I don't have to tell most of you that animated GIFs received a lot of press within the past several months. Most of the GIFs cited in said articles are gags, "glitter" GIFs, clips from TV and movies, and your typical Funniest Home Videos-type fare. The growing popularity of image-centric sites like 4chan and more recently Tumblr have encouraged a resurgence of public interest in a 24-year old file format because of the GIF's unique ability to endlessly loop animations. GIFs are very small files as compared to a modern digital camera photo, and all major browsers support the animation to a functional extent. However, it should be made clear that the GIF is not inherently kitsch, just like a roll of film is not inherently kitsch. It's a filetype, a medium, and therefore has several uses. The main two uses of GIFs right now online are in informal conversation, and as art/components of art. Let's discuss the division.
From a conversational standpoint, GIFs carry a lot of punch as images because the animation grabs your attention, and a short loop is suited for a "reaction image." Take the Seinfeld GIF above. The message is clear: if someone posts this in a discussion, they're saying "Eh, this is hooey and I'm not gonna bother. See ya." It's expressive, funny and fast, and it sets a tone; all necessary qualities for extended net discussions.
|Ryu Punch, by noisia|
On the other hand, a very small fraction of GIFs are intentionally produced as "art." Here is an example by noisia. Rather than using pop culture elements literally, the artist has used an animation from a fighting video game as a formal element. The fighter's identity is not the emphasis, the work is about motion, repetition, bold color and symmetry. The image is kaleidescopic and infinitely tileable. This is a radically different use of the medium, and requires a different sort of looking to interpret and appreciate.
|Early Myspace photo?|
Some have debated the legitimacy of GIF art in light of the popular culture associated with the format. Most recently, Twitter-based performance artist Man Bartlett took up a beef with the popularity of the format on his Tumblr. For those still wary of the GIF, let me offer you this: in the early 19th century, the camera was invented. For decades, artists explored the possibilities of the new medium of the photograph, but their efforts were not treated as "sincere" or "legitimate" by the establishment. This was for two reasons. The first was that the new medium had great appeal to amateurs and businesses who would otherwise have to employ illustrators for producing images of their work, and so most photographs were not intentionally made as fine art. The second reason was that photographs were generally evaluated by the art world under the definitions of art as defined by painting, the main form of visual art at the time. Paintings have been for the most part produced only as art objects throughout their existence, and so it was very difficult for some to grasp the idea of a medium being neutral. Eventually, by about the 1920s it was decided that the intention of an object's creator, not the medium, determined whether a work was art or not, and an artwork was to be evaluated by subject matter and formal qualities.
|smile-camera-flash by ahem. Art or not?|
GIFs are like photographs, in that the method of image production is unique, but the division between amateur and artistic intention is what differentiates both usage and evaluation methods. Context is key; the website that a GIF is posted on and even its positioning in that website alerts the savvy viewer as to whether the image is to be evaluated as art or not. Just like photographs, there are even those GIFs and sites where the lines blur, and it's hard to tell what is art. A viewer of digital art must learn how to look at a work by understanding context and formal qualities. I'll be writing a breakdown of formal qualities of popular filetypes in the next few days to aid those who want to explore the concept further. What's important in the big picture is that participators in the art world understand that digital filetypes are just types of media. A GIF is like undeveloped film; it's what you photograph that counts.