Mad Men, The Creative Urge and Why We All Abandon Our Tumblrs

by Nav

The thing is, we all sit in front of our screens and create. This, after all, is the grand mantra of internet proselytisers: no longer is creativity the sole domain of an elite class; the barriers of entry to the new public space have become so low and so open that anyone can blog, post photos and videos, create art and share it with everyone. You’ve heard this all a million times I’m sure – this bubbling, bursting excitement, about our new shared space, the breakdown of the barriers between what we once neatly called the private and the public, the democratisation of the creative act. “Me, I’m a Creator / Thrill is to make it up / The rules I break got me a place / Up on the radar”. This line now applies to everyone – though which rules are broken and which adhered to is perhaps more fuzzy than it was before.

In this new era of ‘the universal accessibility to creativity’, bloggers are on the cusp of something, in the thick of the new. I admit, the term ‘blogger’ is starting to lose any coherence it may have once had: given the multiplicity of not only topics but forms, any stability to be found in a definition would have to be remarkably abstract. Yet, what is blogging if not creation?; it may not often be ‘art’ as such, but it certainly falls into the catch-all new media term ‘content’. This is what we are constantly doing, is it not? Sitting around, producing content, stretching our brains to write insightful posts, argue our case, produce new forms or find intriguing, funny, arcane bits of culture? If, as I’ve argued recently, the internet is a blank screen for projecting the self, then it is also a blank canvas for the creation of art and culture. It waits there. We simply have to take advantage of the opportunity.

It was all this that was going through my mind as I raced through season one of Mad Men. Though there is much that fascinates me about the show, one thing that has lingered in my mind is the creative push that  runs like an undercurrent in the office of Sterling-Cooper. Ad execs are creators. Like bloggers, what they do on a day-to-day basis is to produce content. True, it may not always be what they might want to do, what ‘their heart desires’ – but it is creativity nonetheless, and as anyone will tell you, some creativity is always better for the soul than none. Yet, like many tech bloggers, the creative urge extends beyond work. When it comes out that Ken Cosgrove has had a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly, it sends veritable shockwaves through the office. While Pete Campbell‘s seething, petulant jealousy is expected, everyone else’s is less so. It later comes out that bohemian Paul Kinsey is a budding, if struggling, playwright. These ‘Mad Men’ (including Peggy) are desperate to create, to make something that means something to people, that extends beyond their solitude to connect with the wider world. It’s the same urge that we all now tap into through the ‘net, in our democratised and newly public creative process.

So what do we tech and internet-culture bloggers do when the analysis, snark and commenting just doesn’t cut it? Where are our short stories? Where is our sudden creative outlet, our desperate attempt to connect? I suppose I mean this somewhat metaphorically, but we all start Tumblrs. We begin them in a rush of optimism – finally, we think, here is a simple, easy place for the art that I stumble across, the random thoughts I have, the snippets of conversation I was so desperate for someone else to hear. The blog – I can’t gush on my blog! – but Tumblr… I can put my brain on my blog and my heart on Tumblr and, neatly demarcated, things will finally make sense. And in a flurry, we post for the first week, maybe the first month, possibly even the first six months. But like annual flowers, we plant them excitedly only to watch them die. Who has the time? The desire to keep it up? We’re searching for something, for the social core that we keep hearing about, the connection we so crave, but somehow, when we find it, it suddenly seems too futile, like too much work to throw ourselves into wholeheartedly.

We create. This post, this blog, all our posts, all our blogs, are creations, outpourings, are like a moment in history expressing itself through us. But is it enough? While we make our ads, we want our short stories. We want something else, something less snarky, something more sincere, something where we are more concerned with being gut-wrenching than disemvoweling. So we start our Tumblrs.

And then we give up. Can we do both? Can we document the profound epistemological shift we are in the midst of and, at the same time, write a novel about the scene? Can we blog about the infinite fragments of internet culture and then, later that night, put them together into something resembling an aesthetic whole? To be entirely frank, I’m not sure what I’m pushing up against here: is it a Carr/Keen/Birkerts sense that the internet is destroying our capacity to ‘think deeply’, to carry on sustained effort? Is there an aesthetic shift afoot, where what constitutes not only art but its function is changing? Can we still speak of aesthetic wholes? I remember a conversation in which I said someone’s Tumblr was like art. His response was that it was something, certainly, but that it wasn’t the big picture; he wanted the big picture. So do I. But I may have lost faith that such a thing is possible. It’s all too much.

What is the undercurrent that pulses and throbs beneath our Sterling-Cooper? How are we going to find an outlet for our creativity and still keep our heads above water? And, after years of pushing it aside, of decades of not finding a place to speak that feels right, will we recognise it when it rears its head again?

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