Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Precarious Lexicon; How A Simple Word Can Complicate An Artist's Life Part 6

Here we are again with this 7–part series exploring the nature of the term "hobby" as it relates to an artist working within the venue. As such, "hobby" has some specific influences that can work against an artist so we need a solid set of ideas that can help us mediate them to preserve our happiness and productivity.

For this reason, this series focuses most on artists because the nature of our participation is so quirky and peculiar. It's a funky place to work within given all the myriad forces at work and the design of the game itself. In this Part 6 then, we'll explore the idea of community and how all what we've previously discussed adds up for us. So enough gabbing...

Let's go!...

A Sense Of Community

Because the venue is based on a game, competition is the primary motivator for most participants. This is perfectly fine given this drive is kept in check by more important community priorities. Unfortunately, however, not only did the “hobby” paradigm atrophy the game’s structure, it also caused a deterioration of the community’s cohesion. 

While people can participate in a competitive activity as a hobby, this doesn’t mean the activity itself is a hobby. In a sense, the “hobby” aspect of model horses is incidental. Because as we’ve seen, especially when it comes to competition, it’s very serious business! And the stakes are getting higher every year. However, if we study other communities built around competition, we find they’re far more developed for an inclusive and sustainable future. For example, we find a formalized structure with a learning environment to initiate newcomers. We also find the promotion of the social aspect of the activity such as lessons, coaches, training, education, socials, beginner levels, AO (nonPro), Youth, and Novice divisions, etc. This is because its community has a “the more, the merrier” perspective and that results in growth. And because this is the priority of the community, it becomes self–sustaining, and in kind, community cohesion strengthens. When an activity is based on its non–competitive priorities first, when community comes first before competition, we not only create a more fun environment, but a sustainable one, as well. But clearly this cannot be said of the model horse game! 

Instead, we find the exact opposite, for the most part. We find participants becoming ever more fixated on competition while simultaneously overlooking the infrastructure that supports it. Heck, players created a national show with no formalized infrastructure to support the validity of the placings. There was also no regard for the long–term impact such a show would have on the community by placing a myopic emphasis on winning a paper card regardless of anything else. And that some of that "anything else" are experimental shows that could help solve the problems now inherent in the game. That’s how problematic the priorities have been. When we have players fervently arguing over the validity of a paper card and how they can best win one or who should win one or how we win one rather than discussing the systemic problems at hand, we have a real, practical problem.

So because of this fixation on competition, we find no real sense of community or social cohesion anymore, but a community that’s fractured and derisive. Shows used to be social gatherings rather than just a means to win a qualifying card. There was a sense of neighborhood, as fun and socializing was the point of the show, not the ribbons or cards. Yet today can be quite a different story. Indeed, when a specific show or region can make the novel boast that, “we have tons of fun together,” there’s something very wrong with the status quo.

Without community, competition can be a poisonous brew. Yes—competition can be instrumental for artistic progress, and many people enjoy the adrenaline rush, but it has its place. And it’s not necessarily the best or only means to improve our work, and it certainly shouldn’t be the singular focus for any community. There are far more important priorities at play.

Another problem arose with the myopic focus on competition: the more supportive and less intense environment artists once had for that long learning curve is now essentially gone. There’s little room for new or less–intense motivations since everyone is thrown into the Open (essentially professional) divisions—the most intense divisions. Not only does this disenfranchise swaths of participants, it also amplifies the player’s dependence on artists, compounding all the problems discussed in this series. Ideally, the game would shift the focus off professional artists and onto the DIYer since the non–pro actually forms the bulk of the community.

Eventually, the model horse community must realize that it’s not instrumental change that can take all the fun out of the game—it’s the status quo! To turn this situation around, the venue should start to place social cohesion and community above competition to reinstate balance, inclusion, and fun. It should start to embrace Youth, Novice, and Amateur–Owner (or non–Pro) classes and divisions. It should put focus back on the local and regional shows, and actively welcome newcomers with a more formalized system for initiating them. Judge mentoring and apprenticeships should be instituted, and perhaps in the future independent judge testing could help formalize criteria. Public forums should be moderated to ensure they remain a place fun for everyone to visit, free from toxic personalities. And last, but not least, education, clinics, workshops, seminars, books, blogs, demos, talks, and classes should become part of the experience. But, above all, that the sense of fun and camaraderie should be at the top of our list, our primary motivator for this activity. And it all begins with each of us, when we make ourselves accountable to not only to the game, but to the community, too. We can all have a hand in these positive changes if we motivate ourselves.

Until that happens, however, we artists will simply have to be patient. Yet we can do our part to strengthen the fraying social and creative aspects by helping to push along the process of reorganizing our community’s priorities. We can share our information and techniques to help others realize their creative potential. We can work as ambassadors for the activity, be that welcoming face to new folks. We can behave in ways that promote professionalism and cohesion as well as that sense of fun many of us miss. We can start discussions on these topics with others. Be the example. The arts can become a force of progress when we start to shift our priorities from competition and to community.

What Does All This Add Up To?

And now, we finally come to the end game of the "hobby" paradigm, the culmination of all the previous concerns into one big doozy of a problem for an artist.

What  is it?

Well, when casual participants only need to think about their own hobby level of involvement, there’s little motivation to address how the game’s existing framework impacts the collective future. The inevitable result is a gaming environment that based on exclusion rather than inclusion, resulting in a widespread and progressive disenfranchisement of players—and often without them even noticing it’s happening. For instance, those participants with less intense motivations are obliged to adopt the same OCD–like fanaticism it takes to create consistently winning work in the Open division. Newcomers and beginners are in the same boat. Without a place for these folks to enjoyably compete, with a decent, fair shot at doing well, they become disenfranchised or are forced to buy artists’ work and thus are discouraged from taking up the arts altogether. This is problematic for our collective future.

Yet too many often convince themselves they don’t want such divisions since they interpret them as being a “B–Team” player. They couldn’t be more wrong! Firstly, there’s nothing “B–Team” about the AO division! There are plenty of non–pros who create better work than professionals, only they simply don’t operate their model horse involvement as a business, but as a genuine hobby. When they sell, they do it usually to fund their involvement, not to make a living off it.

Plus, contrast that “B–Team” attitude to the showing environment within the Quarter Horse industry, perhaps the smartest infrastructure for encouraging inclusion—they really have it right. Now we can clearly see just how brutal the model horse game has become for the majority of participants, and how complacent we’ve become to accept it. We can clearly see that the model horse status quo is designed specifically to favor a minority at the expense of the majority—this isn’t a sustainable system. People worry about the exclusive "1%" in life, yet cannot see that we have the same dynamic working against us in this game. No wonder competition has become the constricted focus for so many participants. People are latching onto the only means to participate, and in Open competition that means a scramble. When all we care about is who got one and how we get a ribbon then there's no room for other things, is there? Do we see how it all adds up? And the model horse venue maintains it’s modeling itself after real horse showing? Oh, the irony! 

If we started to frame our activity as a game, and that we aren't only showers, but gamers, things take a whole new spin. We can compare ourselves to other gaming institutions like Magic and Dungeons and Dragons, and we can see how they've structured their system to be inclusive, welcoming, and fun–based. Even the prime directive in all D&D games is that people have fun, and everything else is secondary. Imagine if we each shifted our attention away from a card or ribbon and towards that? But we also have to recognize that the value of any given game piece is directly connected to its placings and qualification cards. This connection helps to create the fixation on awards, so we need to think on how to mediate it. Imagine if our pieces weren't the means to an end, but the end unto themselves? Nonetheless, it's understandable. When any player's piece is valued by how many ribbons or cards its won, that's a hefty correlation. Players are essentially trying to increase the value of their investment by showing. They're also trying to get the "most bank for their buck" by showing well, by having that thrill of winning more and more times. Yet it also highlights how Novice, Youth, and AO divisions are all the more needed. It also amplifies the need for more ways a player can participate, to lessen this burden on any one game piece.

But put it all together, and the “hobby” paradigm causes people fixate on how people win ribbons rather than how people can have fun and find fulfillment. Instead, most can be in it only for themselves with little regard for their fellows, or our shared future. Or they can be uncompromising and dogmatic since there's little accountability to the consensus and compromise needed for a healthy community. How is this truly a casual hobby for anyone?

So as an artist, especially a casual or new artist, expect to meet with a brutal set of expectations possibly far out of synch with our motivations or capabilities. So instead of competition, it’s often best to focus on education, on learning, and becoming competitive with ourselves rather than with others. When we learn to make our participation about discovery rather than about some satin ribbon, not only do we bring our endeavors into a more rational focus, it’s also a healthier one for the long–term.

And try to advocate for experimental shows that explore alternatives to the current status quo. When people have support for trying other things, that helps to generate enthusiasm and conviction. It may also be a productive idea to sponsor, or better yet, host, experimental classes or divisions at an existing show. What the venue needs is experimentation and a willingness to discover new ideas and implement them. The game needs more levels of participation so that the majority of players can find a more sensible measure of success. We need options.

On that note, for artists and players alike, along with taking photos of the pieces exhibited at a show, think about also taking pictures of the people present. Then share them through social media and blogs. We can even get quotes from the people present to include in our write–up. As we've seen in the vintage custom circle of interest, not only does this have historical value, but it helps to shift interest towards the people involved, and that can help rebuild a sense of camaraderie. Placing a focus back on the people at a show, we humanize what we're doing since people can add faces to the names they know so well, which can help to add a sense of community back into the showing experience. It can also help us remember that there's a person behind an avatar, and that may help to give people pause before blasting some comment through a keyboard. 

And as artists, we can share our knowledge through blog posts, articles, videos, and books, and give demos at our show tables. Sharing out knowledge is a generous, civic–minded thing to do which can not only help others realize their potential, but sets a tone to be community–minded. It also helps to elevate the skills needed to create a winning piece, and the more people who create cutting
edge work, the better. Plus, teaching is one of the best ways to learn! When we have to impart our techniques and ideas, we have to know what we're talking about, right? And the only way to do that is to be clear in our concepts and that begs education and research, and this informs our own work. It also gives people a better idea of what's entailed on the other side of the studio door, and that can go far in developing better reactions to our decisions and policies.

By becoming the change the venue needs so badly, we attract like–minds to us and that sets off a spark. Together, we naturally share our ideas and concerns, and that can help to generate new ideas and directions to explore and support. In a very real sense, helping to rebuild a sense of community could help us learn to find consensus and compromise, too, as we relax our fixation on ribbons and place it back on fun and cohesion. Indeed, when we view this venue as all of us in the same boat, it becomes harder to try and sink it for our own narrow interests. And above all, be patient. The tide is slowing turning. 

Conclusion to Part 6

With these new ideas perhaps it's more clear how the casual idea of "hobby" has caused some of our thinking to mismatch our reality. Our community isn't a throwaway thing and the negative influences "hobby" has on all of us are real and pervasive. We all have a stake in this. There is a future that needs our attention. This implies we all need to be pro–active because each of us has a responsibility to each other, and that helps to care about every interest involved in the game. Each of us is important, and each of us is needed and should be appreciated. We're all in this together!

In Part 7 then we'll explore some specific things an artist can do to improve her participation in the community and help to elevate it, maybe even change some minds or rebuild a compromised public image. This shouldn't be seen as some kind of hoity–toity behavior, but something that's positive and beneficial. We'll also conclude this series (yes, there is an end!) with some additional thoughts on all this.

So until next time...get community minded!

"I think we could build a better one."
~ Bill Boeing

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