Tuesday, 14 August 2018

What are the aesthetics of social media? That would be kitsch

At about 8.30pm on Saturday 11 August, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) presenter Kumi Taguchi tweeted, “Hello Twitter. Can't get a picture out of my head. It's a cabin on a prairie, surrounded by wildflowers & wide blue skies. I think it's in America. Where would this place be? Idaho? Oregon? Montana? #dreaming”

We all know the feeling we want to encapsulate but we might lack the pictorial vocabulary needed to fulfil the desire. Something lies just beyond the confines of our consciousness that beckons, enticingly. What picture was that? I think I’ve seen it before. We share an inability, let’s celebrate that for a moment. Here …

Twitter is full of these moments of unthinkingly sharing something that cannot otherwise be put into words except through suggestion, a meme, an image, or a short verbal construct that neatly encapsulates a feeling. People reach around inside their bag of tricks looking for that thing that will be shared as many times as possible. It’s a popularity contest, so the things that we share have to be easily communicated. In this dynamic, nuance, subtlety and irony get lost in the full blare of midday.

What it produces mostly in the aesthetic realm is kitsch. The ambiguity that good art relishes has been rubbed off in the process of manufacturing the shareable soundbite, in finding the exact, ideal moment that says, “This is how I want people to think I feel right now.” (Regardless of how they might actually feel.)

It might be news of a new restaurant opening down the street that makes you suddenly the happiest person in the world. It might be the sight of a group of puppies swamping a child on the floor with their soft muzzles and floppy ears. It might be a painting by an Impressionist (Van Gogh is popular because as well as being a genius he was a tortured genius). Whatever it is, people have to instantly recognise it so that they can then share it with their followers. It is that moment like a clap of thunder, a complete realisation, that characterises perception of aesthetic objects (such as words, pictures, sounds) on social media.

An example of how complexity can however be accommodated is found in this tweet on the morning of 12 August from English journalist Simon Rickets, “I used to know a guy who would say, cynically: ‘Why do homeless people have dogs?” I think this clip is the perfect answer. For love.” The tweet contained a video that had been made by the BBC showing a homeless man named Andy talking about his dog, Bailey. It is only with longer pieces like this video that might grab your attention with an easily-recognisable hook (like the tweet that accompanied it) that the complexity and nuance of art can be brought into the tweetstream. But to comprehend that complexity you have to pause and sit back and read or listen or watch the product being offered to you. It takes time.

Threads on Twitter offer another way to incorporate complexity in social media. (To make a thread, you have to reply to yourself in the tweet that came before, in the second - and subsequent - tweets, so that people can easily view the whole series of tweets it involves.)

The type of poetry that functions best in social media is the “haiku” (which is made up of lines with five, seven and five syllables) or at a stretch the “tanka” (which is made up of five lines; lines one and three have five syllables each, the other lines have seven syllables). Anything longer than this and it becomes impossible to include all the lines in a tweet. I have never seen a threaded poem on Twitter. Most of the poetry I have seen on Twitter however is not very good. I follow a couple of people who declare themselves to be poets.

There is another special category of content that attempts to include complexity and that is the historical photograph. There are a number of dedicated accounts on Twitter that only post old photos taken at different times over the roughly 150 years since the invention of photography. Some of these photos are quite interesting, and they buck the general trend that I am putting forward here by delivering the sort of nuance and subtlety that are in the province of art. Historical photos usually get shared a lot by people on Twitter but two other types of image that are involved in artistic sense-making get fewer shares, in general. These are photos of plants and animals.

Social media is about the “now”. Rather than the historical photograph, more representative of the norm on Twitter is one that was put up on the morning of 12 August by Australian comedian Shaun Micaleff that came with the comment, “BREAKING NEWS: If you put glasses on Spinoza, he looks like Woody Allen.” The photo that accompanied the tweet showed that what he said was true, but the general thrust of the tweet was to create humour at the expense of someone else. It was part of a campaign that has been launched among certain parts of the politically progressive to belittle the filmmaker because of his domestic arrangements. The tweet was basically cruel and insulting.

The process can work in exactly the opposite way, of course. On 11 August a tweet appeared on Twitter from a person with the handle @breanna1500 that went, “so my brother keeps getting made fun of at school for having earrings and blonde hair. rt this if you think his earrings and blonde hair is super cute” The tweet came with a photo of a boy aged about 13 with dark skin and blonde hair standing in front of a house. He wore a T-shirt and boardshorts, and had earrings in his ears and a smile on his face. The tweet had been ‘liked’ over 16,000 times and shared over 10,000 times by the next day. It is an interesting case of meta-commentary used to other a group of people who had been othering someone else who, in the tweet, was being embraced.

For the most part the message on social media has to be immediate and unambiguous so that we can just gulp it all down, the good and the bad, the worthy and the trite, the perfect and the flawed, in our eagerness to create community. We other our enemies and embrace our friends. An example of the kind of trite sense-making I’m talking about is a tweet that appeared on the morning of 12 August from ex-ABC journalist Marcus Kelson, who lives in Canberra: “Person in front of me at coffee shop, half strength almond latte with cinnamon - this is why Donald Trump is leader of the free world.” It’s a variation on the old “hipsters are wankers” trope and it ideally fits the bill of othering a segment of the community in order to create cohesion in another part of the community. (Although with Marcus it’s often hard to tell: it could be ironic.) People love this sort of thing, and share and ‘like’ indiscriminately when they see it in their streams.

Another example of community creation was the tweet that was put up on 11 August by an account named ‘f thot fitzgerald’ (@dracomalfoys) which describes itself only as “incoherent ramblings galore”. The tweet went, “one of my favorite parts of art history is the depictions of lucifer morningstar made by people who clearly Really Really wanted to fuck the devil” The tweet had four images of men with sculpted bodies with wings like angels, two of which dated from the 19th century, one of which showed a bronze sculpture, and one of which showed a marble sculpture. All of the images were realistic depictions with the exception of the wings that came out of the backs of the men in them. The tweet had 44,000 ‘likes’ and 18,000 shares and had been shared into my tweetstream by Australian journalist Benjamin Law, who is openly gay.

I’ve written before on this blog about the way that people use social media to create community. It’s a tribal thing. It’s got that mob-like dynamic about it that the fascists of the middle part of last century so loved: a mobilised force of people moving down the street in one direction intent on one, single goal. The “fascio”, the Roman “faggot” (a bundle of sticks tied together), is the emblem of the movement. Fascism is not designed to appreciate complexity and judge it according to an elite sensibility. It is intent on growing, expanding, reaching out to every corner of the space as it progresses along the thoroughfare breaking windows, knocking loudly on doors, and assaulting passers-by who do not belong to it.

The Nazis of course were big collectors of fine art. They trolled through the major galleries in the cities they occupied, looting and stealing whatever they could lay their hands on and taking it back to their storerooms to keep. Twitter is a bit like this, too. It takes the best of what’s available and turns it to its own purpose (creating community) while leaving behind the difficult, the allusive, the inchoate, the inexpressible as being things of no value.

Before people on the left get too confident in their aesthetic judgement it should be remembered that the Soviets were as keen on simple, realistic depictions of the world as the Nazis. Both of these 20th-century oligarchies rejected Modernism as being degenerate and too sophisticated, embracing figurative art as the norm to aspire to, and thus catered to the baser instincts of ordinary people. Another important fact is that Benito Mussolini, the autocrat who founded fascism in Italy and who was a model for Adolph Hitler, started out in his political career as a Communist. A love of the mob and the strength it embodied was a defining characteristic of both movements. In such a space, kitsch grows like topsy.

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