An object’s status as “art” is widely believed to only be truly validated upon its admittance into an institutionally regulated space – the museum, the gallery, the Biennale and so on. The same canonical reasoning stipulates that in order to be granted access into the rarefied art world, one must usually: a) produce work that abides by a series of formal and cultural norms, imposed and governed by the said art world; b) be professionally trained as an artist, producing work that demonstrates mastery of the chosen medium; and c) be able to participate and contribute to the contemporary art discourse.
A Minecraft player builds a map within the game’s universe that is informed by aesthetic norms established by the community. She is deftly and meticulously placing down each block of Sandstone, Quartz, Oak or any of the plethora of building materials available to her, in an intricate ensemble of 3D cubes, shaping an object of her choosing. By uploading a timelapse video of this performance to YouTube, she is engaging with a global network of fellow players who critique her work and share their own creative endeavors with the rest of the community. These people, however – perhaps due to the totalitarianism of the art world, whose vigilant rule over the definition of “art” has instituted a series of cross-generational, hardwired notions as to what artistic production should be – essentially fail to see their own efforts as anything more than creative pastimes, if even that.
Minecraft art is volatile and immaterial: When a user abandons their work, it is either developed further by other players or eradicated upon the closure or the server it resides on. Therefore, the YouTube video or the Reddit post serves as the only surviving evidence of the one-off performance and the ephemeral object, very much resembling the conceptual art practices of decades past, that downplayed the importance of the physical – or in this case “original” – object, opting instead for the display of its documentation. But Minecraft is just one example of many aesthetically-oriented platforms and spaces on the web where the user creates. One could argue that Minecraft’s formality does not conceptually engage the viewer, thus representing nothing more than a digital form of purely decorative handicraft. However, it could be posited that, in itself, this network-engendered ecology of virtual “artisanal” production and trading is more culturally relevant and compelling than the work itself.
Other, often less meticulously crafted and visually attractive vernacular creativity practices originating online, such as memes, may even provide more valuable, less constrained social commentary than institutionalized art. This is not to say, however, that the internet cannot reconcile aesthetics and social commentary, in order to produce “beautiful” images, that also illustrate the current global socio-technological conditions. reddit.com/r/place is a comprehensive rendition of our contemporary hyperconnected society: a “self-portrait” of the web, where the community of Reddit – the self-declared “front-page of the internet” – has collaborated on producing a fresco that essentially depicts itself. A collective canvas – to which every user was allotted the chance to contribute by filling in one pixel every 5 minutes – where each distinct subreddit – each niche community within the community found itself joining forces in order to immortalize its ideology or iconography as part of this one-off, 72-hour long event. Just like our Minecraft Artists – oblivious to the artistic value of their endeavors – the initiators of /r/place are seeking its validation as a work of art by petitioning MoMA to collect it. Once again, the institution’s authority over the notion of art is reinforced – its canonical supremacy reigns unchallenged, and the art remains ignored, or will make its way into the collection as a publicity stunt.
Internet-originating works of art are Neoliberal Images (as Art Historian David Joselit refers to a concept that recognizes the essentiality of allowing art to circulate and not be constrained to a particular cultural and geographical location). They’re works that do not possess a physical form, are always in flux, have elusive authors and therefore cannot be commodified or collected. This makes them incompatible with the fundamental requirements of the Art Market, and therefore bars them from being granted artistic status, despite their obvious adherence to the prerequisites of artistic creation (self expression, exhibition, aesthetic value). As more and more people engage in creative practices online, however, and as more art writing tackles the subject of Vernacular Creativity, a reconfiguration of the notion of art is to be expected, its scope evading the boundaries of the economically-driven Art Institutions and becoming free and all-inclusive.
Written by Theo Rotaru