Stop Calling Creative Work “Content”

I hosted a national conference a few years ago, and interviewed actor Sean Astin from the stage. You’ll remember Sean as Samwise in the “Lord of the Rings,” Mikey in “The Goonies,” and the title character of the film “Rudy.” I interviewed Sean from the conference stage, and as we talked about the world of digital media, I made the big mistake of referring to short films as “content.”

Sean immediately (and vigorously) responded that we shouldn’t call creative work “content.” “Content” can be what’s inside a package, or other inanimate object, but should never been the name we give artistic and creative endeavors.  The more I thought about it the more I’m convinced he’s right.

When it comes to work created out of passion or artistic sensibility, calling it simply “content” doesn’t do it justice.

Granted, it may take a long time for people in other areas (like business or finance) to think differently about it. But at least we creatives should draw a line in the sand.

What do you think?  Care to join us in the crusade to change what we call creative work?

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  1. On this subject, I received a note from writer and producer Todd Komarnicki (Google him): “Being playful, my first thought is that we have been called to be “content” in all circumstances by the apostle paul…so if we concentrate on that, then we have the deeper opportunity to make art with joy, no matter what the world winds up calling it.
    Peace and joy to you, dear Phil. life is richer with you in it. tk”

    1. That’s a GREAT response Todd. It made me laugh. Thanks for the different perspective! If we are to be content in all circumstances then content does matter!

  2. I’m with you, Phil. “Content” *sounds* reasonable enough: after all, we want works of art to be about something, to possess meaning. But at the same time this forgets that what sets art apart from other types of communication is *form*. When you call art “content” you imply that the form is something that is mere packaging, which can be discarded after the content has been delivered. But throughout history artists and thinkers alike have stressed that form — the how a thing is made — has equal importance and dignity. Imagine Shakespeare in flat, monotonous language or Renoir without his brushstrokes — well, you can’t. The reason art exists is that “content” loses its meaning for us if it is not renewed and refreshed by beautiful new forms. Learning how to pay attention to artistic form is itself a crucial part of the way our minds and imaginations are educated — and our hearts and minds are renewed. To reduce art to “content” is disrespectful of art’s essential mission. You might as well start calling King Lear “product” if you’re heading in that direction! My 2 cents!

  3. Wow, that’s a great new thought for me, and I absolutely agree. Now that I think of it CONTENT is what people criticize, analyze and tear apart. Christians count the number of swear words, violence and sexual acts in the CONTENT, but a piece of fine art is not merely content It’s a work of art or a piece of art, a reflection, a projection, an expression or a work of beauty. But a creative TV show of a film becomes just content….. You have changed me and my perspective with that comment. THANKS! If we approach all entertainment as art – it is SO MUCH MORE than just content!

  4. I totally agree. “Content” is what is inside a tin of tuna.

    I also note with amusement that someone else in the comments section mentioned “content” having connotations of the count the f-words and mini-skirts God-bothering Christians, who feel the need to act as moral guardians for us poor nitwits that would otherwise be stupid enough to take our little ones to the likes of Deadpool.

    Just re-checking Phil’s post on “content” to see if it contains any upper male nudity…

  5. Sean is probably right, “content” demeans many of our creative endeavors. But much of what is created by Christian media producers is definitely not “art” either. So what do we call it (among polite company)?

    This also brings up another tricky label we use almost daily… “talent”. Really? Let me give you some names…

  6. I bet I could get a raise if I were given a better title than “content creator.” Sometimes, I’m more like a “discontent creator.” Now that I think about it, that’s probably why I don’t get a raise.

  7. Certainly it’s an important distinction when discussing the topic of filmmaking among artists. As an artist I prefer that my deeply inspired art does not get reduced down into a commodity. On the other hand the word “content” is of course completely relevant when seeking funding or distribution opportunities from people who could care less about the soft light bounce across the heroes face. I would guess, Phil, that if the word “content” was used in an interview panel of studio reps the reaction would be nominal. To me, at the heart of this distinction is the old art/commerce symbiosis. For one to imply that it is invalid to label a short film as “content” is just silly. It is ART and it is CONTENT. As the years go by, I find myself more inclined to defend and nurture both my artistic and commercial sensibilities, regarding them as teammates serving a great cause together.

    Love these blog posts, Phil. And thank you the eBook; I look forward to the read!

  8. I just received this interesting perspective from advertising creative executive Brian Lorenz:

    “WOW. Great topic. You mention that you made a mistake by characterizing Astin’s work as “content.” But I see your phrasing of the question not as a mistake, but as a step into one of myriad grey areas that exist; especially regarding creativity. If we still claim that a picture is worth a thousand words, then we should be able to use that picture as content to convey a thousand-word message. We may not control the recipient’s perception of the message we are sending, but we are most certainly sending a message (e.g., content). It could then be easily argued that anything we package, visual and auditory, is content.

    All of the things we see, experience and create in life are potential elements for content. As soon as we wrap them into a package and send them out for others to view, we have created content. As a creative person, I don’t have any problem with our work being defined as content. The word, “content,” itself is neither a positive nor a negative word. It’s the message conveyed by said content that that is polarizing.

    My hope is that the quality of our work would serve to elevate any message with which it becomes associated. And if that’s the case, you can call it whatever you like.”

  9. There is the unfortunate situation of having to then turn around and sell your deeply emotional art and hopefully have that connect with someone else…a lot of someone elses in order to be able to go out and do it again. Content is a commodity and art is only as valuable as what people are willing to pay for it, unfortunately…or fortunately depending on whether or not you are a world class violinist or Kanye West. But, even advertising, when done well is an art form and yet, there are many that view that as content. A well done news program can be artistic in the intro’s-outro’s, graphics…We are surrounded by one form or another of art and the actual content of that art is consistently being assessed as being commercial enough to sell, so the artist can do it again. It is the weird tension of art and commerce. I don’t look at content as being a negative term as it is merely descriptive in most cases just as I don’t look at the producer title to be negative even though they say “no” a lot to many a creative person and team. It is a way of balancing what is “consumable” art and what isn’t. That doesn’t mean that non-consumable art is bad or not worth the effort. I think that Van Gogh bears out that point dying poor and obscure with a huge body of work so few people understood or bought during his lifetime. We didn’t make that mistake for long, blessfully. And, I’m sure that there are many like him, toiling in obscurity making better art than is consumed as content across our electronic screens at home, in hand and in theaters. Content…not an insult nor does it devalue what art is, in my book. It is just another way to describe how we move art out into the public.

  10. ‘Content’ is a word invented by web developers to distinguish between the web design and web site content. Most often, in their eyes, their work (web design) has higher value than the art (content) that goes into it. Sometimes this may even be true as there is often a great mismatch between great web design (which is also another form of art that highlights and markets the other) and the traditional art form that goes into it–content.

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