Is TikTok a platform for art?

Posted by on 16 novembre 2021

Fab abs, trauma videos and a big pile of sweets: the art and artists of TikTok

From the user proudly exhibiting his dad’s nudes to the woman making sculpting dangerous, art on TikTok is direct, intimate and confessional, with little time for the abstract or avant garde

Keep it succinct … Nakama Umeboi with a pile of wrapped sweets by Félix González-Torre and (right) with the Mona Lisa; middle, Aamyalli O sculpts a torso.
Keep it succinct … Nakama Umeboi with a pile of wrapped sweets by Félix González-Torre and (right) with the Mona Lisa; middle, Aamyalli O sculpts a torso. Photograph: TikTok
Jonathan Jones


Art on TikTok is more Tony Hart than Marcel Duchamp. It’s not hard to imagine the late BBC children’s artist enjoying “Here’s how I paint with a mop” and “Where I find monsters for my goth art”. You won’t find the next Steve McQueen or Tacita Dean here, uploading serious video art – or at least I haven’t – but you will encounter many enthusiasts and indefatigable outsiders.

Avant garde art is in short supply on TikTok, though. But this simply reflects what’s happening in art galleries in the wake of BLM, as people use traditional methods to assert a new identity politics. Tabitha Whitley is a Brooklyn artist who creates prints and paintings of idealised, powerful Black faces, which she shares in TikTok vignettes.

Like other artists on the platform, she combines displaying her work with telling us about her life. Another painter, Kodi Delaney, says her art reflects her experience of mental illness. She displays it in videos that starkly set Klimt-like female figures against the reality of trauma.

Like Whitley, she uses TikTok as a platform to sell prints. In other words, this is an alternative art economy. I was impressed by the artistry in videos loaded by DIY fashion brand Unfinished Legacy, of Milwaukee, whose artists make raw and wild designs then screenprint them on to highly desirable T-shirts.

I looked hard for what museum curators call contemporary art. Searching for “performance art” led to clips of school musicals, along with a lot of fan videos about the moment when Ulay, the pioneering artist and former lover of Marina Abramovi?, sat down in front of her during her performance The Artist Is Present. Fans talk of its emotional power, as these people who were once close look into each other’s eyes. What this confirms is the direct, intimate, confessional quality of TikTok art: it’s not some abstract concept that fascinates people, but the great love story of Abramovi? and Ulay.

The power of art is also well explained by the TikTok art critic, Nakama Umeboi, in a lovely piece about the late US visual artist Félix González-Torres. Umeboi makes a virtue of TikTok’s short videos by succinctly explaining entire art movements or challenging works. Showing a pile of wrapped sweets by González-Torres, he explains how it was a memorial to the artist’s lover who died of Aids (as would González-Torres). As visitors took sweets away, it was as if the memory of him was fading, yet this sharing was also a way of touching the lost. Thus González-Torres haunts TikTok.

The artist who most impressed me, however, makes use of the medium itself with videos that exult in this platform’s short-form cinematic urgency. In her short clips, sculptor Ameyalli O shows in disturbing intimacy the process of making clay images of skulls, heads and arms. With her focus on separate body parts and close camera work, she makes figurative sculpting seem a strange, perverse activity. Best of all is the one of her smoothing down a male torso, feeling every contour as she handles it in the peace of her studio. You feel involved in a dangerous act of creation.

Far from luring users into a digital world where art becomes just a virtual expression of itself, TikTok lets people show and praise real art in real life. Users are not technomasters, or technophobes, but they value doing stuff more than seeing stuff, so they like actual art made by humans. Nor do the humans have to be young and cool. One user dedicates his account to exhibiting his dad’s latest oil paintings. His dad just stands there, proudly holding a landscape or a nude.

See article on The Guardian

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