Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.
Can you imagine ads being sold on a Mark Rothko canvas? Sponsorships, perhaps, stuck discreetly to a corner of the canvas? After all, artworks get a lot of eyeballs, and that audience isn’t really getting monetized as much as it could be.
Though the suggestion sounds a little ridiculous (perhaps more so for Rothko than a Pop artist like Andy Warhol), advertising and corporate influence present a fundamental concern for art on Tumblr and other social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Artists making work through these platforms must confront the fact that their content — the pieces they create and the media they produce — are part of an economic ecosystem oriented toward the profit of the company that owns the social web space. The advertising might not be blatantly apparently (Tumblr, for instance, doesn’t display ads on its individual user pages), but it is pervasive.
We tend to think of the internet as a blank space, and through the magic of HTML and some cheap web hosting, it pretty much is — artists can make work from nothing and disseminate it on a wider scale than ever imaginable, wholly controlling the creation and presentation of a piece. Yet the web is becoming less and less of a clean slate as more of our experience is bounded by walled gardens controlled by commercial companies. Charter owns your connection, Google your search engine, and Facebook your personal data. The internet is not quite so anarchic and unbounded as we hope.
Our experience of the internet is an inherently monetary exchange, with web-based businesses profiting directly or indirectly from our accessing of information that others have chosen to make public. This makes for a sticky situation when discussing the state of art making on the internet, particularly in the case of social media art. The major social media networks of today are archetypal walled gardens: They present self-contained ecosystems for web browsing that make it unnecessary to leave the comfortable confines of a single corporate space. Facebook would love nothing more than for their users to never leave their site, and Twitter and Tumblr are driven toward ever-greater user engagement, though they often link out to other areas of the web. These companies need you to stick with them, so that you can add incrementally to their hoard of unique visitors and user time.
Social media networks run on content. They depend on their users to make compelling pieces of media — whether that’s photo albums, aggregated links, or diary entries — that drive audiences to their sites. They then sell those audiences to advertisers, completing the transformation of crowd-sourced cultural production into capital. For average users, it’s probably not such a concern that their vacation shots are being monetized, but artists might see the content (artwork) they produce as more dear, with more significance given to its integrity. The dangers presented by making work in a relentlessly capitalized space where creative content is currency are manifold: The work cannot help but engage with a commercial system, the artists cannot control its integrity or continued existence online, and preservation is made difficult when the infrastructure is maintained by a business.
It must be said that creating artwork on a mainstream social network involves a tradeoff by choice: Artists might be making free content for the sites, but they are certainly benefiting from the audience and platform built by the companies. Previously, artists didn’t have independent access to the kind of exposure that they now do through the internet. There are social networks that aren’t monetized by advertising — the user fee-driven App.net, for example — but so far, these lack the massive viewership and potential for going viral so prevalent on larger networks. Participating in the commercial system is a conscious choice.
The best examples of the young genre of social media art, or art that is made through and about social media platforms, actively engage and critique the platforms they travel through, making us rethink how we use these now mundane online tools. Such is the case with Joe Hamilton’s excellent “Hyper Geography,” a visual orchestra hosted on Tumblr that investigates how images are created and disseminated through the internet, taking advantage of the social network’s infrastructure to form a loosely connected web of images and content propelled by Tumblr’s own channels. Man Bartlett’s “#24hKith” took advantage of the conversational nature and global audience of Twitter to propel himself to after-hours internet micro-celebrity, soliciting descriptions of dreams from his viewers and turning them into sculpture in the form of feathers on a mannequin.
Yet even these works can’t escape becoming monetized in the form of advertising and data sales through the social networks they exist on. Hamilton and Bartlett might subvert some of the polite intentions and norms of social networks, but they don’t overthrow their capitalist infrastructure. It’s a problem that most drawings and paintings don’t face — large companies are not controlling the supply and quality of available canvas and pigment, or at least artists have the option of avoiding mass-market products. Instead, the internet is the mass market, a negatively democratized space in which art, like any other media good, is simply fodder for the monetization mill. In the eyes of the companies that control the networks, the most successful piece of social media art is barely different from your ex’s annoying status updates.
In his essay “Marx, Labor, and the Artist,” poet and critic Reginald Sheperd defines the artist as a “cultural worker in the same way that someone laboring in a factory is an industrial worker.” But for Sheperd, artists are more independent and self-actualized than the oppressed industrial worker because the artist chooses “both the means and the result of his own production” and “both the impulse and the product of his labor are his own.” Factory workers control neither the means nor the results of their production; they are simply labor.
There’s no doubt that Francis Bacon or Cindy Sherman, painting in obscurity and taking staged, guerrilla self-portraits, controlled both the means and the results of their artistic production. The same is not true for artists working on the internet. From the very beginning, their materials are co-opted by the capitalist system, and any public works they create through social platforms play into the profit machines of those web companies. It’s impossible to resist monetization while working in a corporate online space controlled by investors and board members, the kind of space that social media art, as opposed to work hosted independently on URLs or through email, exists in. Yet the alternatives — state-controlled internet lends itself to censorship and mediocre technology while small-scale non-commercial social media operations lack large audiences — also seem untenable.
So what is a digital artist to do to avoid or mitigate being involved in such a system? Should they forsake any and all tools made by for-profit companies? The connection to the internet itself is fundamentally problematic. Yet we clearly can’t go on a witch-hunt for commercialism — after all, gallery and museum spaces are capitalist contexts just as much as the web or social networks, with galleries directly oriented toward showcasing and selling works and museums often stocked by collectors and controlled by trustees, whose personal collections and tastes can influence programming and acquisitions. Instead, one way artists might succeed is by using the commercial nature of the internet against itself.
A project that does this well is “The Jogging,” a collective tumblelog of surreal, sometimes ephemeral, sometimes virtual sculptures and collisions of digital media. The pieces on “The Jogging” exist only fleetingly, as objects half real and half virtual. Yet they are also commodities in and of themselves: The Jogging’s physical sculptures are sold through Etsy, the web platform better known for DIY handicrafts than conceptual art. The Jogging takes advantage of its form to monetize itself, as does Caleb Larsen’s “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter,” a plain black cube that uses eBay to sell itself every time it is bought by a collector. It uses the web to fight easy possession, subverting the idea of art object as trophy.
Finally, the act of creating art on a social network is a balancing act. The successful work of art necessarily critiques the platform it exists on and resists the more negative effects of the money-driven ecosystem found on the internet. Yet it must take part in the system in order to reach a wider audience and fulfill its potential. Like institutional critique and its codependent relationship to institutional spaces, social media art is a virus that piggybacks on its semi-willing hosts, untenable without them but impure with them. The trade-off must be acknowledged and, if possible, appropriated and redirected.
Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.