional painter as a visionary prophet, and the humanistic cult of the beautiful moved in to fill the niche vacated by theistic religion. But the attitude of the Athenian and Roman upper classes toward artists was similar to that of the NPR liberal who loves his car, but doesn't consider the mechanic whom he pays to keep it running properly his social equal.

The particulars of the process by which a delineated artisan caste socially reproduced itself varied from culture to culture, epoch to epoch. Sometimes a son was expected to learn his father's trade; elsewhere, he was more likely to apprentice under another artisan of his father's vocation, or learn a separate craft so as to diversify the income of a multi-generational family household. But in most cases, the son of a craftsman could look forward to growing up to be a craftsman himself.¹

Trade schools did not exist in ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Learning a craft required an apprenticeship, and securing one depended on social networks. If a father earned a living performed a skilled manual trade, his son's career path might be a foregone conclusion. Conversely, an Athenian aristocrat of the fifth or fourth century BCE wouldn't think of paying for his son to learn how to make red figure pottery or chisel figures out of marble: he'd have little Neophytos drilled in writing, mathematics, grammar, rhetoric, and the other skills that marked somebody as highborn, intelligent, deserving of responsibility, and worth listening to. Again, think of the wealthy NPR liberal and how he'd react if his seventeen-year-old son told him, nah, let's not bother touring any campuses, I'll just get my associate's and be a plumber. 

Under these conditions, there was probably never a surplus of trained artisans without employment. Certainly there were periods of booms and busts corresponding to the vicissitudes of politics, wars, pandemics and famines, etc., but provided the local economy purred along, we wouldn't see crowds of metalworkers or sculptors wandering the city, visiting workshops, and shouting over each other to convince the master artisan to give them wage jobs. We'd be even less likely to see a young painter giving away for free (or for "exposure") the wood panel portraits he made in his spare time after putting in a long day at the quarry or harvesting barley.

The situation of visual artists (and of visual art) in Early Modern Europe was in many respects not very different from how they fared in the ancient world. To live as a career painter, sculptor, stained glass artist, etc. still began with an apprenticeship, and entailed self-employment as a seeker of patrons and commissions. The guilds established during the medieval period still controlled the various trades across Europe; as a working craftsman, the artist was obligated to observe his guild's rules and standards. He could also count on its support if he fell on hard times.

An apprenticeship, it should be emphasized, was no part-time job for the adolescent wishing to test the waters of a possible career. During the Renaissance, the craftsman-in-training would be taken under a master's wing usually between the ages of twelve and fourteen, whereupon he'd move in with his boss and work for him full-time, getting to understand the entire business from the ground up. Learning how to draw and paint, typically by rote copying, day in and day out, throughout one's teenage years (sometimes into his twenties) was evidently enough to make even somebody with no innate artistic "gift" a competent painter of portraits and altarpieces.

The political economy of the Renaissance-era workshop is a bit obscure in its details, but we're not completely in the dark:

The relationship between master and apprentices seems to have been extremely flexible, geared to the economics of the art market. When an artist was fully trained and experienced, he would find, if he could, customers and commissions, set up a shop for himself, and eventually take on his own apprentice or apprentices. The number of apprentices appears to have been directly related to the master's popularity: the busier he was, the more apprentices.²

In other words: the atelier system had a simple but apparently effective built-in mechanism for determining the number of new painters and sculptors to be trained. If demand was high and a workshop was busy, the master would have incentive to take in apprentices to serve as gofers, deal with the day-to-day grunt work, and eventually assign them more sophisticated production tasks (provided the workshop didn't abruptly stop getting commissions). Meanwhile, the guilds functioned as gatekeepers, preventing anyone who didn't meet its standards or abide by its rules from trying to go into business for themselves.

Enea Vico, after Baccio Bandinelli, The Academy of Baccio
(ca. 1550)

During the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century, the art market opened up, simultaneously freeing painters from contract jobs and putting them at the mercy of a consumer market mediated by dealers, shopkeepers, and the Guild of Saint Luke. But in any case, painters were still likely to have been born to members of a particular economic class—and that class occupied a higher rung on the social ladder than the banausos of ancient Greece. Rembrandt's father was a wealthy miller; Vermeer's father was an silk worker who became an art dealer; Steen's father was a merchant and brewer; Rubens' father was a lawyer; and so on.³

From the eighteenth century onwards, the biography of any artist we care to look up will probably mention their upbringing in a prosperous family, an apprenticeship under a working artist, and/or their training at an art academy. Again, we ought not to speak too generally of circumstances that varied from place to place and evolved over time, but it's safe to say that economic and social controls continued to limit the number of people seeking to make a living by dabbing paint on a canvas. Children from poor families would have little opportunity to demonstrate an aptitude for art or develop their talents, and were thus usually out of the running to begin with. Until the end of the nineteneeth century, the national academies in Italy, France, England, Spain, and elsewhere controlled the education, advancement, and disciplining of artists; if one wished to make their living selling art and taking commissions, he or she might have a hard time of it without an academy's imprimatur, and without the exhibition opportunities conferred by membership.

A Wikipedia factoid, citing Kelsey Bronsan's Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France (2016), indicates how selective France's Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was:

Between 1664 and 1683 107 artists became members of the Académie. In comparison, 89 artists were admitted between 1707 and 1720, and 57 admitted in 1735–54.

So: between 1664 and 1683, the Académie gave its sanction to 5–6 artists per year. Between 1707 and 1720,  an average of 4–5 new members were accepted; between 1735 and 1754, that average was three. And this was the organization that effectively decided whether a French artist deserved to receive commissions or should otherwise find another line of work.

I haven't been able to track down any data pertaining to the annual number of students enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts (the school attached to the French Académie) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the schools of the Royal Academy of Arts, England's answer to the Académie, enrolled an average of twenty-five students per year from 1768 (the year of its founding) to 1830.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, La Gimblette (1770)

Though print was an old technology by the dawn of the nineteenth century, the spectacular rise in the popularity and profitability of magazines, newspapers, and novels during the Victorian era heralded the dawn of mass media as we know it. Text accompanied by pictures (how novel!) came into vogue. Newspaper publishers grabbed at eyeballs with a flashy topical engraving on their front pages. Having become a fixture of the periodical during the late eighteenth century, caricatures and cartoons were de rigueur for the magazine and newspaper. Chromolithography helped the illustrated children's book come into its own as a literary genre. The steam press, an abundance of cheap paper, and the reduction of postage rates gave birth to the greeting card industry in the mid-nineteenth century. Readers and collectors prized illustrated editions of classic texts somewhat in the same way that a modern aficionado of film appreciates a digitally remastered edition of an old movie: a treasured cultural artifact from the past comes back to us again, reinvented to meet the elevated standards of our sophisticated present.

Given the public's appetite for illustration and the publishers' appetite for the public's money, it follows that the era was rich in possibilities for the visual artist. And it was—provided his or her résumé was up to snuff. The requirements for selling work as a freelancer, or getting a commission to supply the art for a book, magazine, or advertising poster, weren't that different from the qualifications to be taken seriously by the academy and the sophisticates in its orbit: formal training and a suitable background.

John Tenniel, who illustrated Lewis Carrol's Alice books, matriculated to the Royal Academy in 1842. Greeting card artist and children's book illustrator Kate Greenaway studied at several art schools, including the Royal Female School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. Walter Crane, illustrator of fables and fairy tales, was the son of a portrait painter and became an apprentice to a wood engraver at the age of fourteen. James Gillray, "father of the political cartoon," was apprenticed to an engraver around the age of fourteen, and supported himself by selling etchings to a print shop while he studied at the Royal Academy. George Cruikshank, caricaturist and illustrator of Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838), got his start when he was conscripted into his father's printmaking business as a preteen. Jules Cheret, regarded as having invented the poster as we recognize it today, apprenticed under a lithographer for three years before studying at the École Nationale de Dessin. The Art Nouveau superstar Alphonse Mucha received training at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, the Académie Julian, and the Académie Colarossi—impressive credentials for an artist perhaps best known for designing advertisements for cigarettes and the theater. 

And we could go on. But when we review the biographies of eighteenth and nineteenth-century European artists, it's as hard to imagine them not earning acclaim as it is to believe their family wealth and connections couldn't have purchased most of them a comfortable middle-class life in some other trade.

The point is: though the guild system that trained Renaissance artists was long defunct, formal and informal regulatory mechanisms still prevented the social production of superfluous and downwardly mobile formally trained artists—mostly through the restriction of access to training, and the public understanding that accreditation was a prerequisite for a career.

Kate Greenaway, Frontispiece to Robert Browning's The
Pied Piper of Hamelin (1888)

Let's skip ahead—and move from Europe to the United States.

The phenomenon of elite overproduction has caused some hand-wringing among the sort of person who likes to pay attention to social trends and, as a result, experiences persistent intimations of impending doom. The children of middle-class parents attend college to receive a suitable middle-class education, and end up with a degree in international relations and a job as a dog walker, or working at a supermarket after majoring in philosophy. I'm not just repeating stereotypes: I'm describing the education and postcollegiate work of two people I personally know. And hell, look at me: here I am, with my bachelor's in English and a long résumé of gigs in the service industry, currently unemployed, yammering to the audient void on a personal blog.

During the postwar boom of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a corresponding surge in college enrollment. The United States was at the height of its prosperity, and if one could afford to study a "discipline" instead of a trade, the decision to do so made sense. The long-enduring belief that a bachelor's degree puts the holder on the fast track to a mortgage-paying job is a vestige of this period, when it was true. In 1956, more Americans were employed in white-collar jobs than blue-collar ones. The middle class was expanding instead of contracting. Then came forty years of neoliberal economics, the rise of the management consultant and the shareholder model, business consolidation, offshoring, automation, repeated tax cuts for top earners, and every other ingredient in the lethal injection administered to the American middle. (None of this is restricted to the United States, of course, nor did it begin with the COVID-19 pandemic.) 

There's a profusion of training programs for cushy managerial or knowledge-worker jobs, a paucity of open positions, and not nearly as many clear avenues from point A to point B as there were when postsecondary education was the privilege of the very few. Just three percent of Americans over the age of twenty-five had earned a postsecondary degree in 1910.⁴ In 2000, 25.6 percent of Americans over twenty-five had earned at least a college degree; by 2020, that number shot up to 37.5 percent. Has there been a corresponding increase in the number of jobs where a undergraduate's specialization in international relations, philosophy, or English is the applicant's ticket to a stimulating, lucrative, and secure career? (Go on, guess.) 

The overproduction of artists is part of this trend.

A rather sunny 1984 article by art educator Harlan Hoffa traces the history of art education in the United States, identifies four distinct but imbricated developmental threads:

American art education is rooted, in part, in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century when drawing was taught in an effort to improve hand-eye coordination... Linkage between art education and industrial training was, of course, not uniquely American, but it may have influenced art education in the United States in ways that were distinctive to this emerging industrial economy. It meant that art was often taught for essentially non-artistic purposes, that manual dexterity was more important than aesthetic insight, and that what was taught in the name of art was often light years removed from what was happening in studios of artists in the same era....

Fascinating: schools began teaching children how to draw to prepare them for manufacturing jobs (of which the United States has only a fraction of what it did in the 1800s). I'll leave you to make your own conjectures as to how this may or may not factor into the problem we're considering.   

The second foundation that Hoffa identities, the Child Study Movement, is admixture of psychology and pedagogy. It doesn't concern us here, so we'll move on:

The third foundation of art education in America was that of studying the corpus of art for historic insights it could provide, or for social and cultural benefits that might accrue, a concept of art education that is very much in keeping with the purposes of a liberal education. It is an elitist approach to the subject and commonly found in schools where preparation for living the good life, rather than for learning how to make a good living, is primary...It is, in fact, a view from museum steps rather than studio windows and directed toward students who will, in their turn, govern and support the art world rather than those who may work there.

(Text bolded apropos of our earlier remarks about elite overproduction.) 

Hoffa believes that the fourth strand, the venerable practice of passing on the knowledge of a craft by way "of the atelier, guild, and master-apprentice relationship," is perpetuated by the modern rapport between the studio teacher and his or her students at the state college, the university, the liberal arts college, etc:

Before the 1940s, most artists learned their craft in independent art academies or in art schools attached to museums, but needless to say only the most strongly motivated students enrolled in such institutions. For a variety of economic, academic, and social reasons, the visual and performing arts found a new and richly supportive home on college and university campuses after World War II and have become easily accessible not only to career oriented students who would not otherwise have gone to college but also to students whose art interests are avocational or incidental to other curricula. This change affected secondary schools who prepared applicants for professional art training in universities, and, equally important, it affected general education by allowing students in various scientific or humanistic curricula to elect art courses for academic credit. Finally, it influenced the training of art teachers by bringing artists and teacher educators into close and sometimes uncomfortable proximity for the first time.

An overlooked fact: before the mid-twentieth century, few universities in the United States had visual arts programs. Again, we have the postwar economic boom to thank for the development.

As Hoffa proceeds to complain about cuts to art education in public school budgets, applaud the expansion of "local and regional arts councils, and arts festivals, sidewalk exhibitions," and comment on the role of the feminist movement in increasing the number of female art teachers, he leaves unmentioned a number of practical concerns regarding art education: if he feels the proper role of postsecondary art education is to equip students to earn their living making art, facilitating its production, or otherwise advancing it, what is the general likelihood that a person who takes out a student loan and earns their degree finds a pathway to employment in the field waiting for them? Given tuition costs at a given time, does the probability that any given graduate from any given university-level arts program will earn a living in the field warrant making such an investment?

I can't come up with any illuminating data regarding the career trajectories of BFA graduates from liberal arts colleges, state universities, or city colleges as opposed to graduates from dedicated art schools. All I have are a few anecdotes.

The two friends of mine from college who were in our school's arts program seem to be doing okay these days (judging from their social media pages), but they're not doing anything related to the degrees they earned. My old friend Jen got an arts degree from Rutgers (if memory serves), aced her final project, had an internship at an art gallery while she worked at a bookstore. Then she Learned To Code and is making a decent living as a project manager—though she did have to live with her parents until her early thirties to make it happen, and she's not making art anymore. My friend Ryan got a degree in art history from William Paterson, and now he works in a motorcycle repair shop. As per Hoffa's "third foundation" remarks, he's more an example of elite overproduction than artist overproduction, but nevertheless, his case still typifies the frequency with which postsecondary education in the arts fails to deliver the advertised practical benefits.

My former roommate Madalyn—one of the most talented illustrators I've known—got her BFA from a state university, and is now working at a garden center in the suburbs. She still draws sometimes, but not nearly as much as she used to. Her two best friends from college make charming and inimitable art; they post their drawings on Instagram, occasionally make webcomics, zines, and sell prints, but to the best of my knowledge, neither is in a position to quit their day job. One of them has an Etsy shop—she's sold fifteen copies of her zine for fifteen bucks apiece. That's over two hundred dollars, sure, but two hundred dollars doesn't go very far in New York.

Sometimes I ticked Madalyn off. (2020)

In 2012, Huffington Post contributor Daniel Grant punched out an adulatory column on for-profit art schools, which included this passage about the for-profit Academy of Art University in San Francisco (100 percent acceptance rate, average annual tuition runs about $47K before aid):⁶

The Academy of Art University has a "no barriers to admission policy," which means that anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent may enroll. No need to submit SAT scores or high school grade point averages or even a portfolio, as all the nonprofit art schools do. "We're a very, very democratic school," said Dr. Elisa Stephens, president of the university and granddaughter of the school's founder, Richard A. Stephens. "We try to find a very passionate student who has a commitment to learning." She noted that there are "not many good art programs in high schools, especially in California," so judging a student by a portfolio may not be a good barometer of current or future talent. Students develop a portfolio while taking courses at the Academy of Art University and, after the fourth semester, "we do a portfolio review to see which program we offer might be most suited to the individual student's abilities."

Emphases mine (obviously). This being a for-profit school whose principal concern is wringing tuition money from customers, the Academy of Art University's instructors probably won't be advising the mediocre student who obviously lacks the right stuff for a career in art or design to drop out and enlist in vocational training before they (or their parents) shell out $17K for the next semester.

I'm more familiar with the for-profit School of Visual Arts in New York (74.5 percent acceptance rate, average annual tuition runs about $73K before aid), having three of its graduates in my circles of acquaintance. Ask me how many of them are working artists. Go on, ask.

I've fallen out of touch with them all over the last several years. I know that one was employed at an Apple Store for a while; another worked retail and then got a job as an administrative assistant; the other was an assistant to a fairly well-known artist, but is apparently in the process of earning another degree (and being supported by a partner with an impressive STEM salary). All of them moved in or around the periphery of the arts scene in New York and/or Philadelphia; between the three of them, their creative output over the last few years seems to have dried to a trickle.

As of 2019, there were 2.2 million visual and performing arts graduates living in the United States. (153,295 degrees were awarded that year.) Of that 2.2 million, graphic designer was the job landed by the largest share of them—a whole 5.18 percent. 2.25 percent were "artists & related workers"—less than a percentage point more than were employed as retail salespersons (2.04 percent) and customer service representatives (1.46 percent). "Other designers" counted for 3.04 percent; I'm going to guess that the number of career illustrators and animators are distributed between "artists & related workers" and "other designers," since neither has a separate box in Data USA's pretty chart.

A 2014 report by BFAMFAPhD ("a collective that formed in 2012 to make art, reports, and teaching tools to advocate for cultural equity in the United States," which may or may not still exist) puts the matter in starker terms: "10% of arts graduates are working artists."⁷ Granted, seven years have passed since then—but given the numbers from Data USA, I doubt there's been a monumental upswing in jobs tailored to the particular skillsets of young people who majored in illustration, animation, painting, etc.

The prevailing tenor of the "so you want to be an illustrator/animator" articles, blog posts, and message board chatter can be summed up as: if you have to ask how to do it, you're probably already fucked. Browsing them gives me grisly flashbacks to all those evenings I sat up chain smoking and reading articles about how to get a literary agent (a prerequisite for publishing a novel).

Career illustrators and people working in animation tell the inquiring novitiate to prepare for war. They're going to be in vicious competition with people who are more experienced and talented than them, and who know more people in high places. Working for free to get around the old "can't get job without experience, can't get experience without job" conundrum is highly recommended, even if the aspirant is already putting in forty-hour workweeks at the restaurant or help desk to keep a roof over their head and hold the student loansharks at bay. The hopeful professional must be a genius at social media and master the delicate art of relentlessly self-promoting without coming across as crass, opportunistic, and/or desperate. It's also necessary that they excel at much more than their studied discipline: "In the field of animation today, artists that get hired are at least quadruple threats," reads one "how to get hired" article. "They are graphics [sic] designers/illustrators/After Effects artists, and ________. That blank can be filled in with the following—cartoonist, musician, 3D animation, comedian, actor, costume designer, etc. No joke."

And, of course: network, network, network! Meaning: become a social climber. It's not enough to know people per se; it's about knowing the right people. What, your Bumblebee State University BFA program didn't teach you who those people are, how to find them, or how to make them like you? Your instructors just gave your portfolio a passing grade, handed you your degree, slapped you on the back, and set you loose to figure all this shit out for yourself? Well, you and the fifty thousand other visual arts majors all looking at each other, wondering what to do next, and figuring it'll be enough to get a stopgap job and post your drawings to Instagram in the meantime. At least you're in good company.

There are more formally trained illustrators and animators than there are illustration and animation gigs. Naturally, the internet helped to carry us to this state of affairs.

The publishing industry is still in the process of shrinking down to a sustainable size. Sales of children's books and (American) comics have been on the decline for decades. Magazines are still hurting, and they're happy to cut costs by using clip art and stock photos instead of paying somebody to illustrate their articles. The local newspapers that might have been interested in taking on an in-house cartoonist no longer exist. Game companies need artists, it's true, but a company like Blizzard or Wizards of the Coast has the luxury of being exceedingly choosey about what talent they bring on. Probably even an indie studio offering a paid gig for a character designer or sprite artist has their inbox clogged with portfolios, simply because their call goes out across the entire world-spanning internet, not just to the readers of a monthly trade publication (delivered in print). 

Since art has become a thing that manifests on a device—intangibly, temporarily, and for free—there are fewer avenues for monetizing it directly than there were back in the Dutch Golden Age, where people from every walk of life eagerly shelled out money for original paintings to hang on their walls. The dismal trends shaping the twenty-first-century economy have made this impossible for a lot of millennials, who enjoy art and would happy to hang it on their walls, but are less able than their parents or grandparents to afford original paintings. But there is anyway considerably less impetus to intentionally set money aside for the purpose of breaking the visual monotony of an interior when an electronic image generator is probably situated at its axis (or in the resident's pocket), and less need to budget for objets d'un artiste when pictures can be cut out of magazines, two-dollar postcards can be stuck to a wall with putty, mass-produced posters can be bought and framed fairly cheaply, and a universe of inexpensive secondhand curios is to be found at any thrift store or flea market.

Perhaps the independent illustrator can find an audience on social media, and then offer commissions, Patreon bonuses, or (god help us all) NFTs ? Possibly, but it's not the easiest feat to accomplish when most people will be encountering their art as something to be glanced at and forgotten about. Even a piece that gets an estimable number of Likes and Retweets is apt to become part of the unrecollected blur of The Scroll.

And perhaps the unhired animator can make short videos on YouTube monetize their content. Well: according to these people, "most YouTube channels get paid $0.5 per 1000 video views." The Influencer Marketing Hub (I threw up in my mouth typing that) says "success begins at 1,000,000"—one million subscribers is what it takes to start earning "acceptable" money. Better start getting noticed!

A very good way of getting noticed (and I can attest to this) isn't to offer viewers novel content, but to give them something they're already familiar with. If a user doesn't doesn't know your name, the title of your comic or YouTube channel, or any of its characters, the search algorithms probably won't point them towards your work. But—what if you like drawing Legend of Korra characters, and somebody punches one of their names into the search bar on their favorite social media platform? Or what if you whip up a short, silly animation spoofing the famous "think, mark!" scene from Invincible, recasting Omni-Man and Invincible as, say, characters from The Amazing World of Gumball, or your favorite hololive waifus?⁸ (You'd be recycling voice clips, of course.) YouTube's search and recommendation algorithms are more likely to flash it that front of people's eyes than short animations featuring your original characters (whom you all voice yourself, more or less competently).

If making a video about an already popular character, media franchise, meme, etc. earns you a lot of views, it's possible that people might subscribe to your channel and take an interest in your more serious or personal work. Maybe. But if you're trying to get attention and money, you might be better off learning to love making art about trending topics—after all, the market demanded no less of most visual artists before the ascension of the avant-garde. Rembrandt, Vermeer, and the other masters of the Dutch Golden Age were creators of popular content.

Soapy Bubbles, Pipsy & Squikkers (2020)
(Her ZCRC clip)

According to the the video's introduction, the Zelda CDi Remaster Collab began when the two collaborators who spearheaded it were in high school. It doesn't appear as though their motives were mercenary: judging from their YouTube uploads, they're both really keen on fan art/animation to begin with. They were certainly familiar with other reanimation collabs, and probably thought it would be cool to put one together themselves. Since their social media accounts are pretty mum on their personal lives, we'll refrain from speculating what they're doing now, if they're in college, what they might be studying, etc.

About the two-hundred-something other people who contributed to the project, we can make a few broad assessments (provided we're willing to stalk them on social media until our eyes glaze over). Most of them appear to be in their twenties. A few of them have verified YouTube channels, hundreds of thousands of followers, and videos with millions of views; others are employed in the industry (and, according to their LinkedIn pages, got hired in the year or so since the ZCRC was uploaded). They're in the minority.

Of the rest, some are hobbyists. To all appearances, they didn't go to art school; they draw and upload stuff to YouTube for fun. More power to them. But there are also a lot of them who must have incurred a lot of student debt receiving formal instruction in drawing, coloring, and using animation software, 

Many of them have YouTube channels, a lot of them with a few thousand subscribers (the kind of numbers that make a longform blogger's knuckles white with envy)—but that's still far short of the hundred thousand followers required to become a YouTube "partner." I see a lot of them pinning showreels at the top of Twitter accounts with fewer than a thousand followers. I see links to portfolios consisting only of stuff they've contributed to animation collabs or posted to their YouTube, Tumblr, or Instagram accounts. Some of them are advertising commissions; I'd feel more optimistic for them if their Patreons and Ko-fi pages showed more activity. If the padding in the résumés posted to their personal "portfolio" websites is apparent even to me, it must be glaring to company recruiters.

One contributor's personal website boasts a demo reel collecting animation sequences from her undergraduate and grad school years; her résumé reads "sales associate, 2018–present." There's an illustrator/animator whose Patreon has zero subscribers. One artist's Twitter account links readers to a webcomic that just stops in spring 2020. (We could attribute its sporadic update schedule to laziness, or we could guess that the artist has bills to pay, and drawing comics isn't easy—even when you're not exhausted because you just got home from your sixth consecutive eight-hour shift after a forty-minute commute.) Another uploaded their two-minute thesis film uploaded to YouTube. It's been viewed about 1200 times since it was uploaded in July 2021; "underrated" and "more people need to see this" are a common refrain in the comments. (I'm inclined to agree, and I hope a studio out there recognizers the creator's talent, even if YouTube's algorithm doesn't.)⁹ 

What's surprising and a little upsetting is that the ones who don't have checkmarks on YouTube and who aren't being tapped for industry gigs aren't always the ones you'd expect. The ZCRC has a lot of wonderful work on display, and more than a few times I was astonished to look up the Twitter or Instagram handle attached to one of the better clips and discover its creator isn't a professional, and apparently isn't on the way to becoming one. Maybe they're just talented hobbyists—and more power to them if they are!—but you often get the sense or see evidence that they went to college or art school to learn the skills for their dream career, and those skills currently aren't doing much to help them pay off their student loans. Maybe they never will.

Are we locked into a cycle? Year after year, a crop of ambitious former and/or current art students shares their gifts with the world, uploading digital art, comics, and animated shorts, free for anyone to view and enjoy. Year after year, as the exigencies of life compel them to put in more hours at their day jobs, to accept more responsibilities and undergo additional training, as their social media followings plateau and the industry recruiters remain indifferent to their portfolios, as their calls for fanart or OC commissions fail to generate any appreciable revenue, and as decompression, distraction, and the hot, messy, and/or wonderful stuff of their personal lives occupies more of their time, their artistic output decreases, tapering off to little or nothing, and the relics of their days of creation and determination lie in abeyant latency on a hard drive or in a server bank...¹⁰

This would be much less of a bummer if it weren't for the aforementioned consequences of elite overproduction and the trend of downward social mobility among the younger generations. The art school graduate working at Starbucks is a cliché for a reason.

How fortunate for us that, at the same time, another cohort of promising young art students has begun posting their illustrations to Instagram, uploading their videos to YouTube, and advertising commissions on their Twitter bios, each of them convinced that he or she can defy gravity. And, in half a decade, when most of them are resigned to letting their day jobs become their jobs, another procession of fresh young talent will come to relieve them.

Does this represent the triumph of humanity's irrepressible creative impulse, or the success of an academic scam? The answer might depend on how long we can go on like this.

NEXT: Mythologems and marketplaces.

1. We're definitely overgeneralizing if we say that women in the ancient world (i.e., Egypt, Greece, Rome) were all stuck managing domestic affairs, making textiles, and being pregnant—but there's a kernel of truth in there. 

2. Bruce Cole, The Renaissance Artist At Work: From Pisano To Titian (1983)

3. It is known that Rembrandt and Rubens began their apprenticeships in their early teens. While there are no records of Steen and Vermeer's artistic training, circumstantial evidence suggests that they too began receiving formal instruction at young ages.

4. In the UK, it appears as though fewer than ten thousand students were awarded their first [bachelor's] degrees in 1919. Today there are more students taking classes at Rutgers than Brits who were handed diplomas that year.

5. Harlan Hoffa, "The Roots of Art Education in the United States" (1984)

6. Hmm: "This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site." What are the odds that Mr. Grant was writing as a paid shill?

7. Related stat: "16% of working artists are arts graduates." (In theory, the old guild system would have yeeted that other 84 percent.) It's almost as though getting a career in the arts depends less on where you studied than on some less obvious factors like, I don't know, economic security and social networks? (And talent too, sure, but undeveloped and/or unrecognized talent is as common as crabgrass.)

8. This might have worked a while back, but by now the Invincible thing is played out. Try again!

9. It's called Death Monkey Goes to Anger Management.

10. When there was no such thing as digital art, let alone people who exclusively created digital art, the artist who retired to pursue a more fruitful line of business would at least have a collection of old canvases or charcoal drawings to show for he it. These could be given to friends, passed down to children, sold at a yard sale, etc. Derelict digital art only "exists" as a possible instruction a machine can carry out.


  1. Same boat here. English major, ended up with a 15+year career working on the railway. Best move I ever made was the railway. Liberal arts degrees are worthless and we juat need to accept that fact and move on as a society rather than perpetuating the scam, even if it means accepting that we ourselves were subject to the scam.

  2. As someone who majored in history and turned the film major into a minor because history seemed more feasible, only after getting a masters finding out how few history jobs there are...its...stressful because when one was never good at math or the stuff that seems to have," Value" it makes one wonder if I knew that those things were the only things that mattered in the world if I gave it my all I could end up as passable in that stuff...or just feel even more dismayed that I'm not good at what matters in the world.