Renaissance art on the internet
Viral videos may be our generation’s form of high art — and that shouldn’t worry you.
I’ve spent the past few months thinking about a video. It was made on ‘musical.ly’, a video sharing app where users lip-sync along to popular songs, creating mini music videos. It’s 15 seconds long and features a 15-year-old Instagram celebrity lip-syncing to DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s ‘Let Me Love You’ while his grandfather is dying in a hospital bed in the background.
While the song used is unquestionably a banger, the video (rightfully) drew ridicule from across the internet, even prompting the influencer in question, Jonas Bridges, to delete his Twitter account.
Several months later, I cannot stop thinking about this video. I don’t think I ever will. I’m also not the only one.
By this point, we’re all too familiar with the modus operandi of viral content — a shared cultural commodity which, for a moment in time, briefly grabs the collective attention of netizens. Certain videos manage to go beyond that though. They slip past the noise and capture the imagination.
In 2017, content moves at a pace never seen before. Memes are born and die within the space of a couple of hours. In the midst of the flurry, transience is a given but where previous generations created art which endured centuries, we leave no trace of any valuable contribution to culture.
Yet, here I am on a Friday evening wracking my brain over why this musical.ly video haunts my dreams. Is it the blatant irreverence of the entire thing? Is it being a voyeur to the intimate and emotional scene playing out in the background? Or could it be Bridges’ admittedly impeccable form?
It’s all of these things as they coalesce to create a statement of genuine artistic value which stimulates the mind. As the truism goes, “good art makes you think”.
Other cultural analysts would contend memes, on the forefront of the social conscious or the hordes of innovative and meticulously crafted videos out there, are the “good art” of the Vine generation. While I won’t deny the merit of these, I intend to champion a certain type of content.
Consider the Vine ‘Come Get Y’all Juice’. The Viner sets up an elaborate spillage in the kitchen, designed to make the subject slip. The subject is called and slips as planned, except they continue slipping straight into the oven, shattering the glass.
What elevates the Vine to art is the element of surprise. The breaking of the oven catches the perpetrator, the subject, and the viewer off-guard.
Technological advances since the 20th century have enabled this. We are positioned at a unique time in history where these beautiful accidents and unforeseen events can be immortalised into bits of data — power they probably hadn’t envisioned when creating the camera phone.
The similarity between viral content on the internet and Renaissance art should not be understated. Looking back at the musical.ly video, one cannot dismiss the likeness to Caravaggio’s 17th century masterpiece ‘The Entombment of Christ’. The grandfather represents the Christ, weak and fallen. The grandmother plays the role of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched in support of the Christ. Bridges offers a contemporary reinterpretation of Mary of Cleophas, gesticulating loudly towards the heavens. The tableau he creates is, at once, alarming and riveting.
Some may call it a reach to compare high art with viral video. I ask them to refer to famed novelist William Faulkner who says “the aim of art is to arrest motion”. These videos achieve that and more. To the people who, through no knowledge of their own, create this content, I say “don’t you give up, nah, nah, nah … let me love you”.