For the vast majority of people who saw Rihanna on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, her performance of “Diamonds” was mainly notable because she was singing in front of what appeared to be an elaborate, garish screen saver from the late ’90s. It was a WTF moment, and most people mocked it, and others vaguely recognized it as being something to do with Tumblr. Even the people hip enough to make the Tumblr connection were mostly unsure of exactly what was going on — was this “seapunk,” kinda? Web art? This imagery has been floating around for a few years in hipster circles, but for the most part, there hasn’t been a name for it, and the artists involved have been fairly anonymous. Those familiar with this stuff considered it to be something of a joke, or at least closer to a meme than an art movement.
The artists involved in seapunk and various strains of Web art connected to what is known in art circles as New Aesthetic were not amused by Rihanna’s appropriation of their style. Notable figures connected to the seapunk scene wrote furious, frustrated themes in the immediate aftermath of the performance, with fashion blogger Bebe Zeva writing some of the sharpest, angriest comments on her Twitter. Zeva blasted Rihanna for raiding an online counterculture, and lamented that the singer had accelerated this aesthetic’s assimilation into the mainstream. Her critique was earnest but incredibly elitist, essentially an argument in favor of keeping this scene “exclusive.” She used language that attacked the merchandising of “cool” by pop stars and brands like Forever21, but was really acting as a gatekeeper and freaking out because this fun art party was about to get crowded out with trend-hoppers and squares.
It’s easy to understand why these people would feel aggrieved or cheated, but that sentiment is at odds with both the fluid, conversational nature of art — something that goes back centuries to folk traditions — and the ethos of their own work, which is so focused on playing with the tacky imagery of early Internet graphics and embracing the viral nature of the modern Web. You can look at Rihanna’s performance as an example of a pop star cherry-picking a trend from the underground and literally standing in front of it on television, as if proximity to something sorta edgy would confer that edginess to her. But when it comes down to it, Rihanna’s motives or execution doesn’t matter as much as the fact that she’s tossed a nascent art movement into the spotlight. She has raised the stakes dramatically, and it’s up to those artists to decide the next step for their work.
This sort of thing has happened on Saturday Night Live before. Back in 1979, David Bowie performed “The Man Who Sold the World,” “TVC-15,” and “Boys Keep Swinging” with Klaus Nomi, an otherworldly opera singer who was a fixture of the East Village art scene of the mid-’70s. Like Rihanna, Bowie was taking the opportunity to confront a large and varied television audience with something quite odd and striking from the underground.
The obvious difference here is that Klaus Nomi was actually on stage with Bowie and was able to parlay the interest generated by this television appearance into a brief but brilliant recording career that lasted until just before he died from complications of AIDS in 1983. Rihanna didn’t directly work with seapunk artists, which places her more in the tradition of Madonna, who has a looooong history of taking musical and visual ideas from underground clubs and gay and Latino subcultures while generally positioning herself as an originator. For contrast, note that while Madonna ran with ideas from drag ball culture for her smash hit “Vogue,” Malcolm McLaren actually employed a voguer for the video of his earlier song “Deep in Vogue.”
McLaren saw himself as a conduit of other artists, and many other performers share that philosophy. Björk’s artistic methods are not dissimilar to those of Madonna and Rihanna, at least in that she’s built her career on hopping from collaborator to collaborator, and has a knack for assimilating ideas from obscure artists into her work. Björk, however, is all about attribution. If she wants to play around with someone else’s ideas, she works directly with them, whether they’re avant-garde fashion designer Alexander McQueen or the sound-art duo Matmos.
Björk dressed up in an original Alexander McQueen design on the cover of her 1998 album Homogenic.
Sonic Youth apply a similar ethic to their approach to visual art. The band have always been strongly connected to the art world, and have developed a tradition of using work by fine artists such as Gerhard Richter, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince, Marnie Weber, Richard Kern, and Mike Kelley for the covers of their records. This is a mutually beneficial situation for both sides — Sonic Youth borrow images from respected artists and built up cred in the art world, and the artists were introduced to a large audience of cool, curious indie-rock fans. And, notably, all of the artists got full credit and were paid for their work.
This sort of transparent exchange of ideas is good for artistic communities. It’s a “rising tide floats all boats” mentality, with big-shot artists using their position to bring attention to smaller artists. The Beastie Boys are a great example of this — they spent most of the ’90s doing whatever they could to bring obscure artists of all kinds closer to the mainstream.
It’s great to be a good citizen, but it’s not the only way to go about this. Hip-hop and DJ culture is built on unapologetic appropriation, and that ethos has created some of the most brilliant, vital, and challenging art of the past three decades. It has also shaped the culture of the Internet, which developed parallel with hip-hop becoming the dominant strain of popular music in the mid-’90s on through much of the past decade. The sort of appropriation that was once reserved for the likes of superstars like Madonna and David Bowie or culturally omnivorous hip-hop producers like DJ Shadow and the RZA has been thoroughly democratized. This is so ingrained in Internet culture that most of us don’t even realize the degree to which we’re engaging with it on a day-to-day basis, regardless of whether or not we’re artists or media makers.
The response from artists involved in seapunk and Web art to Rihanna’s SNL performance suggests that they generally had a sense that their aesthetic was going to end up getting filtered into the mainstream but weren’t expecting it to happen quite so soon. There’s some irony to this: Shouldn’t a Tumblr-based art movement be hyperaware of how quickly visual memes can spread now and also how many people out there are prone to reblogging content without attribution?
These artists shouldn’t look at this moment as the end of the line for their deliberately designed counterculture. For one thing, the vast majority of people who saw Rihanna’s performance had no real frame of reference for it, and their work remains about as obscure as it already was. Web art is still a young, developing form both inside and outside of the art world establishment. There are a lot of obvious parallels between it and graffiti/street art, and it can be argued that despite all the interesting work being made in the name of seapunk, New Aesthetic, and other strains of Web-based art, this movement is still too new to be easily understood and hasn’t yet produced rough equivalents to galvanizing crossover figures like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
But that seems to be just around the corner. Vaporwave, a micro-movement connected to seapunk, is a more thematically coherent cousin to that style. Vaporwave artists — most of whom blend original music and digital graphics for their videos — push the nostalgia for the iconography of the early Internet beyond goofy irony toward something more focused and pointed. As the art site Dummy puts it, vaporwave artists are “co-opting the icons of hi-def capitalism for their own ends,” and creating seductive nightmare visions of the near future. Outraged seapunks should run with this idea. Rihanna’s appropriation of their style opens the door to using their existing visual language as a means to comment on the corporate-culture machine that they claim to despise. This is an opportunity.