This month’s First Monday is a special issue on Histories and cultures of emoji vernaculars.
I haven’t read it all yet, but I enjoyed SooJin Lee’s piece on MoMA’s exhibition of the original emoji. Lee argues on institutional grounds that the exhibition is sufficient to make the original emoji count as art.
Lee writes, “The emoji in itself may not be art, but the particular circumstances have made the emoji art.” In the course of making this general point, she makes an analogy between the original emoji and Duchamp’s Fountain. Although Fountain is a standard and serviceable exemplar for explaining an institutional theory of art, it seems a out of place here.1
The urinal which became Fountain was made by factory workers in the usual way, and it was made artwork by Duchamp.2 He is credited as the artist. And the fact that the original urinal was lost means that the original Fountain was lost, too.
The original emoji are 12×12 pixel maps designed by Shigetaka Kurita, but curators at MoMA elevated them into being artwork. Yet Kurita is credited as the artist. The original bitmaps are inscribed in various ways, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you still have the original hardware they appeared on. They are identified by character mapping with different, higher-resolution images which appear on contemporary devices. It is puzzling whether current emoji images ought to be understood as Kurita’s or not.3
Emoji raise interesting questions about what object the work is. So did Fountain. But the questions are different in the two cases.