Sunday, November 28, 2010

Escape Artists

Webster’s defines escapism as “the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc.” (escapism 1) It can be argued that escapism is the basis for many ideas, activities and products that are peddled to the patrons of modern society. I doubt that many people pay bills, work grueling jobs and awkwardly try to convince their kids not to try drugs for recreation. For recreation, most people want to forget the daily grind and the mundane obligations they take on for their right to exist in this new world. Some people escape to parties, take mind-altering substances and transform into a completely different person for a night. Others escape to sporting events, get drunk, paint their bodies the color of their favorite team and behave in a manner that would make their grandmothers cry. Other others like to escape into someone else’s imagination through movies and play spectator to the lives and times of those who are more interesting than themselves. Consumer culture provides a great means of escape from the monsters under the beds of first world countries. Why would an average American worry about his nation’s absurd debt to China when he can buy an iPod or wow his friends with the latest fashion and a slick new car?
The Internet is a popular public opiate these days. Websites like Facebook have 500 million active users a day (Zuckerburg 1); 500 million people posting statuses about the intricacies of their mundane lives; 500 million people waiting for comments and likes on their latest comment or like; 500 million people getting pissed off at someone because they didn’t accept a friend request. People are on YouTube at work, watching a video of a kid with Down syndrome lip-syncing to Lady Gaga. People are at school on Google, “googling” things they shouldn’t be googling. Yes, apparently “googling” is a word now, go ahead, Google it. The people of the modern world have one big thing in common, and that’s one huge, collective love affair with the Internet. This can be rolled into the same burrito as any other form of modern escapism. Some people come to the Internet to showcase a talent, or because they want to entertain people; after all, the web provides average Joes with the opportunity to be seen by millions of people sans half the effort it would take to be recognized through other media such as radio or television. In the corner of the net, there’s a small sub-culture of artists who use the opportunity to exhibit their work, and within that sub culture is another sub culture of independent animators who create entertainment from scratch in their basements.
For those who aren’t aware of this sub-sub-sub-culture on the World Wide Web, independent animators are individuals who create cartoons for purposes detached from corporate entertainment. Much like the shirtless, emo teenager who makes webcam videos of himself criticizing celebrities, indie cartoonists make free entertainment available to all who are willing to look for it, for various reasons. Some like the attention and praise their work can fetch, others aspire to animate as a career, and others are already industry professionals looking to build a portfolio or make a few bucks separate from their day job. I myself belong to this culture, and partake in all of the above, which is why I can accurately describe how this tiny, invisible crevice in the entertainment world has its traces of mental circumvention as well. Creating entertainment for the Internet in general can be classified as a form of escapism.
For myself, it usually starts off with a song. I’m sitting around listening to my Mp3 player and a random track made by some underground rapper nobody’s heard of makes its way into my ears. It has great instrumentals and deep lyrics; I wonder to myself how the hell music like this gets ignored by the radio. I lay back on my old couch and suddenly random images start pouring into my head. Depending on the song, it could be anything. I see people’s whole lives in the theatre of my mind: con artists, prostitutes, crooked preachers, contract killers; they’re all interacting with each other and crossing paths on the way to their jobs, making love and getting into fights because somebody was on somebody else’s territory. I get lost watching these people live their lives that are so much more interesting than mine, and before I know it hours will have passed that I was just staring up at the ceiling. This is when I get the urge to pick up a pencil and paper and go at it for hours; I want to document the faces and accounts of all these people whose lives and deaths I witnessed. I fill up hundreds of sheets of paper with their faces; I type up megabytes of their stories, and when I’ve gotten bored with that I contact voice actors, musicians and programmers and work with them to bring these dead sinners and sycophants to life again through animation. I love to run away from reality then go tell people where I went, because my reality is BORING. When my little animated brainchild is born, I can sit back and watch the views and comments pile up. I get way more enjoyment out of this process than I should; marijuana be damned.
I was curious if other artists and web-entertainers felt the same way, so I made a poll for my little entourage on, a website where I post my short films, asking if their personal craft is driven by escapism. A whopping 73% said yes in some form or another, many claiming to find euphoria in exploring the recesses of their imagination and the creation of content. I approached a friend of mine, Tyler, with the question, to which he responded, “I do use art as an escape. When I'm making something my mind is on that and that project alone. The audience's reactions are just extra. If someone works for compliments they are definitely dooming themselves.” With that said, only smaller percentages had the honesty to admit that they love getting feedback and having their ego stroked. Others said that they enjoy the social aspects of being a web artist/entertainer and having the opportunity to be a mini-celebrity in ways their day-to-day life doesn’t provide. The rest who participated in the poll (30%) said that they enjoy all of the above, myself included in that percentile. One artist described the creation of his content as “my two way ticket from hardcore reality to ignorant bliss.” (Whitfield 1)
What exactly is it that breeds the euphoria some individuals get from view counts and comments? I can attest to the fact that this evidence of attention can be quite gratifying. Thinking back to the first time one of my animated creations got a larger amount of attention than usual, I can remember my eyeballs glued to the computer screen and my finger on the browser’s Refresh button every few minutes to check the film’s progress. I was 16 years old, and every tiny bit of praise from these thousands of faceless usernames and colorful avatars sent literal chills up my spine. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and when I was torn away from’s homepage for class, all I could think about is what the site’s patrons were saying about me and my piece. I was upset when the film lost its front-page feature, and it wasn’t soon after that I was plotting ways to get back into the limelight with another short film. I’ve repeated this cycle over and over again for the past 4 years. Writer and psychology Master of Science M.Farouk Radwan states, “Whenever you find someone acting on the extreme side know that he is compensating for something on the other side. Some adults strive for attention and pay any price just to get it... If as a child, the person did not receive much attention from his parents or his peers he may grow up feeling neglected, those feelings will then be the main drive behind his attention seeking behavior.” (Radwan 1) This leads me wonder if a few kudos from public schools art teachers and a few more casual over-the-shoulder compliments from classmates may not be enough to keep the modern artist going anymore. Has the Internet made our society of discontent penguins happier by putting the average Joe closer to celebrity than ever before, or is it just making us feel more pressure to be seen by lots of people? If that Fred kid can get 642,353,525 views ( by screaming on sped up video, why can’t you? Are you an inferior being?
I remember a specific incident that showed me precisely how real the need to be seen is in my generation, whether you have a craft of passion or not. In late 2009, I started attending classes at the Art Institute of Michigan – Detroit where I made a friend we’ll call Mitch out of respect for his privacy. Ai Detroit was a very free, open environment where any students were allowed to walk in on classes in session and use the room’s computers, provided that the door wasn’t locked. During my time at the school, I had made friends with another animator, Mitch, who also showcased his indie cartoons on the Internet. Unlike myself, a Newgrounder (Patron of, Mitch had a YouTube channel, and he made SURE you knew about it. Every text message he sent me or any of his other friends had his channel’s URL in the signature, and every Facebook status or Tweet was “CHECK OUT HTTP://YOUTUBE.COM/********!!!” It was regular for me to stay around after class and peruse YouTube for an hour or each day, but one day I logged in and came across something strange: My favorites were filled up with Mitch’s cartoons. My comment box was filled with self-made posts with phrases like “Check out [Mitch’s YouTube Channel]!!! I’m [Mitch’s YouTube Channel]’s BIGGEST FAN!” In my recent activity, there were dozens of comments left on Mitch’s videos; these were very well thought out complements, praises and positive critiques… That I didn’t write. It took me all of 5 seconds to realize who the culprit was.
I thought it was some sort of joke, though oddly placed; Mitch and I were not familiar enough to be playing pranks on each other. My joke theory was thrown out the window when I confronted him soon after and asked him about my page, to which he denied any involvement with. He didn’t laugh, he didn’t even crack a smile; from what I could tell, he genuinely had no idea what I was talking about until I showed him my channel. Head-smack, followed by a long “Ooooooooh, I didn’t know that was your YouTube channel.” After a long, uncomfortable explanation, I learned that Mitch had done this number on my page weeks ago and I just hadn’t noticed. Apparently after one of my daily YouTube outings, I had forgotten to log out. Mitch had just happened to get on that same computer, found my account freshly logged in, and took it upon himself to turn my page one big ad for his channel. I would have been upset if I hadn’t found out that I was only one of more than a dozen people he had done this to; instead I found myself uncomfortable around him. It was fairly regular that I came into the computer lab and found an email account or a Facebook open, what strange things had he done with those?
Many avenues people use to escape reality are rarely ever inherently wrong; after all, the pleasurable aspects of many things are the circumventions and distractions they provide. Yi-Fu Tuan says in his book Escapism, “Art, historically, has had the role of lifting life from the doldrums. Under its guidance and stimulation, things and events that have gone flat take on new savor and sparkle.” (Tuan 194) Whether you’re making art or appreciating it, escapism is an undeniable part of the fun. People who enjoy reality can go look at photographs. Conversely, what does all this desperation to get away tell Western society about itself? Are human beings as a species dissatisfied with our own evolution into culture and civilization? Would we care about the Internet, iPods and Facebook if each individual still had to hunt and gather his own food or learn to kill? Would we try to live vicariously through our favorite celebrities if we hadn’t escaped nature? The truth is that everyone likes to escape from the routine in some form or another; it could be argued that this is the basis for recreational activity in general. Making entertainment for the Internet is just one of the newer methods, compensating for both a need to create our own little fantasy world, as well as coping with today’s homogenous, impersonal means of existence.

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