A lot of people who make "creative work" broadly (contemporary fine art, writing, videogames, etc), especially those operating at the highest, most extraordinary levels of success in that area, retreat to an apologetic mode either in their work itself or when discussing or presenting their work. "Novels/videogames/art/etc don't/can't 'do anything.'"
But the simple formula for the moral value of a work is the more people it can reach, the better, right? So why does there seem to be an inverse relationship between the "power" someone has as a creator, and the power they attribute to their own work? By using the term inverse I mean I also find it important that at the other end, people doing more niche, unpopular, de/un-professionalized, etc work, often without any stability or monetary reward and significance only among a small community or peers, seem to have much more of a sense of their work "doing something," because there would be no other reason to do it.
When you look at the people who tend to be most convinced that a particular medium is formally incapable of "doing anything" in the "real world," their work tends to be, also, work that has levered some form of cultural reward by tapping into popular sentiments of aesthetic beauty, craftsmanship, and generally of being "of its time" or "what we need right now." How can it be so suitable and also not do anything? Well, being recognized in one's time so expediently generally relies on hopping through a very narrow opening. The base of a pyramid is wide, the top dwindles away to nothing, so it's very "logical" even if it is not "true" for people who have either climbed or stumbled their way to mass, hegemonic distribution to feel like they have a very narrow set of options, and that these affordances are the whole of what a particular medium can do.
So maybe, the problem is not any particular form. Maybe the problem is, across form, "beauty." By "beauty" I don't mean my own subjective positive response to things, some but hardly all of which fit a general casual usage of "beautiful." I mean a sort of generalized commonsensical feeling of normative formal pleasure, appropriateness, quality, and relevance that is the fig leaf stand in of the argument for why culture that is not doing anything, and in fact strips itself of its sense of ability to do anything, remains dominant, ubiquitous, inescapable, and oppressive to any other alternative tendencies. "Beauty" is rarefied sentiment, kitsch and normativity heightened into charm offensive. It is not just ahistorical but anti-historical. How could "the good" be otherwise?
"Beauty" as basically ideological self-delusion appears often in the sentiments of individuals working in the apologetic mode about what work really counts, by which I mean their values seem to be very cottagecore. It's always something like the humble, authentic, working man of the field who has been missing since approximately Millet completing The Angelus in 1859. The long-suffering bus driver or harried data entry worker etc of modernity never appears in these fantasies, nor does a whiff of current industrial farming practices, and how the immortal image of the humble family farm is politically mobilized in that realm. Et cetera.
On top of this, it is hardly worth pointing out that as much as some people can wring their hands and gnash their teeth about their own "sincere" belief in their existential inadequacy, they also will never take a different job, and their output will also usually not change so much, since they're mostly drawing on the same old past beauties rather than engaging with the uncertain and undecided terrain of contemporary production.
So, while it's hard to argue that "food" in general is a less immediate need than public transport or functional ways of organizing information or human culture in general, they all kind of structurally work the same way, and also we want a life that includes all of them to appropriate degrees. (Adorno: "Productivity in its genuine, undisfigured sense will, for the first time, have a real effect on need: not by assuaging unsatisfied need with useless things, but rather because satisfied need will make it possible to relate to the world without knocking it into shape through universal usefulness.") While the picking of an individual orange, the fate of a single farm, or even the rate of success of most non-staple crops in a particular season does not "change the world" by itself, the distributed production of food/transport/information systems/culture maintains it in its current form, for better or worse.
Developing a sense of culture working this way can contribute to an understanding of culture that is, like all other areas of human activity, collaborative (in the neutral sense) and historical. There is the idealization of "great works" or even "great individuals," but also all the work that goes into making these peaks legible, and a lot of this work happens at the lower and lowest levels. Dali could only become ubiquitous and kitsch because the surrealists, pre-surrealists, dadaists and pre-dadaists, etc, existed, working in multiple media and at many levels of culture, finding hand-holds on popular and unknown works and influences alike. (Dali also had a notable fixation on The Angelus.)
And this idea also applies to media broadly, and what they do, in fact, "do." A medium only emerges because it is filling some sort of legible cultural role. With novels and oil paintings and videogames alike, there are elements of this function that can be motivating to artists, individually or collectively liberatory, unique and full of potential; there are also always elements that are pretty clearly normalizing and shoring up existing hierarchies and relationships with culture. But the point is that these things are not set: the point of utilizing a medium is not to do it "well" but to expand or change the direction of how it can be done.
Basically, the idea that a single instance of a medium must "do something" without any of the surrounding context is too much pressure (and pressure of the wrong kind) to put on form, but also a sort of nihilist dismissal of the fact that media emerge because they are doing something, and that thing is historically situated, able to always be nudged in new directions, and never set. Of course work made in this defensive and/or resigned mindset is boring, because it closes off the interesting potential of culture and cultural analysis that has to be kept open. Is it possible to be a beauty-despising formalist? Because I think that's where I might be.
Here is where I'd put the Tumblr tags, I guess: #spitballing #I hate media as a plural for medium can someone change this?