In his essay The Accidental Audience, Brad Troemel examines the life of the casual Internet user and his or her unwitting relationship to art. The question Troemel poses is, "On Tumblr, users can look at art without even realizing it. Do they democratize the work or merely make it an advertisement for itself?" In other words, did you realize that when you were procrastinating on Tumblr the other day you permanently changed the very trajectory of art viewership as a whole? You might be surprised to hear the answer is "Yes, well, maybe," especially if you have seen Troemel’s Tumblr, JOGGING.
Created as a research institute for higher learning, JOGGING set out to answer the question of what happens to art when people who look at art don’t know it’s art. [Editor's note: See Evan Smith's article on JOGGING here.] JOGGING is a group effort, where multiple contributors upload images ranging from pictures of their artwork to documentations of performances, to actual works that literally exist only as JPGs or GIFs; some of which come branded with stock-photo watermarks. Many of the images uploaded to JOGGING have been reblogged thousands of times, exposing many unsuspecting, innocent people to art. Troemel sees the unaware art-viewer in the same way that Bob Geldof saw famine-stricken Ethiopians in 1984, when he brought together a group of popular musicians to sing Do They Know It’s Christmas? except instead of Ethiopians we’re now concerned with how people use Tumblr. Do they know it’s art? Should we tell them, maybe? Call Duran Duran, get Phil Collins to bring his drum set, and we’ll fire up Photoshop to help us decide.
And yet, despite the questions already posed by the article, the one I was most eager to discover an answer to is that question Troemel left uninvestigated: when a meme exists, and an artist makes an image based on that meme and then uploads that image to a Tumblr used exclusively for art, how can the artist assure his or herself that their image is in fact art, and all of the visually similar memes it is based on are not? This will be explored, but first some background.
The issue of authorship is very much relevant when works of art are brought online. Troemel is right to cast a critical eye onto the Tumblr-community, which can be a sketchy area authorially. It is not uncommon for artworks to be uploaded without attribution, and even when attribution is given, Tumblr users have ways of hiding or stripping the original source of the image. Popularity on Tumblr is counted in the amount of notes a post has, which are accumulated when other users reblog or like the post. As Troemel points out, being the 10,001st person to reblog an image doesn’t make you popular, thus incentivizing users to find the best and most original images, or just stealing the best images and claiming them as their own.
Troemel references (reblogs) the argument in a December 2012 article by David Joselit regarding fundamentalism vs. neoliberalism, two terms borrowed (reblogged) from political analysis. As applied to the art world, image fundamentalism claims that the artwork must be viewed at the site of its creation, because fully understanding the cultural and social climate in which it was created is essential to understanding its meaning. Image neoliberalism claims that context is unimportant when viewing an artwork; what’s important is where the market decides the artwork should travel, and who currently owns it.
The Elgin Marbles are used by Troemel as the prime example of the clash between image fundamentalism and image neoliberalism. The Elgin Marbles are a collection of Greek marble sculptures and architectural features found on the Acropolis in Athens. At the beginning of the nineteenth-century the sculptures were then controversially transported from Athens to Britain by British diplomat Lord Elgin. Their suitability to the debate about Tumblr authorship is inaccurately applied by suggesting that the image fundamentalists are in Athens asking for their Marbles back for cultural reasons, while the image neoliberalists in Britain refuse for market reasons.
This is a misreading of the dilemma. The British did not just reblog the Elgin Marbles. The British also did not just drag the Elgin Marbles to their desktop and reupload them into their museum. The Marbles are physical objects that were stolen from the physical site of their creation and then physically transported to a different country in an act of culturally insensitive imperialism (as most imperialism is). On top of that, one of the arguments the British Museum proposes for keeping the Marbles in Britain is that by retaining all the sculptures in one place, the museum provides a "place where the world can discover the world," and that to dismember the British Museum’s collection would be damaging to museum culture. The British Museum is arguing, on one level, the same thing that the Acropolis Museum in Athens is, which is that it’s necessary to view the Marbles wherever they are in order to get a better idea of whatever it is they’re supposed to teach us, a.k.a. image fundamentalism.
All of this is necessary to emphasize the trickiness and importance of defining the terms of our contemporary conversations, especially when we’re on brave new frontiers like the Internet, and to highlight how conventional arguments about art shift when digital elements—like the ease of copying and sharing—are added. Both the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum are image fundamentalists. But that’s because they’re museums, and that’s because museums are physical spaces that charge admission, sometimes at exorbitantly high prices, for a presumed benefit. The argument on behalf of all museums is the same: our collection is important to all of us. To break apart the pieces of any museum’s collection (as the argument goes), and then to view them bits at a time, would dampen the effect the cultural institution has been working to assemble for our collected benefit. As a lifelong museum-goer myself, I tend to agree with this presumption. But museums contain self-selected audiences. As Troemel mentions, the museum-goer knows that they are going to look at art. The casual Internet user has none of the same intentions, except now all of a sudden, they aren’t in control of the time and place for experiencing or encountering art, which is why the accidents happen. As Troemel puts it, the accidental Tumblr audience goes one step further than the image neoliberals in the fight to possess artworks, because Tumblr users are so much more aggressive in dismissing ideas around copyrights and intellectual property. The Tumblr user who takes an image and passes it off as their own in order to accrue popularity loses no sleep over their theft, because they don’t view it as wrong.
The reason why this happens is, on one level, completely understandable. The purpose of the Internet is advertising; hence the ads that cover Facebook and Twitter, and the ones that receive their special highlighted status on Tumblr. Sponsored tweets, Tumblr posts, and Facebook posts all take on the same form as the content created by you, your friends, and the people you follow on these networks. At first glance, a sponsored tweet appears like any other tweet in your feed. The same goes for Tumblr, which uses a "Spotlight" feature to draw attention to user-decreed popular posts, but also uses the same space to highlight ads. Most ads are intrusive, but occasionally an ad will become popular enough to be shared. This sharing is encouraged because ads are created for us, and are ours. Ads impersonate the form of content that is created with the intent of sharing, and because ads can seem like creative content, a slippage occurs. Since it’s acceptable to share ads, and upload ads onto YouTube, and reblog ads without worrying about attribution, it becomes acceptable in the minds of many users to do this with all content.
The overriding message of our social networks is that, like ads, they are also created especially for us. We don’t have to pay anything to use these networks, and yet we expect them to operate on our own terms and to remain free. On the Internet, this has created a popular assumption that everything is created for us, is owned by us, and costs nothing. Imagine as an artist, entering into this environment and trying to assert ownership over an image. Participating in the generous, share-happy culture that ads and social networks have combined to create is difficult for an artist who still wants to assert their authorship over their images. Putting an artwork online is an act of sharing, but also an act of relinquishing. At the moment, the best an artist can hope for in terms of support against this kind of free-for-all taking is a community effort dedicated to the preservation of originality. This requires tight-knit groups of like-minded content creators and protectors who use online tools to preserve authorship. A simple Google search can help find stolen content, and the community can try to shame the thief into repentance, but nothing can truly protect content from redistribution without credit. It may be difficult to accept, but once someone else possesses your image, you no longer have any say over its usage. Naked celebrities and politicians know this, and now artists have to accept this as well.
I return to my first unanswered question, about how to differentiate between images that are art and visually similar memes that are not granted the same status. Contextual clues seem to be Troemel’s answer, along with the suggestion that the artistically obtuse audience is actually quite skilled in identifying aspects of commercial image-making. To Troemel, the discrepancy in "professional sheen" between an ad and an art object is one of the ways an ad is able to be distinguished. While some advertisements do retain all of the hallmarks of, well, advertisements, many companies are now full-on appropriating the vocabulary—both visual and verbal—of the social media user in order to sell products. Now the audience has to differentiate between a piece of Internet art about Kim Kardashian and all of the products to which Kardashian lends her image; because there’s a good chance they are visually and stylistically similar. It’s getting more and more difficult to make this differentiation. People can’t tell the difference between an Onion article and actual news, but are supposed to recognize an image as art because of it’s distinct "otherness."
Troemel quotes from Boris Groys’ essay, The Weak Universalism:
"Avant-garde art today remains unpopular by default, even when exhibited in major museums. Paradoxically, it is generally seen as a non-democratic, elitist art not because it is perceived as a strong art, but because it is perceived as a weak art. Which is to say that the avant-garde is rejected—or, rather, overlooked—by wider, democratic audiences precisely for being a democratic art. . ."
Craig Damrauer of morenewmath.com created a perfectly Tumblr-esque image to explain Modern Art as being I Could Do That + Yeah But You Didn’t. As Groys and Troemel point out, this upsets people, rather than alerting them to the possibility that they personally could be creating things that can be considered great works of art. But today, online, the avant-garde work of art is not overlooked by democratic audiences for being democratic art, it’s overlooked because, while democratic in terms of technical ability, it’s very undemocratic in terms of sincerity and intent, and this troubles people who feel that a joke is being had at their expense because they don’t "get" art. The intent and the level of sincerity of many JOGGING pieces seem to be the main ways in which the artist differentiates his or her work from other meme-based images. A piece like Aaron Graham’s HAIR STRAIGHTENER USED TO COOK INDIVIDUAL PIECE OF BACON contains an ironic distance, wherein the work suggests participation in a meme, but holds itself above the meme. By doing so, it also holds itself above the audience that views it as a meme. There is a much smaller audience that knows it’s art and knows that many people are viewing it as not-art, granting those in the know a special, undemocratic privilege. The audience that discovers it’s an artwork feels tricked because they’ve been left out of the secret club.
Without the knowledge that the images on JOGGING are art, they become indistinguishable from the flood of images and memes that keep Tumblr afloat. Many people aren’t sure that what they are looking at is art, but those same people also aren’t worrying about it either. Anything that has rebloggable value will be reblogged, no matter if it’s a car commercial, a fashion ad, a GIF, or a work of art. If it’s awesome, or beautiful, or sad; if it encapsulates some desirable feeling or emotion, it has Tumblr value. It will be popular regardless of that image’s status as an art object or not, and regardless of it’s sincerity or intention. Do They Know It’s Christmas? is considered by its creator to be one of the worst songs in the history of music. I wonder if we will feel similarly, reflecting back after a few decades, on Tumblr. Do these Tumblr users even realize it’s art? No. Should we tell them? Probably not. Let them decide what it is.