The Work of Art in the Age of Microsoft Paint

This article is a re-formatted extract from Issue #1: Birth, which you can read more about here.

As Microsoft throws Paint into the digital wasteland with the rest of the internet’s abandonware, it’s hard not to get nostalgic about the simple graphical editor that influenced the “shit is good” aesthetic of the early 2000s internet. Its influence on internet culture is huge, with obvious examples being rage comics, stoner comics, and any image macro with awkwardly superimposed text and graphics.

Digital art that looked like shit started out as a necessity, yet slowly became a preference. Even today’s memes hark back to the days where the best material was thrown together on Paint in a matter of minutes. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Paint, digital art would have taken much longer to reach the heights and levels of cultural impact it has today, simply because of the high prices of alternatives. In 1990, Abobe Photoshop debuted as the first graphics software for the average user. For $1,000 a copy, it’s easy to see why the majority of creators ended up using Paint, which came pre-installed on every Windows computer.


Owing to its brutal simplicity, images created or edited in Paint have a very distinctive style. Hard pixels, jagged lines, messy fills, and 28 obnoxious colors. Along with Movie Maker and Flash, it was in the hands of millions of users by 2003. Its popularity came in time for the explosion of internet creativity facilitated by sites like 4chan, Newgrounds, b3ta and, later, YouTube. Its strict limitations, recognizable roughness and the fact that it was available to so many amateurs make it one of the most important pieces of software for art in the internet age. But it’s not the actual features of the software that make it so important.

Really, Paint is important purely by circumstance. Any free and widely available graphics editor would have had the same impact. Instead of looking at the software itself, it’s more interesting to look at it as an empowering tool for the democratization of art, and how that relates to Walter Benjamin’s criticism of art and culture in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.


When Walter Benjamin published The Work of Art, it was around six decades before the outset of the internet. At the dawn of the modern age, the role, availability and definition of art was constantly under question. Marxist theorists like Benjamin saw that art, like many aspects of culture, started out as being for the common person but was seized by the upper classes. Many classic works of art were kept away from the general public because they were bought and displayed in private galleries by the ruling elite. Since the original art was unavailable, companies mass-produced prints, postcards and tea towels that de-contextualized and cheapened the original. Benjamin argued that these cheap replicas lacked the context and ‘aura’ of the original pieces, and unjustly turned art into just another commodity feeding into the capitalist system.


Before the internet, art was indeed controlled by “hierarchized mediation”, as Benjamin puts it. Until the late ’90s, creators and consumers were held back from freely distributing and consuming content by industry gatekeepers. When the internet became widely accessible and spawned sites that host user-generated content, the problems that troubled Benjamin in the ‘30s melted away.

Freedom of expression and democratic consumption hit new peaks, and put the power to create and distribute media in the hands of anyone with a dial-up modem.

Digital art that lives on the internet is a direct retaliation against the conditions Benjamin criticized — on the internet, there’s no such thing as the aura of the original. The .jpg rendered in your browser is the same one an anonymous user knocked up in Paint and posted on 4chan. It’s not mediated, it’s not edited, it’s not available only as a soulless simulacrum. The internet turns art from a commodity to an unlimited exhibition, and it just so happened that the unintentionally hilarious lo-fi aesthetic of Microsoft’s stock software was around to make it possible for anyone to contribute.


Out of all the media created on the internet, the best known and most widely distributed kind of content is memes.

Memes are easy to make, they’re rough, iterative, and collaborative. The definition of a meme is a concept that spreads and mutates throughout a community, and by that definition the whole fabric of the internet and all of its memes can be seen as a tight scene, or one big collaborative art project.

Anyone can participate if they want to, everyone has Paint or something similar on their computer, and how much of an impact your contribution makes on the overall project is up to the harsh (yet democratic) community of the internet. Right now, thanks to early innovators providing these tools and platforms to the connected world, the state Benjamin described in The Work of Art couldn’t be further from reality.

This article is a re-formatted extract from Issue #1: Birth, which you can read more about here.

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