Ella Crowsley dives into the complex world of TikTok, and why we shouldn’t discount the art being produced through it
TikTok, a free social media app created in 2016 allows users to watch, create and share videos with millions of users across the world. Content is varied but often includes dance routines, visual artwork, cooking and music; there’s unquestionably something for everyone on there! For this reason, it’s not a surprise that the ability to create artistic content so quickly and easily is appealing to younger generations. TikTok claims that their mission is to “inspire creativity and spread joy”, but with videos lasting a maximum of a single minute, does the platform actually provide a creative outlet, or limit inventive ideas? More simply, can we consider TikToks as art?
Perhaps the answer to the question lies in our definition of art. The Oxford Dictionary claims that art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form”. With this reasoning, TikToks surely fall under this category, visually engaging watchers with the maker’s creative techniques. Yet somehow, something about watching a 15 second clip of a stranger dancing in their living room doesn’t quite feel like the type of art we are used to. I wonder if it is not the videos themselves that make the platform artistic, but the imaginative opportunities and connections it provides.
It feels important to note that the top creators on the app are eligible to apply for the ‘Creators Fund’, enabling them to turn their creativity into a career if they choose to. In a sense, this mimics a professional path, rewarding the app’s top performers and entertainers. For many, TikTok has allowed them to continue earning whilst their normal jobs have been halted due to the pandemic. Stage performers and musicians have been given an outlet to make money when performances have been otherwise cancelled, offering an alternative expression of their art.
However, it seems that one of the aspects of TikTok to be more wary of lies in the integration of art and technology. There is no doubt that in some ways art and technology beautifully combine to enhance creativity, such as film or music production, graphic design or even in the incredible work of tech crews in theatre. Yet there is something in an app, particularly in the data and information that TikTok gathers from your viewing of videos that takes the essence of artistry away from it. The algorithm behind the app tracks which videos you watch, comment on, and like to gather information used to decide which videos to place on your main feed. The developers claim that this is simply used to provide you with content that you will enjoy most, but there is no telling what assumptions and data the app is able to gather from your viewing. So, does this take away from the creativity clearly shown in the app, and in turn, does this impact how we may view the videos as art?
For me, the ingenuity of the content depicted on the app is evident in its ability to be mimicked and developed. Dance trends created by popular TikTok figures allow any person from anywhere in the world to respond and express themselves in their own way by copying and posting their own version of the dance. Viral dance trends such as ‘Renegade’ or ‘Blinding Lights’ seem to reach every user of the app, bringing together creators in a fun and engaging way. During such isolating times, these dance challenges arguably bring art and creativity into the home to be enjoyed by everyone.
Similarly, the collaborative capacity of the app is something that I’ve never seen in any other social media platform. The app allows ‘duets’ or ‘stitches’, a feature that encourages users to actively interact with videos made by others and respond through their own channel. This creates a network of creators who would have otherwise never met, producing art together in various forms. For example, a video of one person’s painting process can be dueted with another’s, comparing their techniques and learning from one another. Or perhaps one person’s choreography to a particular song can be responded to with another’s own interpretation of their choreography. This feature connects artists from any part of the world and encourages collaboration in an effective way, emphasising the artistic nature of the videos produced.
Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the recent Sea Shanty trend. Postman Nathan Evans initiated a global trend after posting his rendition of ‘Wellerman’, a traditional sea shanty. Despite being a short video simply filmed in his bedroom, Evans’ song has been viewed over 65 million times and users have mimicked and joined in with his original video in their own posts, creating a whole new genre known as ‘ShantyTok’! Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jimmy Fallon and Elon Musk are just a few of the celebrities to have taken part in the trend, as well as choirs and orchestras producing their own versions. Evan’s told his followers in a subsequent TikTok video that since the original cover had been released, he has ‘signed to the biggest record label in the world’ and been able to leave his job as a postman. This cooperative effect, seen in thousands of TikTok videos surely aids the depiction of art in TikToks.
One of the most persuasive examples of art coming from TikTok can be seen in ‘Ratatouille the Musical’, a crowdsourced musical based on the 2007 Disney/Pixar film, originating from TikTok. In August 2020, teacher Emily Jacobsen created a short comedic song, based on the film, in a TikTok video on her own private channel. Just as with Evans’ Wellerman video, other users remixed and added to each other’s videos, eventually envisioning an entire musical. Artists from multiple professions came together to design, choreograph, orchestrate and write a charity benefit concert in January 2021. From just one single video, an entire performance presentation had been made.
It could be argued that it is the production of this musical that is the artistic piece, rather than the original clip itself, but this shows the importance of each homemade video and the incredible things it can lead to. One of the arguments against TikToks being considered art lies in their length. The app limits videos to either 15 or 60 seconds, perhaps limiting ingenuity and creativity as users are asked to create something entertaining in such a short time. However, if films are widely accepted art, it seems hard to disagree with the assertion that short films, even of just 15 seconds can also be considered as art.
Overall, it seems that while a large proportion of TikToks may be individuals making silly short videos, something bigger can be brought out from it. The app provides a platform to express individuality and artistic talent in a free and easy manner. Never before have karaoke covers, dance routines and comedic stories been able to reach millions of people around the world, completely for free. For many people, TikTok provides a sense of communities amongst users and enables artistic collaboration in a unique way. It’s bigger than just individuals, it connects us all through creativity. For this reason, it seems that TikTok videos, no matter how long or how small the budget, can indeed be seen as art.