Essays

Online Social Sculpture: On the Internet, We’re All Artists

Ben Craddock’s Minecraft-made virtual computer (from Gizmodo.com)

One of protean German artist Joseph Beuys’s most famous quotes runs, “Everyone is an artist.” Framed within the artist’s idea of “social sculpture,” a conceptual practice in which our lived world forms a gigantic work of art and individuals become artists in its context, the quote makes sense. The wandering artist spent his time creating sculptures out of society, reshaping thought structures through performances, lectures, and physical objects, working with his fellow human-artists to remake our universe moment to moment. We might be a little hesitant to repeat the same mantra today, though, after the image of the heroic artist has evolved, solidified, and become cliche. In the present day, I’d rephrase Beuys’s maxim to, “On the internet, we’re all artists.”

Much like Beuys’s idea of the world as artistic stage made to be created and re-created by its nomadic artist-inhabitants, the internet has become a place and a space in which objects and ideas can be made and re-made, spun from nothing, and immediately appropriated into a greater system, a vocabulary of creations that eventually form an entire digital, online universe. Within the space of the internet, we all make things, all contributing towards the minute-to-minute production of a world. Whether it’s a blog post or a Photoshop’d image, another LOLcat or the tiniest tweet, the world we make is the aggregate of each one of our individual creative actions. In a sense, the internet is entirely inorganic, a false world. But it’s also an organic work of art, a creation that has evolved organically from its unnatural beginnings.

Game World As Un-juried Open Exhibition

One particular online video game reinforces this concept to me. Minecraft has been picking up steam lately, creating online furors on YouTube, inspiring Penny Arcade comics and countless blog posts. The mechanics of the game are incredibly simple in their essential state, but the game’s simplicity gives rise to an infinite complexity. Basically, you are a human avatar in a created world. Your avatar can “mine” the world around you, drawing from the earth certain elements, called “blocks,” representing gold, iron, diamond, wood, and a host of others. These blocks can be combined by players into new objects, four blocks of wood forming a workbench used to expand object-making abilities, three “cobblestone” blocks forming a “step,” used to make stairs, an iron ingot and flint become fire. Slowly, the singular elements become composites.

Minecraft's table of elements

An online community has grown up around the Minecraft world with players sharing what they come up with using the game’s deceptively simple engine. In fact, the Minecraft world is so dynamic and so atomized that there’s no limit to what people can create, from rollercoaster minecart rides to functioning simple computers using the game’s equivalent of electricity. Users swap tips and tricks, diagramming out “recipes” to make objects and ways to use the engine to better aesthetic effect. The best and most complex works rise to the top, garnering YouTube hits and blog posts links by way of accolades.

The social universe of these digital works of art brings to mind other online sandbox worlds that have been turned into art. Cao Fei is probably the most well-known of the online virtual reality artists, using Second Life to create “RMB City,” a digital dynamic analogue for contemporary China, a kind of composite of all the country’s new urbanism. Minecraft also brings to mind Beuys’s performances in the way that a single work seems to infiltrate the cultural consciousness, a well-placed YouTube video document taking the place of a marked-up chalkboard. Where social sculpture meets social media is where the virtual world meets the real one, through the nexus of its users who cross between the worlds interchangeably. Minecraft is an outpouring of genuine creativity in a leveled world where everyone can be an artist, free from the sometimes damning connotations of artistic suffering, market cynicism, and business-minded selling out. The game world is an un-juried open exhibition that shouldn’t be denigrated to “vernacular;” it’s just anarchic.

The online video game to me is nothing less than a metaphor for the artistic creative process. Forming something from nothing, a viral idea spreading through a real social community. Tiny bits of reality come together to form increasingly complex bits of reality, weighted with meaning and symbolism. As the objects gain weight, somewhere down the line they become Art. And Art, or Art existing in the World, is the goal, isn’t it?

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