A century later, TikTok is also, to some, seen as a childish distraction, or worse. But to others, its an incredible tool. I think if Andr Breton were living today, he would turn on TikTok and be blown away with the mechanical aspectthe idea that theres a system for generating these images so that its done automatically, which could have some kind of resonance with automatic writing and therefore tapping pure thought rather than preconceived conventional ideas, says Susan Laxton, a professor of art history at UC Riverside and the author of Surrealism at Play.
The platform, thanks to its duetting and stitching functions, automates a lot of what the Surrealists were doing. Its not exactly an exquisite corpse, since TikTok records the entire genealogy of any given work, and there is a want for continuity with what others have contributed before. But there is a similar spirit of spontaneous collaboration, and a kindred quest for the absurd. Grocery Store: A New Musicals voices are automatic doors and produce misters. They may be singing in harmony, but theyre far off-script from the story Mertzlufft started.
The most bizarre, collaborative TikToks, Laxton notes, echo other creative movements. In the 1950s, the American artist Allan Kaprow brought together poetry, dance, theater, music, painting, and other disciplines into single performances he called happenings, which often encouraged audience participation. TikTok does the same, just digitally. Real-time, but not live performance. Public art, but on a platform. And, to Mertzluffts point, its got a bit of improv theater too. If TikTok were looking for a new catchphrase, Mertzlufft jokes, itd be: Yes, and for Gen Z.
To be clear: TikTok is not the Met. Its a global social media company fueled by algorithms and ads. And yet, as Lizzy Hale, TikToks senior manager for content, notes, the apps users are creating this new form of entertainment and art that youre not seeing on any other platforms. When youre working in a new medium, with new tools, convincing the cultural establishment of your worth takes time. Just ask Andr Breton.
My general take on TikTok and artand social media and art in generalis that it really bears a lot of resemblance to street art and street performance, says An Xiao Mina, author of Memes to Movements: How the Worlds Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power. Especially during the pandemic, social media is where we do public right now. There is, Mina notes, something guerrilla about whats being created on TikTok; its often made on the fly and designed to be infinitely remixable. When I think about the history of street art and street performance, there is also this kind of contention: Is it art? In what way is it art, and what is valid about it?
For the record, Mina rejects those questions. Not because she doesnt find validity in the work on TikTok, but rather, she says, because the word art can be so loaded. Calling something art leads to arguments about gatekeeping and whether art is something academic and institutional, or something local and organic, created for the community. Or both. These arguments, though, dont really address the artistic value of TikToks, or their contents. I often just refer to this as creative expression or media creation, Mina says. By doing so, its easier to compare it to other works and see how their merits align.
Art, creation, whatever its calledits always been shaped by the tools available at the time. Anything can become a platform for expression. In the 1960s, for example, Fluxus made and sent their works in the mail, turning the Postal Service into a platform for creation the way TikTok is now. In the ’70s, many artists with limited means churned out video art, largely working on their own. A response to the avant-garde films of the 1960s, which had full sets and actors, these pieces were edgy and made on the cheap, usually with a (newly affordable) video camera and the artists own body as the subject. Video art was made for galleries and art spaces, not theaters, so the length was more attuned to the 30 or so seconds people will spend looking at something on a wall, says Jon Ippolito, a new media professor at the University of Maine.