Diggbrow: How The Internet Redefined Art

"Art" is just another headline-filler word for "amazing." At least for children, who are the future, and geeks, who are the new trendsetter-influencer-coolhunters. Since K-12 art education is virtually dead, and no one reads books, these heavy Internet users have no preconceptions of art and they don't follow that world's big names. A new Cy Twombly or Lucien Freud painting won't get attention on Digg (Chris Ofili maybe, for the controversy), but a painted Lamborghini is one of the social news site's all-time favorite "art" posts. But it's not all bad. The Diggbrow movement isn't destroying art any more than the Dadaists or post-modernists did; it's reinventing it.

The heavy Internet users of Digg, YouTube, Fark, and StumbleUpon have little background in the usual experience of art: a rich education that lets viewers appreciate a work in context. They get their news as a stream of unrelated stories. (While the rest of this story concentrates on Digg, the same rules apply to many other sites including Fark and StumbleUpon. Stories on these sites trickle out to millions of Internet users through blogs, e-mail, and IMs. Plus I've already ripped YouTube apart for its own aesthetic.)

Right now, Digg's front page includes election news, iPhone tips, clips from last night's Conan O'Brien, a video of a panda, and the story of a drunk driver who put a seat-belt on her beer and not her baby. Art is presented the same way: One story at a time, usually focusing on a single work, surrounded by unrelated items.

This format has encouraged five aspects of the Diggbrow aesthetic:



The Lowest Common Denominator

Most of Digg's favorite items are, well, crap. The all-time top Digg item described as "art" is just a composite photo of a tree:

Diggbrow: How The Internet Redefined ArtS

It's pretty, but it's more "cute photo illustration" than "high art." Still, over five thousand Digg users voted for the item (headlined as "1 Tree, 1 Picture, 4 Seasons. (Pic)" and described only as "A beautiful piece of art work"), and over 240 thousand people saw it on Flickr.

The second-favorite artwork is a gallery of desktop backgrounds. The third-favorite is this custom-painted Lamborghini:

Diggbrow: How The Internet Redefined ArtS

This barely even works as a paint job, much less art. And Digg commenters hated it. But 3800 of them still voted for it, driving tens of thousands of people to look at it.

So far, Digg fails at appreciating and promoting art. But the fourth all-time favorite art on Digg, while nowhere near highbrow, at least demonstrates an artist's attention to craft and an appreciation of artistic tradition. It's the work of three sidewalk chalk artists, Edgar Mueller, Julian Beever, and Kurt Wenner. Wenner particularly seems to transcend the medium's trompe l'oeil novelty:

Diggbrow: How The Internet Redefined ArtS



Accessibility and Novelty

Of course, those are just the crowd-pleasers. Plenty of worthier art gets onto Digg. But just like Clinton makes it to Digg news not for her fiscal policy but for crying, art gets onto Digg not for its value to traders and artists but for novelty reasons. A recent link featured this YouTube video of a sculpture that makes eerie noises in the wind:

It's not that Digg rejects the traditional measures of good art, but it focuses on the novel bits. Duchamp could make it here if an author focused on the "he put a toilet in a museum" aspect. Art stories from online newspapers come from the "offbeat" section of the news as often as "Arts and culture." The work must have an immediately catchy effect, as above, or a "what'll they think of next" quality in its creation, like the photo-realistic drawing below, composed freehand in ballpoint pen:

Diggbrow: How The Internet Redefined ArtS

Artist Juan Casas told the Daily Mail that his ballpoint drawings "started off as a joke," and though he's now serious about them, he worried that serious art competitions would write him off.



Post-post-modernism

The Diggbrow crowd also appreciates a good prank. Art with a populist, ironic meaning has an advantage, which helps post-modern artists with stunt-like work.

Diggbrow: How The Internet Redefined Art

This playful recontextualization of Damien Hirst's "For The Love Of God" made Digg as "Prank on Artist Who Created $100 Million Diamond Skull." Diggers appreciated the turnaround and criticized Hirst's work.

Among household-name artists, the most obvious Diggbrow hero is Banksy, who, while lacking nuance and arguably not worthy of canonization under traditional terms, is still a Digg favorite for his lucid messages and his reputation as a renegade. This street cred puts his work on the same scale as the Lamborghini art and "Hammer time" stickers on stop signs, though at the opposite end.



Personal expression

Diggbrow has a low barrier to entry; while some works earn their place in its canon because they represent hundreds of hours of labor, others make it despite minimal effort because of their novel concept. One encouraging aspect of that thirst for novelty is how Diggbrow appreciates the artistic value of personal expression.

At first, the work below (linked on Digg at one of the site's favorite sources, Neatorama) might seem worthless: some kid drew on herself. But here Diggbrow shows an unexpected appreciation for the context of the work, showing that sometimes these kids can actually read a paragraph instead of flicking through an image gallery.

Diggbrow: How The Internet Redefined ArtS

Artist Ariana Page Russell explains:

My own skin frequently blushes and swells. I have dermatographia, a condition in which one's immune system exhibits hypersensitivity, via skin, that releases excessive amounts of histamine, causing capillaries to dilate and welts to appear (lasting about thirty minutes) when the skin's surface is lightly scratched. This allows me to painlessly draw patterns and words on my skin, which I then photograph.

Diggers might even click through to Russell's web site, which shows she's not just screwing around but an artist whose work ranges far beyond these skin drawings.

If Digg readers can follow stories past the initial link, they may learn about an artist's entire body of work, its themes, the movement into which it fits, and about the tradition that gives context to every wind sculpture and skin drawing. Which leads to Diggbrow's final redemptive theme.



Piecemeal Art Education

The Internet is a tough place to learn about art. There's little structure, and there are too few high-quality images. The online galleries of major museums only carry as much explanatory information as the real-world exhibit. Serious guides to art are hard to search for.

But piece by piece, blogs are picking out art history and explaining it, so that reading enough could amount to a skim through an art textbook. One great example from Digg is this exploration of Frank Gehry's first deconstructivist building. Diggers are also particularly fascinated with scientific advances in art, such as a new device to detect painted-over paintings.

Internet culture isn't the end of art. It's not exactly a classical education, but it's instilling some artistic value in viewers. And after enough time figuring out what the hell Damien Hirst's point is, I can appreciate a little Diggbrow.