Rebecca Black and Juvenile Art

I'm sure you've all seen or at least heard of Rebecca Black's music video, Friday. You'll notice that link isn't working right now; Rebecca Black's family are apparently embroiled in a conflict over revenue-sharing with Ark, the producers they hired to create the video. So the Black family have issued a DMCA takedown.

Copyright dramz aside, I've been thinking about Rebecca Black a lot the last few months, trying to work out how I feel about her video and the storm of attention that formed around it... and what it means for young artists and their position in our society.

There's no question Rebecca's video is... not of stellar quality. Not lyrically, conceptually, not in execution. But Rebecca Black was also 13 years old when she made that video, making this juvenile art. It's juvenile art that her family spent a few thousand dollars to enable, sure, but does it really matter where the money came from? She could theoretically have earned it with lemonade stands and bake sales. She could theoretically have bootstrapped the thing (or something very like it) with video cameras and sound equipment she borrowed from friends or school. 

The thing I'm concerned about is the fact that this adolescent girl -- this child -- was criticized widely on the internet for daring to make art befitting her age and skill level and then share it in a public venue. It's a tremendous credit to her that she's handled it with considerable grace. I'm pretty sure if something like this has happened ot me when I was 13 I would have been left a quivering mess of tears hiding under my blankets. Heck, it might do that to me now.

So look, when we start creating art, we all suck. Our first crayon scribbles, our first tuneless nursery rhymes, our first disjointed sentences describing what we did over the summer... there is not a person alive who made excellent art on their very first try. We get better as we grow older thanks to the magic of practice. But everyone has to start somewhere.

Time was, juvenile art existed solely in a protected space. You don't tend to get a lot of snark at a 5-year-old's ballet recital; or if there is any, it's certainly not done in earshot of the children in question. Middle-school poster art, high school plays... all enjoyed protection from mass scorn through security-by-obscurity. The only people who were exposed to fledgling artists' work were the same people most likely to be encouraging.

Nowadays, things have changed. Those recitals and plays are going up on YouTube. Parents are blogging their children's poetry, stories, drawings. We have a human need to share our lives, and art we make (or our loved ones make) is a part of that. But as we share, we open up the possibility of... well, of becoming Rebecca Black, or the Star Wars kid, or maybe someday something with worse fall-out: The object of mass ridicule for doing something they love in public view.

So we're left with a weird social problem and no clear way to manage it yet. How do we treat the work of young artists, who are simultaneously most likely to be bad and least able to cope with criticism? Is the solution simply never to share your work until you're confident you're pro-grade?

That's a long, lonely time to be a solitary creator. Getting feedback and communicating with other creators at your level is a tremendous help at improving. Maybe we should just all wait for a hand-wavy future internet with more context-sensitive sharing controls to fix it.

Or maybe we can have a societal shift in which we lay down a line that it's, you know, not OK for adults to make fun of children. Something like that.


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