Gustave Courbet, Un enterrement à Ornans, c. 1849-50, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Just as Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet aggrandized peasants in the latter half of the 19th century, Web 2.0 is doing the same for the 21st century commoner. The peasant can be represented just as prominently and loudly as an Emperor or Jesus Christ, which might suggest that he might also have a voice within his respective population and not be degraded to the lowest rank in any given hierarchical pyramid. It can be argued that the average creator of a YouTube video might get even more attention than a political or religious figure. We all know that President Obama’s embracing of Web 2.0 culture helped win him the election. Ashton Kutcher is the most widely followed person on twitter, with almost 3 million followers, and Fred is still the most widely subscribed YouTuber, with almost 1.3 million subscribers. The White House’s official YouTube channel has just under 80,000 followers.
The commoner can be celebrated and used to subversively challenge hierarchical conventions of power. Just as a handful of early modernist French artists — Barbizon painters, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Realists — challenged the institution of the French Academy, or just as the Third Estate — the most populous group with the smallest voice — was the catalyst and major force in overthrowing the establishment of the Ancien Regime, Web 2.0, YouTube, social networking, and reality television are too challenging old power structures.
Jacques-Louis David, Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand-Saint-Bernard, 1800, Château du Malmaison, France; Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa le 11 mars 1799, c. 1804, Musée du Louvre, Paris
When Jacques-Louis David or Antoine-Jean Gros painted Napoléon Bonaparte towards the end of the 18th century, they had to create a myth around the figure of the French Emperor. He had to be shown in the most respectable manner, not only because he was the most powerful man in Europe, but because he was paying for the creation of the tableau. Yet he was dependant upon artists, just as Louis XIV or Julius Caesar was, to disseminate his myth and folklore. He himself was incapable of visually representing himself to all of Europe alone.
Artists, on the other hand, were a peculiar case because they could create their own image. They could depict themselves however they wished, be it in front of the canvas or in nature, as a God or misunderstood artist, beautiful or ugly, idealized or veristic. The way they fashioned their skin, hair, environment, or clothing played into this premeditated image.
Self-portraits abound throughout the history of art. From Albrecht Dürer’s Christ-like self-portrait to Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre, artists have always used their creative skills at constructing their own image and legend, controlling viewers’ perceptions of themselves. It is no coincidence that as history has approached present day, representational and sociopolitical power has moved away from the few kings, popes, and aristocrats to the masses. That is, the earliest people depicted tended to be Gods or those with the means (either monetary, political, or artistic) to commission a portrait. With the social, economic, and political upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries, power moved into the masses and artistic control followed suite. YouTube and the idea of a user-generated era falls into this larger subversion of social hierarchies.
The desire to have oneself painted, photographed, or depicted in any artistic mode (or have control over his own sociopolitical economic destiny) is not new to human existence. It has been around since the dawn of art, but the means in which people can now project their image into the world and have it seen by literally millions of people is something very new. Even with the birth of photography, only the affluent with access to new technological and chemical resources had the means to have their portrait taken.
But as technologies have progressed, evolved, and inadvertently become cheaper and more democratic, the shift in power has always seemed to trickle back down to the masses. It seems as though Web 2.0 is finally beginning to assert itself as a veritable force that is challenging many of the oldest established power structures. Artists, politicians, musicians, scientists, writers, and advocates alike are challenging old-formed institutions and industries by utilizing the newest (free) technologies made available to them.
As journalists have less and less access into Iran, major media outlets are beginning to turn to “citizen journalism” for more information. Iran’s oppressive government is now being subverted through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Blogs are disseminating unprecedented amounts of information with the most simple of means.
It’s interesting to see how these new platforms are being used in ways that were completely unheard of just a few years ago. I feel as though I never saw serious, didactic footage on YouTube or read anything truly important on blogs. It’s very exciting and I hope that more empowering things come from these new technological resources.