Two totemic cultural icons: Ai Weiwei and Paris Hilton. Read on for life is imitating art (and the reverse) in the Twitter age.



How Twitter Beefs Challenge the Way We View Art

“Life is art. Art is life. I never separate it.”

That quote, from Ai Weiwei, was in response to a question about rage. How do we compartmentalize that shameful feeling? In particular, how do celebrities, whose voice is amplified through the avenues of social media, deal with that feeling?

His wonderfully koanic answer seems to suggest that there is no clear line of demarcation between life and art. They’re inseparable, like the Olsen twins, or Lunchables and regret. But that quote comes from 2011, right on the cusp of the social media boom. And now, in an era where Twitter beefs pile up faster than a BK Whopper, and with a Presidential hopeful riding high on bullying his opponents, it seems like a good time to revisit the age-old question. Can we separate the art from the artist? Can their rage in the contemporary stand apart from their works of art?

"Life is Art. Art is Life." We imagine selfies fit in there comfortably.
“Life is Art. Art is Life.” We imagine selfies fit in there comfortably.

As a writer, this question is especially challenging. I cannot be content to simply find a musician, decide their music is good, and give ’em a recommendation. I must go deeper and follow up to make sure that they’re not tremendously controversial, or criminal. Largely, such judgment calls are subjective. After Azealia Banks’ latest tirade, my Paki ass is not going to be showering her with praise any time soon, no matter how many times I covertly hop along to “212” or “Ice Princess.”

It’s easy to see where the confusion occurs. If you’re endorsing someone’s art—through Spotify, through the blogosphere, through conversation—you’re elevating their status. Are you not also elevating their worldview, their persona? And, if their persona is hateful, are we not then to blame?

This question becomes more difficult when removed from the immediate. Timeliness is so essential to social media platforms that it’s embedded into their fabric. Without the timeline, Facebook and Twitter are amorphous clickspam blobs, squirming around like Alex Mack. But time does outlast the timeline. Tom from Myspace learned that the hard way. And, similarly, art outlasts outrage. Kanye’s tweets may get shuffled and deleted, but his art, and the occasional rage contained therein, speaks to permanence. The Library of Congress hasn’t figured out how to archive every Tweet yet, and they’ve been trying for years. But music, books, film? They’ve got that down to a science.

How we feel whenever Azealia Banks goes off on one of her Twitter rants.

In her big FOX interview yesterday, Megyn Kelly tried to corner Celebrity Apprentice creator Donald Trump into admitting that he was a bully—that his now-infamous lash out at her, which included some retweeted posts calling her a “bimbo,” was fueled by some underlying shame, or a barely-hidden sense of misogyny. Of course, Trump redirected the questions whenever he could. But he couldn’t resist coyly acknowledging that, when he feels provoked, he hits back twice as strong. For a non-politician, that’s some House of Cards snaking.

Before the ‘net, celebrity grievances had to be aired out in private, in monetized memoirs, or with the slap of a white glove. But now, celebrities’ hot air balloons can blow flames at anyone that gets in their way, with a rush of retweets and cyberbullying to follow. The Twitter beefs of TMZ have become the Twitter beefs of the United States of America.

So—again—is Twitter ruining the art world? I know, the question sounds as empty as a 140-character tweet. But we live in a time where controversiality is so common that “problematic fave” has entered the Millennial lexicon. And we’ve got celebrities using Hulk-like rage to get a leg up on social media. In the long term, art tends to outlast the hashtags, however sour, of the artist in question. But, as our news cycle becomes more and more hyphenated, our celebrities should be more mindful of how their opinions resonate across the Web. Five years on, perhaps Weiwei should revise: “Life is art is the internet. The internet is life is art.”

Images via Fad Magazine, The Guardian

Stay tuned to Milk for more millennial musings. 

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