The Art of Teenage Tumblr
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Laura Baliman describes how revisiting her old Tumblr blog was a reminder to appreciate art, rather than overcomplicate it now as an Art History Masters student.
The micro-blogging site Tumblr is quite a strange place, full of fandoms for everything you could imagine, but as a teenager, I spent a lot of time on the “artsy” side of it. Having rediscovered my old blog recently, I realised that the art of Tumblr is something worth exploring.
It became apparent as I scrolled through my old posts that the site was not just a space for teenager’s doodles or rudimentary memes, but also a space in which fine art was shared – like this painting, November Wind by Eric Sloane:
If presented with such artwork now, as an Art History Masters student, I would think immediately of texture, shadow and historical context – all of which are helpful categories, but at the time of sharing this work, I probably just thought it was cute. Similarly with this artwork, “While We Frame Our Happiness, Sadness Frames Us” by Mahmoud Al-Kurd, I’m sure I was just struck with awe:
Looking at it now, I jump quickly to thinking about postmodernism, digitality and perspective, but in many ways, I wish I could go back to seeing it like I used to. I don’t remember ever thinking about art or theory or anything like that, because it wasn’t taught at school: we were still drawing our shoes with HB pencils back then.
Our relationship with art is definitely complicated by academia; having finished my Literature BA, I’ve found it difficult to pick up books and only recently coaxed myself into reading a page or two of Milan Kundera. I no longer enjoy art in the simple way I used to. This doesn’t mean that academics aren’t valuable – I can appreciate art so much more now, and understand it with far more nuance and complexity. But I think this appreciation and understanding could be enhanced by childish and simplistic enjoyment. Enjoying, or simply liking a piece of art doesn’t advance your intellect or bring great career prospects, but it is pleasant, and that’s what Tumblr art offered to me at the time.
However, I probably did realise that the above works were fine art and that someone older and more educated would have a lot to say about them. But this awareness was not present for most other posts on Tumblr, which I just thought were pretty pictures. I assumed that fine art was just inclusive of the traditional canon – an assumption that I now firmly reject. I thought that I couldn’t possibly understand art, because we often tell children and young adults that they “simply wouldn’t understand”, or that certain books shouldn’t be read because they would be too advanced. Although I definitely didn’t have the vocabulary to properly examine these artworks, I do think I still “got” it.
For example, I did not realise that a series of three photographs of undulating velvet material by ‘foxydreamgirl’ (since deactivated) could even be classed as art. Still, the sheen of the fabric caught my eye, and I saw that the three strong primary colours were put beside one another but softened by the velvet texture. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to explain that effect, but I knew about it. It is unhealthy to tell young people that art is a certain kind of thing that sits on the walls of museums and in textbooks. I believe now that pretty social media posts are art – just of a different category (and perhaps an even more fun one). Sharing such “pretty pictures” still goes on via many platforms – Instagram recently being more popular, but I hope now that we can see such posts as artistically valid themselves.
One issue with Tumblr art is that credit was not always given to the artists. The velvet trio was uncredited, and I can only assume that the photographs were taken by the original poster. This reveals itself as a widespread issue as I scroll down my old feed, which is full of uncredited photographs and artworks. At the time and as teenagers, I don’t think we were aware of the necessity to credit artists or to support them, because we didn’t know anything about the art economy. Tumblr was also a particularly complicated place to credit artists because, with each reblog, the captions and tags got lost. But nowadays I don’t think there is an excuse for not including the name of the artist, especially when such a system like tagging is available on Instagram.
Revisiting my old social media stomping grounds has reminded me to sometimes look at art and just feel it. It has also reminded me to follow accounts and artists because I like and support them – and to not always write essays on them, so that I don’t completely lose that romantically naïve outlook that defined my formative years.
Laura Baliman is an Art History Masters student at the University of Edinburgh.