The New York Times Arts section celebrated Independence Day with an ode to the Statue of Liberty by dance critic Alastair Macaulay.
Being a lyrical article (“I love spending time with the Classical statues in archaeological museums; my apartment is decorated with dance imagery from different cultures and centuries. Liberty connects.” References to Virginia Woolf and St. Augustine ensue), the photo editors must have wanted to create an equally lyrical visual effect.
So they decided to make three animated GIFs: set against the still statue, the bay water ripples under an orange sunset, trees quiver in the breeze, and a bird dashes across the sky. It sounds like a nice idea, but there is something unshakably silly about the effect: the statue and landscape stand awkwardly fixed against the plodding repetition of the world around them.
The Liberty GIF is just like those semi-transparent photographs of waterfalls in which a moving lamp gives the illusion of the water flowing. Indeed, the websites advertising those pieces use GIFs to emulate the effect.
But the wackiness of GIFs needn’t be so awkward: many internet artists and pranksters (and prankster-artists) use the quick repetition of the GIF for hilarious effect. GIFs trap you in a visual purgatory: you grasp in one second what is happening and what is going to happen for internet eternity. Meanwhile, they make impossible the tranquility and solemnity of a photograph or painting.
No surprise that GIFs have become the weapon of choice for new memes. The #whatshouldwecallme method offers a lingua franca for expressing sentiments through image-text mashups. The absurd repetition of GIFs fits the bite-sized feelings attached to them: the more flamboyance, action, melodrama or cuteness (a cat falling, Michelle Obama giving a thumbs up and approving face, a pivotal movie scene), the more effective the GIF.
It is the self-seriousness of the Times GIF, the verism of the image mixed with the repetition of a few selected parts, that makes it so painfully kitschy. A GIF can only be earnest at the risk of looking ridiculous. Sympathies to Lady Liberty — we’ve all looked bad in at least one birthday photo.