Kaitlyn Whitsitt examines how the pandemic and the increase of social media has affected those pursuing careers in the arts.
I didn’t apply to drama school. I wanted to but I couldn’t, not during a pandemic. When university application season came around for me, it was still 2020. The larger productions that could have strengthened my portfolio were cancelled, and instead, my last year consisted of online plays, with only one in-person performance. Masked-up and filmed in an empty amphitheatre, I can assure you that, no, stage acting with muffled voices and half of the face’s expression cut off is really, really not good. As much as I enjoyed taking part in those productions and working alongside so many interesting people, it was quite disheartening. I gradually came to realise that I just didn’t want to pursue a degree in an art form that is so exceptionally restricted.
If you intend for your creative career to be your primary source of income, you need to gain experience young. It takes years of working your way up the ladder of nepotism and talent: taking music or dance lessons, acting or art classes, participating in school and university productions, meeting new people to foster creative circles, and so on. There is so much energy required to put yourself out into the world, and a great deal of flexibility too if you want to survive the non-pandemic-related challenges of the realm.
Even before lockdown restrictions were instated, people were increasingly spending time online, social media and society already inseparable, but the pandemic’s effects exacerbated this change. Think about how much you’ve increased your time spent on Instagram and Youtube, or the platform-pedestal-toppling affluence of TikTok. While in some ways the entertainment industry definitely thrived on this acceleration of content consumption, it really did so at the expense of artistry.
I am a huge proponent of the idea that creativity can flourish in constraints, monetarily or otherwise. The issue is the algorithm. In seeking to promote specific types of content, it effectively buries artistic innovation, replacing the intrinsic humanity of art with a computer-curated endless succession of distractions. We interact differently with physical and virtual worlds because the physical is not as easily curated as the virtual. It is easier to discover new things within the real world by accident than it is to do so online, where homogeneity, parodies, and marketability are preferred.
With open casting and auditions being more or less a thing of the past, it becomes increasingly necessary for young artists to cultivate a social media following to gain exposure. Think about how few new faces you’ve seen in Hollywood over the past few pandemic years, or how many new artists you’ve discovered on social media versus from other means.
The ebb and flow of restrictions leads productions to start up and then be cancelled, venues for concerts to be tentatively opened and closed, and overall a cultural shift towards a hesitancy to go out. Since there are fewer opportunities to put their creativity out into the physical world, artists need to compensate in the virtual. Actors, musicians, painters and other artists now need to be adept cinematographers, directors, composers, writers, and a slew of other things that they’d rather not focus their talents in. The lack of inherent exposure that is usually gained in the physical world requires young creators to be present in the feed all the time, curating a persona or sharing their personal lives outside of their art. Social media’s widening gate on exposure cuts off anyone not entirely public in their personality or readily outgoing (a group of people for whom the arts often offers refuge) from the professional sphere.
The arts shouldn’t be like this. They thrive on diversity, individuality, and freedom of expression. While exposure in the physical world is still unfair, it is much more amenable to talent than online. People can change their perspectives, algorithms can’t.