A century later, TikTok is also, to some, seen as a childish distraction, or worse. But to others, it’s an incredible tool. “I think if André Breton were living today, he would turn on TikTok and be blown away with the mechanical aspect—the idea that there’s a system for generating these images so that it’s 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. It’s 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 Musical’s voices are automatic doors and produce misters. They may be singing in harmony, but they’re 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 Mertzlufft’s point, it’s got a bit of improv theater too. If TikTok were looking for a new catchphrase, Mertzlufft jokes, “it’d be: ‘Yes, and … for Gen Z.’”
To be clear: TikTok is not the Met. It’s a global social media company fueled by algorithms and ads. And yet, as Lizzy Hale, TikTok’s senior manager for content, notes, the app’s users are “creating this new form of entertainment and art that you’re not seeing on any other platforms.” When you’re working in a new medium, with new tools, convincing the cultural establishment of your worth takes time. Just ask André Breton.
“My general take on TikTok and art—and social media and art in general—is 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 World’s 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 what’s being created on TikTok; it’s 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 doesn’t 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, don’t 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, it’s easier to compare it to other works and see how their merits align.
Art, creation, whatever it’s called—it’s 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 artist’s 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.