the terrifying joy of creation: making things you’re sure nobody wants

Patricia Taxxon didn’t get name-dropped in this essay but she’s good too.

Lately it’s become more and more clear that one of my favorite kinds of media these days is media criticism and commentary. In fact, I recently came to admit that I enjoy film criticism more than I enjoy movies. I also enjoy video game criticism and commentary more than I enjoy video games, and while I have almost zero interest in any television series of the past decade, I will gladly watch an hour of analysis and interpretation of Game of Thrones or The Office or Breaking Bad.

My favorite critics and commentators do their work on Youtube, in video essays sometimes multiple hours long discussing the finer details and, yes, spoiling the endings of stories I have never seen, nor ever plan to. I also watch with delight as they turn their scrutiny on one another, sometimes forming hyperloops of recursive commentary. It’s not drama to me — it’s more like a debate than a wrestling match, and generally when they take each other’s criticisms too personally or sling actual proverbial mud, I view it as spoiling the fun.

It’s art! Criticizing it is almost the whole point of even seeing it in the first place. To me, analyzing art and entertainment is like dessert after a great meal. And increasingly, I’ve been wanting to have my dessert first. See if I’m still hungry for the meal afterward, which I sometimes am. These days, if I ever see a movie or a TV show, it’s because I’ve seen a very good analysis of its themes and structure and cultural relevance. Trailers, by comparison, are trash. They’re an ad. When was a the last time an ad told you anything useful about the product being sold?

Anyway, my absolute favorite media commentary is of whatever the critic finds especially fascinating in spite of its unpopularity, its ubiquity, or its utter mundanity. The critic Big Joel is well-known for taking on as his topics the media that few would judge worthy of close analysis. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The entire Shrek series. Over the Hedge. The Reddit postings of a virtually-unknown Youtuber. And he does it all with the earnest sincerity of someone who sees these topics as intensely, deeply interesting — often because of their innocuous appearance, not in spite of it. As if hidden meaning is more satisfying to suss out than obvious meaning.

It’s that kind of deep, abiding love of the small and the simple and the common that I love most to observe in others, and not just in relation to media and criticism. I love to watch my friends enjoy their food or see the slight smile in their eyes as they admire a view. I don’t have to see what they’re seeing to know how beautiful it is, because it’s reflected in their reactions. I have never been more attracted to another human being than when they’re talking animatedly about their passions, because passion itself is magnetic. It’s infectious. I learn how to love by seeing the love that others feel, and once you learn that, you can love almost anything.

Critics are often great artists themselves, and some media criticism on Youtube has become a genre of art unto itself. Hbomberguy, aka Harry Brewis, did a video essay about the webcomic Ctrl+Alt+Del that is practically a legend, a pinnacle of the genre today. And its greatness is made even more absurd by the sillyness of the subject matter. He tells a daring and beautiful story about human nature, a deconstruction of the good/evil dichotomy, and a cutting indictment of contemporary geek culture, and you don’t even have to be familiar with the webcomic to understand and find meaning in every bit of his analysis.

Later on, Hbomberguy released a video about the Transformers movie. Not Michael Bay’s Transformers, which is handled very nicely in Lindsey Ellis’s The Whole Plate series, but the animated film from 1986. In his video, Hbomberguy doesn’t do fun special effects or symbolism or creepy framing devices like in the Ctrl+Alt-Del one. He sits on a bed surrounded by plush toys and explains that most of his videos are just about things he wants to talk about, and he doesn’t plan to have it all tie in to some grand message; he just sort of rambles for a bit and then writes an introduction and a conclusion to round it off. He explicitly alludes to fellow critic Jenny Nicholson, whose signature style heavily influenced this video, bed and all. Many of Nicholson’s analyses are of bad books and movies; her video on the terrible novel Trigger Warning is my favorite. She will ramble on about some especially cynical or exploitative piece of media, calling out what she thinks is its most atrocious crimes against art, and often concludes with an abrupt and devastatingly ironic statement about the creators’ motives and biases — before suddenly cutting to silent credits.

Hbomberguy, in his Transformers video cribbing Nicholson’s style, says, “I’m going to talk about the Transformers show and the 1986 movie for an amount of time, and you can watch it if you’d like?” Then, he does that for forty minutes, and ends on a beautifully uplifting statement about the importance of supposedly unimportant media.

I’ve noticed that’s something that keeps showing up in some of my favorite commentaries: the critic making fun of themself for their odd or uninteresting choice of subject matter, and then gently mocking their audience for watching such an odd video, or else openly speculating that nobody would bother to. Then, they turn around and subvert themselves by making a compelling case that these choices are not uninteresting, and in fact these media are inherently meaningful, even if crassly commercial, even if cynically exploitative, even if tragically unskilled in execution. It’s art that redeems art. It’s a garden that turns rot and manure into beautiful and nourishing plants.

But in order to make this transformation, an attempt must be made to seek the potential in the most unassuming of sources, and that can take courage in the face of doubt. Big Joel showed this courage openly in his recent video about The Office. He says “It’s one of my favorite shows and I want to talk about it, and you can’t stop me. It won’t work if you try to stop me.” He repeatedly mocks his audience for their impotence in the face of his creative freedom. He delivers these words in the same calm, hesitant manner he says almost everything in his videos. He isn’t angry or defiant, just… free to do what he wants, and openly aware of that freedom. Moreover, he wants you to know about how free he is, as an artist, to make art about whatever he wants to make art about. Even if nobody on earth wants to see it. Even if everyone on earth wanted him to just… stop.

And that’s when I had what felt like an epiphany. That’s what a great artist is: someone with the courage to make art that they’re sure nobody wants to see. Someone who feels that fear that it will find no audience, that it will reap no esteem or material reward, and then moves forward in resolute determination to create it anyway. It doesn’t mean paying no mind to quality or care or effort. Often these artists will throw their whole selves into their creation, as if offering it up to Heaven as a gift to the Muses Themselves, since mere mortals could never appreciate it. And by this effort, art’s inherent worth becomes visible to those mere mortals, and we are all enriched by it.

One day, god willing, I hope to be an artist like that. And now that I’ve seen the bones of inspiration in the art I love best, I think I may have an idea of what I would most like to create.

And that was my second epiphany. Suddenly, I felt the terrifying joy of realizing what I want to create, that I am free to create it whenever and however I like, and that nobody can stop me. Even if nobody wants to see what I will create. And knowing what I do about art that really works, there’s a chance that will be some of the best work I ever do.

That’s all I wanted to say before I get started on it.

I write essays about social issues. My patreon: https://www.patreon.com/sycastells

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