A few months ago, I was contacted by Andulka Wilkes and Evan Koehne about appearing in a documentary about a (fan) art show celebrating NBC’s cult comedy Community. I am thrilled to be a part of this project, and its release fills some of the void left by NBC pulling the season 4 premiere of Community. All Wingeresque shameless promotion aside, if you’re similarly sad about the “indefinite delay” (or, February 2013, close enough…) I’d encourage you to watch this doc, it’s a real testament to the fan culture surrounding the show, and the creators’ embrace of fannish textual production:
I find it somewhat amusing that Dan Harmon opens the documentary by remarking that Community began as “a crass, non-creative effort to make money.” The remainder of the documentary understandably dismantles that idea, celebrating the fans and artists that have coalesced around the show, and exploring the increasingly fluid boundaries between the cultural labels of “artist” and “fan.” But, because I was brought in specifically to offer some scholarly background on fan studies, I thought I might use this space to express some of my remarks that didn’t make the cut. Nothing against the filmmakers, I think they did a bang-up job, and anyone who knows me knows I can be a bit skeptical about monetizing fan production and sensitive to hierarchically privileging some forms of fan expression over others. That wasn’t the story the filmmakers set out to tell, and accordingly this blog post strives to reclaim some comments from the cutting room floor and pose some broader questions about the trend towards “fan art” gallery shows.
First, a confession: I am an avid collector of art (originals and prints) from Gallery 1988, Los Angeles galleries that specialize in thematic collections around particular (cult) media properties and genres. The “Six Seasons and A Movie” art show at PixelDrip was similar to Gallery 1988 shows, in fannish scope and audience, but further played up the “art show by/for fans” angle by including a costume contest and more interactive offerings (a playable version of the video game from the episode “Digital Estate Planning,” for example). I don’t have exact numbers, but the show appeared the feature a mix of professional artists who are fans of Community, and Community fan artists. What’s the difference? Increasingly, it’s difficult to gauge, but this doesn’t mean the hierarchies that underpin this distinction (both between “artist” and “fan artist,” and within the category of “fan artist” in terms of who was selected to participate in the gallery show) evaporate.
Fan art is, of course, nothing new, nor is the intersection between art and popular culture (see: Lichtenstein, Warhol, Banksy et. al.). What is novel is the legitimizing discourse that occurs when “fan art” moves into the gallery space, and begin to be sold. I often return to the dialogue created by Karen Hellekson’s and Abigail De Kosnik in the In Focus section of Cinema Journal 48, No. 4 (Summer 2009). Hellekson’s article, “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture,” argues for both the legal and social necessity of fan works being exchanged within a gift economy. Meanwhile, De Kosnik’s essay, “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?,” makes a compelling case for why fans, and female fans in particular, might find it empowering (or, simply preferable) to profit from their fannish labor. Both Hellekson and DeKosnik are concerned with the media industries’ encroachment on fan culture and practices, and their attempts to commercialize fan fiction.
So, my central question is, can we neatly apply these same concerns to fan art? Does its designation as “art,” and the growing popularity of liminal spaces like deviantART, facilitate a smoother transition for these forms of fan production into more “professional” spheres, or allow it to be monetized without the same blowback within fan communities? My own experience within fandom is that, while I would balk if someone charged me to read their fan fiction, I wouldn’t blink if I saw a fan selling their art (particularly if it was commissioned). While I am absolutely giddy that shows like “Six Seasons and A Movie,” or gallery spaces like Gallery 1988, acknowledge the immense talent of fans, I wonder if they truly acknowledge the lineage of fan art, or adequately reflect its sensibilities. What are the implications of call this a fan art show, when primarily professional artists are participating?
Generally, I feel there’s some important work to be done on the disconnects between contemporary fan culture (or the interpellation of fan culture into industry, high art, etc.) and histories of fandom and fan studies. Fan art has always been under-theorized (to my mind), despite the fact that, second to vidding, it has perhaps benefitted the most from digital tools and platforms. I would also suggest that fan artists have historically presented the most slippage between “amateur” and “professional.” So, do we call these “fan art” shows? Is it important (or even possible) to demarcate between artist/fan and fan/artist? I’m still working through my take on this…with Grant Searcey’s “Raiding Ft. Tusken” on canvas and Bruce White’s “Wet Hot Velvet Coop” looking down on me…
[Side note on the above video: I admittedly stumbled in the moment I was asked about my favorite Community quote. In a panic, I fell back on my dual loves, The Warriors and “Modern Warfare.” Here’s my actual favorite…from Abed, obviously: “We’ve lost our Cliff Clavin. Our George Costanza. Our Turtle…or Johnny Drama…or E. Man, that show is sloppy.”]