Edited by Janani Mahadevan
Art is not a career. Or, more specifically, art is not considered a career by the general public. We’ve romanticised the image of a ‘starving artist’ and call musicians ‘sell-outs’ if they get signed to big record deals or sign lucrative sponsorships. However, artists are people, just like anyone else, and art can be a career, just like anything else. You wouldn’t call an accountant a sellout for expecting to be paid to do their work and yet artists are considered greedy, corrupt, upstarts and sellouts for expecting the same.
However, while artists must absolutely be paid and paid well for the work that they do, there is no doubt that capitalism has entered art in the way it has entered any other profession. There is no realm of art untouched by capitalism, with little left that is ‘pure’ and not motivated by profit. Of course, profit motives do not always ‘corrupt’ artists, nor do they necessarily have a negative impact on art, but even the consumption of art under capitalism has become a complicated process. Instead of truly engaging with work and building communities around it, we are now made to think we are wasting our leisure time if we are not consuming as much art (which includes media) as possible. All of this makes art less a representation of human needs and more a manifestation of human-created needs.
On the other hand, fanfiction and fan art do not fit into the same moulds of creation. They are works of art that solely respond to other works of art or real things happening around them, built around a fan base. There is no profit in this work for fanfic writers and fan art creators. The most they will get out of this is likes and shares or perhaps a ‘notice’ from the original creators of the media they are responding to or from the people the media is about. A few fanfiction writers turn their creations into lucrative franchises by changing some names, character traits, and situations as Cassandra Clare — the writer of The Mortal Instruments — and Anna Todd — the author of After, what was formerly a Harry Styles fanfiction on Wattpad, did — but then they are not fanfiction anymore and, therefore, not what this article is about! Most creators in fan bases, however, do things purely because they want to, because they are inspired to, and because this is something that they wished to see or read or listen to as well and had the means of putting it into the world.
There is a wealth of such art available freely on the internet. On sites like Archive Of Our Own (AO3 — the most popular site for fanfiction these days), people can find thousands upon thousands of works to read about popular fandoms like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Harry Potter. In fan works, the characters in these universes can be reimagined in different universes and settings, or as people with different identities while maintaining the core characterisations that the fans love. Here, despite the bigoted views of the author, Sirius Black can be a trans man in love with Remus Lupin and thousands of people will read it.
Mainstream media has been slow in creating diverse works that are representative of real populations. Even now, most protagonists in big-budget movies are white, cisgender, and heterosexual. In fanfiction, these characters can be reimagined to suit the needs of the fan base. Thousands of teenagers who grew up with little to no representation and without being able to see themselves in the popular works they consumed can now rewrite them to fit their identities in these narratives. The purpose is purely for their own satisfaction — to get what they long wanted and were constantly denied.
As for profit, fanworks cannot really be sold. While some artists do take commissions and others sell their work on platforms like Redbubble or create content that can only be accessed by paying a monthly fee on sites like Patreon, most fan creators do not do this for profit or as a career. They do it simply because they want to with no ulterior motive. In fanfiction, we find artists responding to and inspiring other artists. There is no plagiarism, no self-aggrandizing fulfilment. Fanworks are art for art’s sake, which is something that cannot really be found anywhere else today.