Why would you get yourself a student loan and a sluggish existence when you can also gain fame and money with a one-minute video? More and more young artists are leaving art school and trying to make it on TikTok. But the established art world has not yet embraced the platform.
The woman takes a white rose from her mouth and soaks it in bright blue paint. In the next shot, the rose is at the end of her index and middle fingers, which she holds pointed at her sleep like a gun. PANG! Dead, she hangs over a white surface while the blue paint is now dripping from her eyes. And then the real painting has yet to begin. The artist, known on TikTok as @nancyssu, throws buckets of paint over her canvas, smears it with white roses, a whole bunch this time, and splashes under her virgin white dress in the meantime. At the end of her 21-second film, the eleven-like apparition stands next to the end result: a detailed portrait of an equally eleven-like woman with a sacred heart and a crown of butterfly wings.
Although the end result may not be the right word. With young artists on TikTok, the app where teenagers and twenty-somethings, in particular, share their dances, jokes, political views, and creative excesses in short films, it is often not entirely clear where the creative process ends and the artwork begins. @nancyssu also combines performance art, action painting, video art, and old-fashioned painting at breakneck speed, while fulfilling the role of muse or perhaps even that of influencer. Is her artwork then the painting or the TikTok of its creation?
It is one of the questions that are being raised now that all kinds of young artists have gone viral on the platform, gained many followers in a short time (some even buy TikTok likes), and hung their job or studies on the willows. “If a one-minute video can bring fame and money,”The New York Times wrote in March, “is it really a surprise that young artists are abandoning art school and future student debt, quitting their part-time jobs and pursuing a full-time artist career on TikTok?” The newspaper interviewed, among others, the 19-year-old @artboy200 who earned almost $ 80,000 in eight months by selling prints and paintings.
For every artist who makes it, there are another thousand eager to be noticed. For example, to showcase their work, they take part in trends and challenges – the hashtag #artchallenge alone has been viewed 4.4 billion times. There are the painting-in-the-dark challenge and the draw-this-doll-in-your-own-style challenge. Another trend is that you are destroying your creations. “I’ve heard that you end up on the For You page if you destroy your art on TikTok,” according to a frequently used audio clip under such destruction videos. And whoever ends up on that coveted #fyp, aka TikTok’s algorithm heaven, is assured of a lot of extra viewers.
Yet TikTok is not yet the platform where the established names are bouncing over each other. You have the art academy students, the industrious amateurs in attic rooms, the talented portrait artists, and all kinds of other interesting makers, but the overlap with the art world is small with only a handful of well-known names. It can be compared to the walls of the streets opposite the walls of the museum. That is no reason not to take TikTok seriously in advance. You can pass the scribbling of a bored teenager but also the new Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started spraying graffiti as an 18-year-old and was thus noticed by the New York art scene.
Also promising is the variety of voices. Just like the street, TikTok is a suitable stage for creatives who are further away from the gatekeepers: young people who have not followed an art education and have no relevant network, for example, because they come from families where culture is not a matter of course. But also for artists who just want to do it on their own, in a place with different laws, quality requirements, and a different audience.
Anouk van Leest (21) from Lage Zwaluwe, for example, painter of dark still lifes, textile structures, and desolate, alienating landscapes. During the first lockdown, she stopped her studies at the art academy AKV St. Joost in Breda, where she was a third-year student of visual arts. A few weeks later, in the hope of becoming more famous, she made her TikTok account @artandanouk. She had already watched a lot of it, including videos by Callen Schaub. The Canadian artist shows his 4.6 million followers in sixty seconds how his brightly colored drip clothes are created, an optically very satisfying casting, spinning, and splashing process. Van Leest himself addressed the destruction trend, among other things, by smearing a realistically painted drapery with white paint.
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At the beginning of this year, she announced in a much-watched video that she will sell her art for affordable prices on the online marketplace Etsy. ‘It drove me crazy that the art academy always wanted to send me to galleries and chic art collectors’, you can hear her say as she runs around in a meadow. Via Zoom, she elaborates on her motives: ‘The art world sometimes feels very elitist, as if you can only participate if you know about it.’ On TikTok, she also hopes to reach other enthusiasts. Too bad the world hasn’t embraced the platform yet. ‘The other day I saw a video of an English artist who often collaborated with galleries and was now refused somewhere because of his TikTok account.’
For Van Leest it is now a nice extra income, although it is also more work than she thought. New videos have to be uploaded regularly and she did extensive research into how she can best play herself in the spotlight, with hashtags or quick storylines. But in her work, she does not make any concessions, yet a pitfall that likes and views can entail. ‘I’m looking for the balance between more serious videos of my painting process and tricks to get people to look at my art.’ For her destruction video, she first stretched plastic wrap over the canvas. No painting was harmed in the making of this film.
Captivate the viewer
TikTok artists have found all kinds of ways to captivate the viewer in recent years. Because unlike on Instagram, where you can just share ready-made images, you have to have a feeling for the medium, no matter how talented you are. Even the accounts of museums with world-famous collections are nowhere without a funny sound clip or a clever reference to internet culture. And yet Vermeer’sMilkmaidmercilessly beats everything with a lot of color and pace on TikTok. The Rijksmuseum tried to give her some jeu with a European Championship hashtag and a flag filter over her face, but only garnered a meager 133 likes. The Florentine Uffizi Gallery already achieved more success by having two marble statues of Dante and Virgilplay a song from the teen series High School Musical with the help of a face filter.
Elements like shock value and activism do well on TikTok, as does anything to do with memes or a good dose of sentiment. Take the realistic portrait drawing Devon Rodriguez who secretly draws his fellow travelers on the New York subway. Clever, but he really owes his 16.4 million followers to the last few seconds of his videos, in which he surprises his emotional occasional models with their drawn counterparts. Also popular are videos that are simply satisfying to watch. Take the way pop artist Matt Chesco presents his portraits of stars like Billie Eilish and Bob Ross: to the beat of TikTokhitjes, he waves a brush as if it were a magic wand. After each swing, you see the portrait at a further stage and you only have to wait 15 seconds for the end result. Kicks for nothing.
The 21-year-old Cheyenne van Alphen from Goeree-Overflakkee is also trying to make it on the app, although a year ago she looked down on her ticking peers. Rather something for her 10-year-old sister thought the leisure painter and psychology student at Erasmus University. Until a girl who lives down the street managed to gather a quarter of a million followers with dances and pranks, and she also saw the potential for her art in the platform. Since September, @cheyfly000 has been sharing videos of her work: canvases with brightly colored abstracted faces, painted coats and shoes that she makes on commission, and a large sculpture.
And thanks to the algorithm, it can happen every day. Her least successful TikTok hasn’t been viewed 200 times, but her biggest hit has been nearly 100,000 times. ‘A while back I had made a video with messages from famous people who complimented me.’ Rappers Ronnie Flex (‘Loev je werk’) and Ray Fuego (‘Gooodd stuff’) passed by, as did musician and former Youtuber Joost Klein. ‘I thought it was a bit boastful, but it worked. Sometimes in order to be seen you have to do something that doesn’t quite fit in your street.’
New kind of multimedia art
One day it may be elevated to an accepted art movement, the way in which TikTokkers interweave their work process, presentation, and end result into a new kind of multimedia art, but for the time being the art world is a parallel universe with only small pieces of overlap. So it’s plenty of time to think about — should TikTok art one day make it to the museums, galleries, and auction houses — exactly which part should be shown. Just the fairy portrait? Also, are the roses soaked in blue paint? Or is the biggest innovation in TikTok itself, because of the art of sucking us into our screens for x number of seconds via algorithms?