Malevich, Duchamp, and the end of SEO

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square
During what was a few life cycles ago for my mind, I had gotten the idea that going to law school would be a cool thing to do. As it turns out, the President of Carleton College, where I was studying at the time, was himself a graduate of Harvard Law School, which I knew from my research to be kind of like the Harvard of law schools. And it so happened that we found ourselves standing next to each other during a dinner for students in the Political Science department. So I asked him somewhat inartfully if he had any “recommendations” regarding law school for me.

His reply: “Study hard for the LSAT, and get the best score that you can get. Then, go to the best law school that you can get in to.” Apparently worried by my dumb stare of a reaction, he quickly added, “Of course, not everyone can attend the Harvards of this world…”

I should add that the President gave me 100% sound advice for an aspiring lawyer, and also the question itself was a bit unfocused. I think my disappointment at his answer mainly came from being jarred out of the postmodern mindset that I had been steeped in during college. The idea that one school would be “better” than another seemed foreign, in a weird way. After all, the idea of value judgments having intrinsic rank seems to be only obliquely examined by the sciences (not that I took that many science classes…), and in the humanities, the idea in itself seems to be largely frowned upon. Reading Nietzsche was an interesting and persuasive break from what has ironically become a sort of postmodern establishment in undergraduate classrooms (and I should acknowledge here the contradiction in that Nietzsche played a big role in laying the early groundwork for postmodernism). Unfortunately Nietzsche was kind of vague about who the arbiter of values and rank should be in a godless world, but he sure as hell didn’t have the U.S. News and World Report ranking of law schools in mind, and I gradually realized that I was too much of a postmodern to cut it in the legal world—and I have the President to thank for giving me the first of many off-putting glimpses into what I believe to be the field that truly deserves the moniker of “the dismal science.”

Fairly or unfairly, those who have traditionally defined the idea of good and bad have a reputation for stuffiness and general hoity-toityness, so you can imagine the frustration with which artists tried to smash these systems of value judgements—for example, Kazimir Malevich with his Black Square, and Marcel Duchamp with his Fountain. The frustration with the way the arbiters of aesthetics (being the ones in possession of political power) refer to style and skill to value art led these artists to remove style and skill from their works entirely. So, the result was art that couldn’t be valued in terms of good or not good, which was a blow to the legitimacy of the establishment aesthetic ideal of “good.”

Malevich and Duchamp pioneered the idea that it is not necessary to aspire to be “good” (at least in the way the word has traditionally been used)—that creative work in the pursuit of the “not-good” is constructive and legitimate. Fast-forward to 2016 though, and my feeling is that postmodernism ended up merely opening the door for a sort of crass commercialism to take up the position formerly occupied by establishment aesthetics. Yes—I think that those two ruffians deserve at least part of the blame for the emergence of clickbait…

Malevich and Duchamp advanced “not good” art with the aim of making the idea behind a work of art more central to the work than the final product, or the physical process that went into making the work (which, in Duchamp’s Fountain, was merely the proto-Jackass-esque act of tipping a urinal on its side).

However, postmodernism is too annoying for most people to take seriously, so postmodernism left its mark on the cultural landscape and yet did not extinguish the innate desire that people have to rank. Skill is relatively easy to assign rank value to—a person can be considered as having more skill than another by demonstrating the ability to do something that another person is unable to do. But ideas are more nebulous and harder to rank. Since there is no built-in rank attribute for ideas, ideas must instead be ranked based on the subjective views of an all-powerful force. Some things that I could imagine fulfilling this role are religious texts and cult-of-personality type figures.

However, in democratic America, this responsibility falls to the force of public opinion, which I feel like was called “the Dictator of America” or something by Alexis de Tocqueville, although I can’t locate the quote now, and if someone says a quote but it doesn’t end up on Google, does it really make a sound, and so on. But I’m pretty sure Tocqueville would agree with this general sentiment: that to the degree that ideas can be said to have intrinsic rank in America, they are ranked according to the weight of public opinion behind them.

Hence, the emergence of SEO.

The internet is basically a series of tubes that carry ideas. In America, an idea can be considered to be more valuable than another if it carries greater approval in the realm of public opinion. In this post-postmodern internet, skill, while still a factor in the appraisal of the value of a thing, takes a backseat to the force of SEO. You could say that an internet entity’s inherent value stems from the degree to which it leverages SEO. SEO leads to pageviews, which leads to the securing of public opinion, which is the ultimate American arbiter of value.

It goes without saying that this setup has resulted in a lot of garbage being strewn about on the internets. Which makes sense, because creating a “good” work (meaning work created with an abundance of skill) is no longer the goal, and a work’s “goodness” doesn’t necessarily have a positive influence on SEO. Instead, each internet work must strive to succeed in the realm of public opinion. You would think this would go hand in hand with a work’s “goodness,” but in reality it is a completely different thing. Where as the “good” works of yore aimed to inspire awe, SEO-chasing works appeal to more base emotions such as greed, fear, envy, lust. The result: yet more clickbait headlines leading to yet another blog with a boring WordPress stock theme.

What we need, then, is an anti-SEO work. Like Duchamp’s Fountain acted as a giant middle finger aimed at the insular and judgmental notion of skill, we need another Fountain for our times, which would be a web entity that can deliver the same kind of shock to the SEO-obsessed establishment. Well, I am proud to say that I have found this work, and it is was created by artist David OReilly. I found out about this work when he recently shared the link on his Twitter, saying that he had too many domains and that he would let this one expire. As of today, I can still access the work, but a quick description in case the site goes dark forever soon: once the site loads, a low-poly 3D Bart Simpson skateboards onto the screen. He greets the viewer with a hand wave and declares, “Hey man, I’m Bart Simpson. Eat my sharts.” He then proceeds to shart out what can only be described as more sh than art out of his blocky digital bottom, which pools around his feet. The camera angle frequently changes to give you various views of sharting Bart Simpson. It will basically loop forever but as a pro-tip, you can press “r” to restart the whole business, or “m” to mute the sharting audio.

eatmysharts had a truly mysterious effect on me. I gave a hearty and controlled laugh the first time I watched it. But then, in a few minutes, I found myself watching it again. And again. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to strongly resist the urge to watch it at work. It eventually became more than a source of entertainment for me, but something close to evoking awe…

On Facebook, I sent the link to my friend Omar, who is studying coding. I thought he might enjoy it as an example of creative web programming.
His reply: “I did not enjoy that at all, just awful. I don’t know why anyone would spend time making that.”

Yes—I think that the fact that someone spent so much of their time making something so utterly stupid is paradoxically the central appeal of the work for me. I started to examine the source code because I too wanted to know how to make a sharting Bart Simpson, which gave me a great appreciation for the amount of work that went into making this. Looking through the code, I got great joy out of imagining David OReilly hunched over his computer creating Javascript variable names such as shitshafttexture and shitpoolgeo. I started studying Three.js (the underlying WebGL library) myself, and it took me hours just to get this weird blue square to display on the screen. Apparently I have a long way to go.

Clearly, then, we have here a work that is not only skilled, but profoundly disagreeable to public opinion. As such, eatmysharts stands as an extremely compelling challenge to the SEO banality that floods the internet. I think that is what caused the work to capture my attention so powerfully. It represents a Black Square/Fountain moment for web content. That is to say, it is the reintroduction of skill as a value for web content, while at the same it represents an inversion of the SEO paradigm. SEO uses crass emotions to push a slick final product, while eatmysharts uses a idiotic final product to create a feeling that is at once freeing and uplifting…

Also, just wait until it gets to the close-up of Bart’s face, I can never stop myself from laughing at that part.