Do you remember how we used to experience art before the internet?
I want you to go back. Way back, to the before times. A time when movies lived on the big screen, and TV lived on the little screen. Books lived on paper. Music lived on the radio. Paintings lived in art galleries. Art came to us from a variety of sources.
Now, there is only one source: The internet.
Everything we watch, read, and listen to is now delivered to us through the internet. Almost every TV channel now has its own streaming service. Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora have replaced buying albums and radio play with a subscription model. Audio and eBooks have supplanted printed books as the top sellers. YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook have cornered the digital content market. COVID-19 has removed in-person theaters as a viewing option.
Many think-pieces have already covered this trend. It’s basically become an entertainment industry cliché at this point to wax poetic on the death of the movie theater, and how the Netflix / HBOMax / Disney+ / Hulu borg is going to subsume all of of our content, and “The Youth” will all turn into viscous Wall-E blob people sucking up nutrient fluid with their iChip implanted in their brains or something.
If you listened to them, you’d think the internet is ushering in an artistic apocalypse. That all art is going to become vacuous and pointless, catering to the “lowest common denominator.” Don’t worry, this is hardly a new phenomenon—and it’s always been this elitist.
For thousands of years, art has been a way for humanity to pass down knowledge and connect to the divine. Through pottery, dance, music, sculpture, scripture, crafts, petroglyphs, and oral histories, our ancestors passed down religious and spiritual tradition. As humanity evolved and we grew more concerned with ourselves as well as our gods, the way we experienced art began to transform with us.
In addition to being a spiritual practice or a connection to the past, it also became a way for people to understand and preserve the present. Stage plays skewered local politicians in Ancient Greek and Roman amphitheaters. Hieroglyphs in Egypt marked the flood plains of the Nile for the seasonal harvest. Intricate embellishments were added to armor and weaponry to signify origin or status.
Art took on a life beyond tradition, and became an integral part of society and economy. This meant that people needed to be paid for their labor.
Back then—as now—wealth was concentrated in the hands of an upper class of aristocrats and royalty. The average worker either didn’t need or couldn’t afford to hire an artist, so if an artist wanted to be paid for their work, they had to go where the money was.
Painting, metal casting, and sculpture became wildly popular amongst aristocrats who commissioned portraits of themselves or religious scenes that inspired them. This is why most of the art you’ll find in museums from around 3000 BC to the 1700s—at least, the art that wasn’t looted in colonial conquest—is of royalty or religious depictions. Perhaps if Johnny Blacksmith could have afforded a piece to stand the test of time, we’d have a sculpture of a beefy bearded guy with a sledgehammer alongside Michelangelo’s David.
As a result, certain art forms began to split along both class and racial lines. Those biting Greek stage plays were derided as crass and low-class by the political subjects they parodied. A wave of religious and ethnic zealotry in both medieval and colonial Europe caused things like pottery, weaving, and beadwork to be viewed as “primitive” due to their popularity in civilizations from the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
Meanwhile, paintings and sculptures from the aristocracy were propped up as the ultimate form of art, being displayed in the hallowed halls of government buildings, financial centers, museums, and churches. This attitude became so pervasive and encompassing that it endures to this day, a colonial and imperial relic preserved in modern galleries just beginning to be deconstructed.
With the dawn of industrialization, productivity and economic growth exploded, and the overall quality of life began improving. People were no longer concerned with mere survival. The upper-middle class finally had disposable income, and artists had a brand new market—and brand new art forms. This era gave rise to things like printmaking, inking, and photography. Things that the average person could afford in their homes without commissioning a multi-thousand dollar canvas.
It was a brave new world for artists, and it was only getting bigger.
This brings us to the illicit-rum-soaked glory of the early 20th century. Back then, the only way to see a movie was in a theater. Very few people knew how cameras worked, and even fewer could afford the equipment necessary to make a movie. Music was only played live, on radio, or on records whose manufacture was controlled by a handful of publishers. Art galleries were the only places you could display paintings and other fine arts.
If you wanted to be a painter, you had to either be Picasso or know someone with enough money to own an art gallery. If you were a musician, you would need considerable name recognition or local success to access the radio. If you were a filmmaker, you basically had no choice but to go to Hollywood.
The common thread in all these eras:
For most of the time humans have lived on this planet, it has taken capital and/or influence to get your art seen by anyone other than your family, friends, or local community. Most if not all of these venues have been owned by wealthy, influential people, as they’ve been the only ones with the resources and technology to make it happen. For years, the rich and the powerful have been the unseen gatekeepers of art and culture, using the concept of “exposure” as an exploitative currency.
And for the first time in human history, that paradigm has changed.
Enter the internet: a low-cost informational superhighway accessible to anyone with a computer or a phone. Humanity now has a way of connecting with each other and communicating on a massive scale, unbound by state borders, laws restricting freedom of speech, cultural repression, or monetary constraints. No longer does it take influence, capital, or the good graces of an elite to get “exposure” for your art.
You don’t have to pitch your script to a studio, or paint Jeff Bezos’ portrait. All you have to do is upload to YouTube, or Instagram, or Twitter, or TikTok, and a tailor-made algorithm will push your art to people who are likely to respond to it. Now anyone can be an artist.
Naturally, that has pissed off a few powerful people.
Much of Hollywood is currently lamenting the loss of the prestigious art form of filmmaking to the lowly peasant internet content. Major directors like Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese bemoan the death of theatrical film at the hands of Gen-Z and millennials and their “YouTubes.”
But come on.
Let’s not pretend every movie in theaters is high art—whatever that means. Jack And Jill and The Emoji Movie are proof of that. Why would I pay $20 to see Adam Sandler falcon-punch himself in the nuts when I can get it for free on YouTube? In 4K? And please, explain to me how "Nut Shots Compilation 2019" is a less valid form of filmmaking than "Sullen Man With a Dead Wife Stares Into The Distance #45, The Movie."
This is, in essence, the weird and wonderful beauty of the internet—in this brave new world, both are equally valid forms of art. It doesn’t matter how much money or influence you have, or what medium you work in, so long as your art speaks to people. Even though you can secure millions of dollars in financing from a studio, you might get less people to see your film than a weekly YouTube commentary show filmed on an iPhone with a $30 ring light. You might be a high-society painter showing in trendy Soho galleries but living in a crappy NYC studio apartment, while a TikTok artist in Gary, Indiana is bringing in six figures selling flower canvases and “yeet the rich” shirts.
With this new world order also comes an opportunity for a whole wave of artists who have been shut out for hundreds of years from the “mainstream," particularly from marginalized communities. Indigenous TikTokers James Jones (@notoriouscree) and Shina Nova (@shinanova) perform ancestral dances and song styles that were nearly eradicated during the United States’ campaign of cultural whitewashing. Makeup artist Jackie Aina (@jackieaina) teaches her audience makeup looks and techniques for darker skin that eurocentric magazines and fashion houses have historically shunned. LGBTQ+ YouTubers Abigail Thorn (@philosophytube) and Natalie Wynn (@contrapoints) explore philosophy and gender identity through filming colorful, costumed soliloquies that might never have seen the light of day if some studio head had decided they wanted to appeal to “Middle America.”
Without the financial barrier to entry, or censorship from powerful people with their own agendas, humanity and its art are finally able to come back to our roots. We’ve returned—on a massive, digital scale—to our circles around the fire, drawing paintings on cave walls, understanding and connecting to each other through our art.
Thanks to the internet, art is no longer the privilege of the wealthy, but a medium for everyone. And we’re all the better for it.
*Feature Image: Freeda Michaux (Adobe)