The modern professional arena puts much of its emphasis on the prominence of the individual whether in creative mediums like music, which has refined the concept of the ‘front man’ down to an incredibly isolating form, or in office settings where the individual must rise above the rest to receive promotion and recognition. Commercial organisations have systematically adapted to that new emphasis. That isn’t to say that individualism isn’t necessary – most of us will need to promote ourselves in some way to succeed in our chosen fields.
Despite my low opinion of individualism as it is currently expressed, I certainly don’t reject it (or its tools) out of hand; like most young writers, I use the available platforms for self-promotion or to find opportunities for the same, and get a genuine sense of enjoyment from sharing work with others via Twitter or through submissions and so on.
However, that individualism quickly becomes isolation, particularly in a crowded industry and on crowded platforms. Confronted with everyone else’s apparent success, your own achievements start to seem irrelevant, and it becomes difficult to break through the noise. Whilst there are hundreds upon hundreds of opportunities, they become either more niche or more expensive to engage with as the importance of the individual becomes paramount.
The problem is, as I see it, that the emphasis on individualism has resulted in professional bodies or groups that do not, or are not able to support more than a handful of people (and so only contribute to isolationism) – those either able to afford the fees, or picked due to their existing reputation and success – and that support is expressed as a service for those individuals with limited availability. The idea of a creative collective has been largely reduced to informal groups formed in local areas, or ‘movements’ of artists producing work with specific styles or genres, and even ‘big name’ artists using employees to churn out art for sale by the big name (here, think, for instance, of Damien Hirst, who infamously hired teams of assistants to physically create ‘his’ own work).
The return to collectivism
One solution to the growth of isolation is to re-invigorate the concept of a collective; that is, a group of people unified by ideals and a desire to create art regardless of style, genre or ability – where promotion of the group as a whole is as important as promotion of the individuals within in it. By encouraging artists, writers, poets and so on to form their own collectives, we encourage mutual support, while also creating spaces for constructive feedback and the viewing of work.
This in turn increases the ability of existing resources to support creative people, rather than a comparative handful, and reduces the reliance on self-promotion and the notion of individual struggle or ‘paying one’s dues’ before some measure of success. By framing collectivism around shared goals or ideals rather than shared genres or styles, we can minimise inter-group competition for space or opportunities and respect individual effort whilst encouraging each other to create.
By reframing some of the focus in the industry toward collectives, and allowing groups of artists to speak with one voice, it should become possible to promote the individual by promoting the group; that is, increasing the number of people who can be heard without diluting the visibility of each individual. If fully realised, collectivism would also increase the visibility of creators outside of population centres or popular ‘scenes’, with less reliance on community groups that cannot offer the same degree of personal support.
As mentioned above, part of me longs for the old structures and organisations, to be able to claim membership of a special club or company that has some meaning beyond a fee payment. I also know that I cannot be in isolation; that whilst I might want peace and quiet to write or make something, I need other people to make that time seem special or to give me the drive to use it effectively. I want to be successful – on some level, everyone does – which does mean some level of individualism, but to have any chance of achieving that success, I will need the support of many others (we often overlook the role of editors, publishers, agents and so on in the success of writers particularly), and collectivism is fulfilled by those needs. By operating as a collective, I can support myself and my friends, publish my own work with a degree of independence, and promote the ideals that I share with the rest of the collective. More than anything, it doesn’t feel like we’re just screaming into the void.
About the author
Sam Bellamy is writer and poet mildly obsessed with the rebelliousness of hope, magic, and stories. Part-time philosopher, published here and elsewhere. Runs the Writers’ Group collective.