In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York announced that it had acquired for its permanent collection the original set of 176 emoji characters developed in 1999 by Japan’s telecommunication provider NTT DoCoMo. MoMA also organized an exhibition of the emoji in the museum’s lobby with the title “The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita,” thus highlighting its historical significance and the role of the designer. This paper explores new and critical yet under-discussed issues surrounding MoMA’s acquisition and exhibition of the first emoji set. What happens when emoji enters an art museum? What can the MoMA’s accession and exhibition of emoji tell us about emoji, about art, and about the relationship between them? I will examine the discourses on the MoMA’s emoji accession, which reveal two positions against the emoji as art: a conservative view that emoji is not art and thus should not be in the museum and a revisionist effort to frame the emoji as a design innovation rather than as art. But I draw attention to the MoMA’s exhibition of the emoji, which I analyze as a materialized display of the originally virtual characters. Using textual and aesthetic analyses together with theories of art, I argue the emoji at MoMA is art.
A brief history of emoji
The emoji as not art
The emoji as art: Creating an exhibition of the emoji
On 26 October 2016, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York announced its permanent collection acquired the original set of 176 emoji characters developed in 1999 by Japan’s telecommunication provider NTT DoCoMo (Galloway, 2016). MoMA also organized an exhibition of the emoji in the museum’s first-floor lobby with the title “Inbox: The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita,” which was on view from 9 December 2016 to 12 March the following year (MoMA, 2016). Shigetaka Kurita designed the first emoji set while working at NTT DoCoMo. The acquisition provoked some art critics, who argued that emoji is not art. It also received considerable attention from the news media, which reported mostly with positive excitement and amazement. However, the exhibition apparently did not draw as much attention as the acquisition itself, and it is difficult to find critical reviews or commentaries on the exhibition, though some photo and video uploads can be found on social networking sites such as Instagram.
This paper explores critical and under-discussed issues surrounding MoMA’s acquisition and exhibition of the first emoji set. What happens when emoji enters an art museum? What can the MoMA’s accession and exhibition of emoji tell us about emoji, about art, and about the relationship between them? While neither the acquisition nor the exhibition has received noticeable critical appraisal, I view and analyze these events as a dynamic and useful situation to rethink the role and function of emoji and of art museum in contemporary culture. In this paper, after giving a brief explanation of what emoji are, I will examine outstanding discourses on the MoMA’s accession of the first emoji set, which reveal two positions against the emoji as art: a conservative view that emoji is not art and thus should not be in the museum; and the museum specialists’ revisionist effort to frame the emoji as a design innovation as opposed to art. But then I will draw attention to the MoMA’s exhibition of the emoji, which I analyze from an art historical and theoretical perspective as a materialized display of the originally virtual characters. Emoji itself may not be art, but I argue that the MoMA’s particular positions and circumstances made the emoji art. Since emoji is still an emerging topic for scholarly research and has rarely received in-depth consideration in the field of visual studies, I hope this aesthetic and theoretical analysis of the emoji exhibition would make a meaningful contribution. Most of the existing scholarly researches on emoji are from the disciplines of social science, such as communication and linguistics, and notable ones are recently submitted master’s theses and doctoral dissertations (Hill, 2016; Bliss-Carroll, 2016; Zhu, 2015).
A brief history of emoji
We would first need to understand what emoji is and how it has evolved. The word “emoji” is originally a Japanese combination of e (“picture”) and moji (“letter, character”), which thus can be translated roughly to pictogram or pictograph . The term has nothing to do with ”emotion“ or ”emoticon,“ although they seem related. In some cultures like South Korea, the word “emoticon” is used much more commonly to refer to what English word “emoji” means. But they are different. Emoticons have a longer history that is traced back to the 1980s when computer users in alphabet-using cultures began to create simple facial representations out of preexisting glyphs, for example :) for a smile and :-( for showing sadness, disappointment or dissatisfaction (Hern, 2015). While emoticon utilizes texts only, emoji is an actual picture.
Emoji was developed in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, who came up with the idea and the designs a year prior, as an employee of the Japanese national mobile carrier Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT). NTT DoCoMo’s “i-mode” mobile internet service, at the time, limited text messages on a screen to 250 characters, and the short messages could appear blunt and impolite, especially in a culture that regards politeness as paramount (Kageyama, 2017). Image-based text messages could soften the tone. As Kurita explains, “With a heart, the message can’t be negative whatever the text says” (AFP, 2016). Drawing on various sources that included : manga, Zapf dingbat typefaces, public signs, zodiac and weather forecast symbols, Kurita created the set of 176 emoji characters on a grid of 12 x 12 pixels (Galloway, 2016). It is important to note that the emoji was developed to enhance the company’s marketing, rather than to assist communication among the users:
DoCoMo used emoji to deliver weather reports to pager users (hence the sun, lightning bolt, umbrella and snowman emoji) and direct them to local businesses; the hamburger symbolized a fast-food joint, the martini stood for a bar, and the high heel indicate a clothing shop. DoCoMo also partnered on its first emoji set with the Japanese ticket seller Pia and the restaurant review company Zagat, and these old corporate deals remain baked into the DNA of Internet culture. Modern smartphone keyboards still offer an emoji for the word “soon” under a right arrow, an old Pia symbol for a show that’s about to begin (Hess, 2016).
So the marketing aim resulted in emoji’s distinct emotive character and the succinctness in design and content. With the success of the DoCoMo emoji, its rival mobile carriers in Japan such as KDDI and Softbank began to develop their own emoji sets. But these companies’ different versions of emoji did not interoperate; for example, a DoCoMo phone could send emoji only to a DoCoMo phone and not to a Softbank phone.
Emoji began to be used outside of Japan in 2010, when they were adopted into the worldwide character-encoding standard Unicode. The Unicode Consortium codified all emoji characters, making them usable from different platforms in different languages across the world (Lucas, 2016). In 2011, with Apple adding emoji to its iOS5, the iPhone started to include emoji on its keyboard, and since then, emoji have become a global phenomenon and a new intercultural communication system.
Emoji may never become a universal language because of the much-discussed cultural difference in coding and encoding the visual characters . But no other form of communication has spread so quickly across the world in history, a phenomenon possible in the digital era. As Marcel Danesi in The semiotics of emoji concludes:
What the emoji phenomenon is showing, more than anything else, is that visuality and phonetic writing are merging more and more to produce a hybrid language ... . We are beginning to sense, in other words, that the traditional forms of language and writing are no longer able to carry out thoughts in the ways of the past. 
It is difficult to predict whether emoji will remain or disappear in the future, but as of today, it is a highly useful — and playful — appendix to existing texts and languages. The power of emoji lies in its playfulness and ability to instantly convey emotions and a friendly tone in digital communication, which was one of Kurita’s primary aims in developing emoji in the first place.
The emoji as not art
A hierarchical view: High art vs. mass culture
MoMA’s accession of the first 176 emoji characters, developed by Kurita, was officially announced on the Museum’s Web site on 27 October 2016 through a statement by MoMA’s Architecture and Design Collection Specialist, Paul Galloway. This meant that MoMA had acquired from NTT DoCoMo a digital file of the emoji, along with permission to display them in a range of forms. Soon after, major news outlets including the New York Times, Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, Forbes, Rolling Stones, and CBS News covered this story with much interest.
However, the news of the unconventional acquisition of MoMA, the world-class art museum known for its collection of masterpieces by artists like Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso, also raised much concern among conservative art critics. A caustic criticism came from Jonathan Jones, an art critic for the Guardian, who remarked, “Once, New York’s Museum of Modern Art was a temple of profound and serious work — but in acquiring emojis, it’s joined the race to the bottom” (Jones, 2016). According to his standard, emoji are a mere “pop-cultural artifact,” not a great work of art fit for MoMA’s collection. He finds profound and serious art in oil paintings by modern art masters, such as The Starry Night, The Red Studio, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and abstract expressionism (all in MoMA’s collection), as he lists them in his review.
Such a view, apparently, reflects the modernist, elitist, hierarchical perception of art of the twentieth century, which posits fine art as opposed to popular culture, a position most famously associated with the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno and the post-war American formalist art critic Clement Greenberg. In a key text of critical theory, Dialectic of enlightenment (Dialektik der aufklärung, first published in 1944), Adorno and his co-author Max Horkheimer (2002) coined the term “culture industry” to describe the increasing capitalist industrialization of culture and warned against its power to manipulate the people and harm their tastes, thinking and creative abilities. Around the same time, in 1939, Greenberg published the seminal essay “Avant-garde and kitsch,” in which he defined the two forms of art in opposition to each other by describing kitsch as the lowest form of mass culture and avant-garde art as a product of critical thinking and a way to resist the degrading culture. Rising as the most influential art critic in New York and proponent of abstract expressionism in the 1950s, in 1961 Greenberg (2003; 1961) published another groundbreaking essay “Modernist painting,” in which he articulated his notion of art for art’s sake. He defined medium-specificity and self-criticality as the essential characteristics of modernism. For example, he argued that modernist painting is the purest and highest form of art because it addresses its inherent properties which are flatness and color.
What’s important to note here is that these modernist theories of art and the hierarchical view of fine art as high and popular culture as low remain influential today. The controversy over the MoMA’s accession of the emoji set (and other mass-cultural products such as video games, as will be discussed below) is one explicit example. Apparently, Jones’ criticism comes from his respect for what MoMA stands for: A “temple of greatness,” as he describes it, MoMA has taken the role of offering “an authoritative and compelling vision of what is truly great” (Jones, 2016). Since its foundation in 1929 as one of the world’s first museums to focus on modern art, MoMA has played a key role in defining modern art history. For an object — whether it is a painting, a sculpture, a vase or a furniture piece — its entry to the MoMA collection is a very significant event, because MoMA is one of the most powerful and influential art institutions in the world. It is almost as if the museum legitimises the object as ‘art’ by collecting or exhibiting it. For the conservative critic who sees emoji as a mere “pop-cultural artifact,” its entry into the MoMA’s collection may signify not just the culture’s but also the museum’s degradation.
Regarding modernism, it should be remembered that museums collecting and exhibiting institutions are a product of the Enlightenment that became common in Europe during the eighteenth century. As a modernist invention, many art museums still retain modernist ideologies in their visions and structures. For example, the International Council of Museums (ICOM, created in 1946) states that “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment” (International Council of Museums, 2007). Thus, the institution’s educating and service roles for the public good are emphasized. Also, when it comes to museum operation, many art museums today retain the medium-based classification of art. MoMA, for example, handles art works through various administrative units, such as the Department of Painting and Sculpture, Department of Drawings, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Department of Photography, Department of Film, and Department of Media and Performance Art.
A categorizing view: Art vs. design
I turn attention to the museum and its relationship with modernism because, in response to the criticisms against the MoMA’s accession of unconventional products such as emoji, the museum specialists explained that MoMA was collecting the emoji not as art but as an artifact of design innovation, thus distinguishing design from art in the modernist mode. Let us return to MoMA’s Architecture and Design Collection Specialist Paul Galloway’s statement, which officially announced the museum’s accession of the emoji. It is important to note he never uses the word “art,” except in the cases where he writes out the museum’s name, the Museum of Modern Art. Instead, in both wording and content, he emphasizes the “design” aspect of the emoji. For example, he writes:
Shigetaka Kurita’s emoji are powerful manifestations of the capacity of design to alter human behavior. The design of a chair dictates our posture; so, too, does the format of electronic communication shape our voice. MoMA’s collection is filled with examples of design innovations that radically altered our world (Galloway, 2016).
Galloway’s emphasis on design seems to be a strategic choice. Art and design often fall into different categories, not only in scholarly discourses but also in museum operation.
In visual arts discourse and terminology, what separates “design” from “art” is design’s functional and utilitarian purposes. For example, a book on design history or theory shows pictures of furniture, kitchenware, automobiles, posters, logos, and electronics — the objects that are much closer to our daily life use, need, and experience than, say, paintings or sculptures, which can only be viewed or appreciated remotely. For the same reason, Bruno Munari (1907–1998), an influential artist turned designer, criticized in his book Design as art (Munari, 1971) that “as long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only interest a very few people” . He claimed that designers, not artists, can “re-establish[es] the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing” . Munari’s perception of art as a thing of the ‘ivory tower’ is common and continues today, and so does the distinction between art (specifically speaking, fine art) and design.
In fact, the emoji under consideration has been acquired by MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, whereas most of the popular artworks in MoMA’s collection such as Monet’s Water Lilies (Nymphéas), van Gogh’s The Starry Night, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon — which Jones would consider examples of great art — are overseen by the Department of Painting and Sculpture. MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design was established in 1932, three years after the museum’s establishment, as “the world’s first curatorial department devoted to architecture and design” (MoMA, n.d.). During his directorship from 1929 to 1944, MoMA’s first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., who is credited to have exerted immense influence on the development of not only modern art in New York but also people’s understanding of modern art in America, focused not only on French post-impressionism but also Bauhaus modernism, thus bringing together painting and sculpture with architecture, industrial design, film, photography, graphics, and typography . Currently, MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design oversees about 28,000 works in its collection, which include architectural models, drawings and photographs as well as designed objects such as appliances, furniture, tableware, textiles, automobiles, and graphic designs. For example, architect Mies van der Rohe’s archive, Eames Lounge Chair, Ferrari 641, Bell 47 (helicopter), Frisbee (toy), iMac, and the “I Love New York” logo design have been added to the MoMA collection for their significance and meaningfulness in design history.
Recently, the Department of Architecture and Design received notable media and public attention for its radical and sometimes controversial acquisitions under the direction of the Department’s senior curator Paola Antonelli. In 2010, the Department acquired the @ symbol — its very first digital type design acquisition for its permanent collection . In the official statement that announced the acquisition, Antonelli claimed that what distinguishes design from art is the price, because it is the price that “brings to an extreme the evanescent difference between art and design. Being in the public realm, @ is free,” she said (Antonelli, 2010a). To clarify this difference, she astutely compared the @ sign with the British conceptual artist Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2003), a performance art piece acquired in 2008 by MoMA’s Department of Media and Performance Art. Sehgal’s Kiss does not physically exist; it is not an object like a painting or a sculpture piece, but a situation choreographed — or designed — by the artist (based on kisses and embraces depicted in well-known paintings and sculptures in art history) which can be presented through performance of professional dancers. The @ symbol and Sehgal’s Kiss are similar in that they both are immaterial. But whereas the art piece can be viewed in certain situations and contexts, for example in museum spaces, the @ symbol exists in the public sphere and can be used by anybody and everybody, without any charge. While the @ symbol is not an actual object, Antonelli explained that what MoMA acquired is “the design act in itself,” and accordingly, every time the museum uses or displays it, the specific typeface will be noted “as if we were indicating the materials that a physical object is made of” (Antonelli, 2010a). For example, the @ symbol in the Helvetica font type appears differently from the @ in the Verdana type. When shown with the specific typeface, the @ symbol emerges as a symbol, bringing the viewer into the awareness of the act of design as well as the idea of design.
Two years later, in November 2012, the Department of Architecture and Design announced its acquisition of 14 video games including Pac-Man (1980), Tetris (1984), SimCity 2000 (1994), and Dwarf Fortress (2006), which caused much heated debates in the press media . Jonathan Jones, the Guardian critic who would also go on to criticize the emoji acquisition, denounced and ridiculed the game acquisition by saying, “Sorry MoMA, video games are not art” (Jones, 2012). Moreover, “MoMA has mistaken games for art” was the headline of the New Republic’s review, thus showing how these cynical critics apply a parochial category of “art” to oppose the addition of video games into MoMA’s permanent collection (Leibovitz, 2013). Antonelli (2013) responded to those criticisms during her TED talk in May 2013 in New York, where she refuted their points by arguing that video games are not art but significant artifacts of interaction design:
Did I ever say they [video games] were art? I was talking of interaction design. ... There’s this whole problem of design being often misunderstood for art. Or the idea that it is so diffused that designers want to aspire to, would like to be called artists. No! Designers aspire to be really great designers.
It is very interesting and important to note here that instead of offering a comprehensive view of design as art, Antonelli strictly distinguishes design from art. She contends that design as a discipline and profession is completely different from — but no less valuable than — what is broadly known as “art ”, or the world of oil paintings by creative geniuses.
Antonelli has been an active and articulate speaker and writer on design and has particularly been outspoken about the significant role of design — of good design — in our life, society, and history. For example, in the Economist in 2010, she wrote:
There are still people who believe that design is just about making things, people and places pretty. In truth, design has spread like gas to almost all facets of human activity, from science and education to politics and policy-making. For a simple reason: one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change. Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life. ... Designers make disruptive innovations manageable and approachable, so that they can be embraced and assimilated into life. And they never forget functionality and elegance (Antonelli, 2010b).
Thus, according to Antonelli, good design improves life, affects human behaviors, and is innovative and user-friendly, while at the same time aesthetically pleasing. Design is such a difficult task and a noble contribution to humanity, as she describes it. Picasso’s painting cannot do all of what she describes qualities for good design, though this does not mean that painting is a lower art than design. It is evident that Antonelli’s aim is to raise the people’s understanding of and appreciation for design — what designers do and what design does to us.
What MoMA’s controversial acquisitions and the Architecture and Design curator’s activities point to is the changed role and function of a museum in the twenty-first century. In 1974, when the International Council of Museums significantly revised its definition of a museum, it defined a museum as an institution “in the service of the society and its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment.” But in 2007, ICOM revised the “material” part, broadening the definition and describing a museum as an institution that deals with both “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment.” Therefore, while MoMA’s recent acquisitions in its Architecture and Design collection may have confused many, in consideration of the official definition of a museum, MoMA can also be seen as a museum at the forefront of contributing to the society and humanity through its progressive thinking and activities in acquisition, conservation, research, communication, exhibition, education, and public enjoyment.
Returning to Galloway’s statement about the emoji acquisition, we can observe a careful rationalization of it for the public — a delicately written and convincing explanation of why they have decided to add the particular emoji to the museum reputed as a tastemaker and exceptional research and educational institution on modern and contemporary art. Galloway focuses on elaborating on the emoji’s significance in human history and design history. He spends the first paragraph of his statement to explain how the Japanese mobile company NTT DoCoMo developed the first ever emoji set which formed the basis for emoji’s creation story. In the second paragraph, emoji is located within a history of expressive visual language, which he traces back to antiquity; thus, he explains the historical significance of the DoCoMo emoji. In the third paragraph, Galloway briefs how the “release of NTT DoCoMo’s emoji radically altered the way the Japanese communicated through mobile phones.” In brief, the use of emoji resolved potential problems in digital communication platforms that could have to do with Japanese customs of exacting salutations and honorifics (functionality and impact). Finally, in the fourth paragraph, Galloway describes how Shigetaka Kurita, a DoCoMo employee at the time, came up with the designs (good design):
Working within the software and hardware limitations of the late 1990s, Kurita created his emoji on a small grid of 12 x 12 pixels. Drawing on sources as varied as manga, Zapf dingbats, and commonly used emoticons, Kurita designed a set of 176 emoji that included illustrations of weather phenomena, pictograms like the [heart shape], and a range of expressive faces (Galloway, 2016).
This description functions to frame Kurita as the designer of the emoji, even when most people — including Kurita himself — would not consider his occupation or role as such.
In addition, it matches Antonelli’s definition of designers as synthesizers. She once said, “What designers do best is to synthesize human needs, current conditions, economy, materials and sustainability issues, and what they do at the end, if they’re good, is much more than some of its parts. Designers are working more on behaviors than objects” (Antonelli, 2007). According to this standard, Kurita was a brilliant synthesizer of various material, technical, and cultural conditions, and whose product elicited a big change to how people communicate. To sum up, MoMA’s official statement on the emoji acquisition brings light to: (1) the originality of the emoji in MoMA’s collection; (2) emoij’s significance in human history; (3) the emoji’s functionality and its impact on human behaviors and culture; and, (4) the emoji’s value as good design. Taken together, these make a robust case for MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design to add the emoji set to its much-respected permanent collection.
The emoji as art: Creating an exhibition of the emoji
Contrary to the above arguments against labelling emoji as art, now I would like to propose that the emoji in the art museum is indeed art. Focusing on the MoMA’s exhibition of the emoji and drawing upon theories on contemporary art, I will demonstrate how Kurita’s emoji can be examined and determined as art. The fact that MoMA put up an exhibition of the emoji is key evidence — as a visitor to the exhibition, I could see that the Department of Architecture and Design curators displayed the emoji in ways to highlight the art of the design, its historicity and originality, and its influence on our communication, which are their stated reasons behind the accession, as discussed earlier.
First, the curators titled the exhibition “The Original Emoji, by Shigetaka Kurita,” thus determining Kurita, not the company NTT DoCoMo, as the emoji creator. While NTT DoCoMo is the legal owner of the emoji, the MoMA exhibition highlights the role of the designer. The idea of originality is also important to note here. The museum could have just called it the “first emoji,” but gave such a magnetic, powerful name that is fitting for an art museum’s collection, where authenticity and originality are valued concepts.
Second, all of the 176 characters were displayed (on a white wallpaper pasted on the wall painted in grey), and each one of them was enlarged to the size of a human face, so that they ‘confront’ the viewer, who in turn can observe each character as a designed image. In particular, the viewer can closely examine how each emoji was created on the grid of 12 x 12 pixels, a challenging condition for the designer. The emoji set’s 12-by-12 pixel design was decided and drawn up by architect Jun Aoki, whom DoCoMo hired because he had previously designed pictograms for buildings. Kurita recalls that “The most difficult part of designing the emoji was the lack of expressivity in the 12-by-12 grid’s even number of pixels. There was no way to centre an image, since a dot would end up one square to the right or left of the box’s centre” .
Third, the exhibition consists of two screens. In the small screen on the left side, some of Kurita’s emoji characters are shown with their meanings, and also with the latest available emoji characters of the same meaning, so that the viewer can compare the “original emoji” with the current ones . The differences are significant as Kurita’s emoji set is revealed to be the prototype of many emoji characters widely used today, while the currently used emoji characters are much more realistic looking, without the jagged lines caused by the pixels, and with more colors and renderings. For example, Kurita’s ‘beer’ emoji shows a simple form consisting of yellow and white dots, lines, and planes which together suggests an image of a beer mug about two-thirds filled. Because of the simplicity, it may not be easily ‘read’ as beer today. Like Kurita’s ‘beer’ emoji, Apple’s current ‘beer’ emoji represents a beer mug, not other types of beer glasses such as pint. It exhibits a more vivid image, with detailed gradations of colors and values that are used to depict the liquid, the froth, and the glass surface. It even depicts the mug’s curves and how the beer color appears different, from brown to orange to yellow and light yellow, according to light reflection. It is not just a realistic representation of beer, but a very delicious-looking cold draft beer that is easily recognized by the viewer — an effect that particularly owes to the irregular shape of the froth rolling down the glass and the naturalistic rendering of the beer colors.
Fourth, on the other, larger screen is a simple animated show of some selected emoji characters, for example, the ‘telephone’ emoji moving/ringing and the ‘flag’ emoji moving/flying. The same screen also shows simulations of conversations using the original emoji characters on a mobile screen, in a variety of languages including English, Korean, and French, thus showing how emoji has become a common part of our everyday communication across the world. But in terms of text language, what this emoji exhibition also reveals (unintendedly) is how pervasive and prevalent the English language and alphabet is in the everyday life space and information communication systems of non-English-speaking cultures — a result of the Western-dominated modernization of the world. We automatically understand the “P” sign post as signifying ‘parking.’ In designing the original emoji, Kurita also used such English acronyms as BK (bank), ATM (“automated teller machine” or cash machine), GS (gas station), and H (hotel). When these text-based emoji characters are exhibited alongside the type of emoji designs derived from image-based public signs that are used internationally such as the ‘restroom,’ the ‘handicapped accessible,’ and weather signs, we are led to realize the deep influence of English in contemporary signage and culture.
Perceiving the emoji as art: Considering issues of exhibition, authenticity, and objecthood
Definitions of art and ideologies of what art should be have changed over time and differ from culture to culture. One of the most influential and oft-cited art theories is on authenticity in art, first propounded by Walter Benjamin in 1936. In “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (“Das kunstwerk im zeitalter seiner technischen reproduzierbarkeit”), which he wrote while witnessing a revolutionary development of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin (2003) argued that an original work of art has its own ‘aura,’ which he saw is lost in the artwork’s reproductions. Building upon the premise that “the earliest artworks originated in the service of ritual,” what he meant by aura was “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art” that has its “basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” . In contrast, according to Benjamin, the location of the artwork’s reproduction (and of any reproducible art) is unable to be identified.
In the case of the so-called “original emoji” accessed by MoMA, we are presented with a scenario that is exactly the opposite. Emoji itself is an immaterial thing, which was invented to exist digitally, to be used on mobile devices, with no connection to particular locations. There is no such a thing as ‘authentic’ emoji or ‘forged’ emoji, thus Benjamin’s theory cannot be directly applied to emoji. Yet, I would argue that in the case of MoMA’s acquisition, emoji gained a certain ‘aura’ when it entered an art museum’s collection. It now belongs in a particular place, the ‘collection’ of the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown New York. MoMA also gave the emoji a new name and status, the “original emoji,” a smart name that suggests a sense of authenticity. In brief, it is the art museum MoMA that granted an aura/authenticity to the emoji.
What needs to be pointed out about Benjamin’s theory on authenticity is that he assumes a work of art is a material object. But such a view of art, though previously dominant, has been challenged by the use of new media, such as video, performance, and installation during the 1960s. In 1973, art critic and curator Lucy Lippard published Six years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (New York, Praeger), summing up the trend of “a deemphasis on material aspects (uniqueness, permanence, decorative attractiveness)” and the emergence of conceptualism in contemporary visual art . The book brought together texts, documents, and artworks that have since been broadly labelled as conceptual art. In post-object contemporary art discourses, “art” refers much more than a painted object or a sculpted object. Art is no longer considered an autonomous object with its own world disconnected from the surrounding world of us the viewer.
For example, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a classic example of earthwork, is not an object produced in the artist’s studio, but a 45,720-by-460 meter large coil-shaped construction of rock, earth, and crystals built on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. One cannot simply ‘look’ at this work at a glance, but is led to ‘experience’ and ‘participate in’ it by traveling to the site and walking on the work. In another example, Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll (1970), which he produced for and exhibited in MoMA’s “Information” show in 1970, consisted of two acrylic ballot boxes and the wall text of his question, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?” Nelson Rockefeller was MoMA’s board member at the time, and the museum did not know the question until the artist posted it on the exhibition’s opening day. This work can never be described as an object, but it was an event, which invites the museum visitors’ participation in political opinion. It was a temporary event, which remains only in documented photographs — thus photographic “reproductions” (so to speak) by Benjamin’s definition.
Earlier we saw how Antonelli, the senior curator at MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design who is behind the recent series of progressive (and controversial) acquisitions, compared the @ sign to Sehgal’s performance art piece in order to explain how and why the museum can ‘acquire’ for its permanent collection the immaterial thing that is not even an object. However, with the emoji designs, it is a different story, I would argue. Emoji are not material objects, but are images designed for use in the digital space. But MoMA’s design and collection experts, in their attempt to show (and educate on) the original emoji’s significance as a design innovation, eventually put up an exhibition of the emoji by ‘materializing’ them. Exhibition is an act of showing and it is thus mainly visual. One cannot put up an exhibition of nothing. How did MoMA exhibit the original emoji, which is basically a digital file? They treated the emoji characters like material objects, blowing up their size and posting them on the wall, and creating animated slide show of them. A short video posted on Instagram of the exhibition’s installation process, for instance, shows a glimpse of how the exhibition was set up: the enlarged emoji characters exhibited on the museum lobby wall are actually one large sheet of paper, which had been pre-produced by hands-on exhibition makers, whose work included drawing the emoji characters and printing the sheet and pasting it on the wall. In other words, in order to create the exhibition, the exhibition makers created material reproductions of the emoji set, and gave objecthood to the originally virtual emoji characters.
The emoji in itself may not be art, but the particular circumstances have made the emoji art. And that is enough qualifications for a work to be accepted as art, according to Mary Anne Staniszewski, who, in the book Believing is seeing: Creating the culture of art (New York: Penguin, 1995), argues that what makes a work of art is not in the art object but outside of it.
When an artist creates a work of Art it has no intrinsic use or value; but when this artwork circulates within the systems of Art (galleries, art histories, art publications, museums, etc.) it acquires a depth of meaning, a breadth of importance, and an increase in value that is greater proportionately than perhaps anything else in the modern world. 
Staniszewski’s definition of art suggests that art’s value and meaning is produced within a society. The emoji gained the status of art when it was added to the MoMA collection and had its own exhibition in the museum. MoMA’s prestigious status elevated the emoji’s identity to art.
To further affirm the emoji as art, (in Antonelli’s manner) I would like to propose an analogy between the emoji and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a classic conceptual artwork considered to be one of the most important turning points in the history of art. Fountain is the best known example of what Duchamp called readymade, which he described as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist” . Fountain is a manufactured urinal, which Duchamp had bought from a local supplier and exhibited upside down, thus disabling the object’s utilitarian function. And on the surface he signed “R. Mutt 1917” instead of his real name, thus further complicating the object’s identity and its authorship issue. The urinal (a utilitarian object) was made by a sanitary equipment manufacturer, not the artist. But the artist chose it and turned it into a signed work of art to be put up on an exhibition. In the history of art, Fountain is radical for several reasons. First, it challenged the centuries-old notion that art is a handmade object that is original, authentic, and visually pleasing. Second, it challenged the centuries-old notion that artists are painters or sculptors or creators of handmade objects. Third, it offered a possibility that a work of art can be just a brilliant idea, paving the path for conceptualism in visual art. In fact, Duchamp is broadly credited as the father of conceptual art.
On a separate but related note, similar to the MoMA emoji, Duchamp’s Fountain was not initially viewed as art back in 1917, and it currently exists only in replicas and photographs since the original version has been lost. If MoMA gave a material form to the originally digital emoji images in producing an exhibition of it, Duchamp produced the replicas himself which were then acquired by art museums for permanent collections. When Duchamp submitted the original Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists in New York for its inaugural exhibition in 1917, the board of directors rejected it, saying, “The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not in an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art” . After the rejection, it went missing somehow, and only a photograph of it (by Alfred Stieglitz, taken most likely in 1917) remains. Consequently, in 1950 and 1964, Duchamp produced new versions of Fountain and signed his real name this time, thus authorizing those replicas as ‘original’ works by him. Those ‘original reproductions’ are currently housed in major art museums around the world, such as the Tate in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Tate, n.d.). When they are exhibited in the museums, they are put on a pedestal and inside a transparent case — the installation equipment commonly used for exhibition of art — which serve to add an effect of “art” to the objects on display. Somewhat similarly, MoMA’s curators in charge of the emoji literally produced material reproductions of the emoji set to put them on a display.
We have seen how emoji was originally developed as a Japanese mobile carrier company’s marketing strategy, but soon evolved into a global digital communication tool, which continues to grow in production and consumption. Though it may not become a universal language because of its non-verbal succinctness, arbitrariness and shortcomings as cross-cultural communication symbols, the power of emoji lies in its playful and friendly images or icons that can be used to instantly convey emotions in digital communication. This unique quality and capability of emoji was conceived in the very first emoji design by Shigetaka Kurita, who created the first set of 176 emoji characters as an employee of NTT DoCoMo in 1998–1999. And considering Kurita’s emoji as a design innovation, it is not at all strange that MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design experts approached and acquired it for the much respected Museum’s permanent collection. The emoji is one of MoMA’s recent unconventional — and controversial — acquisitions that include digital typefaces and video games. Many questioned if that would mean the emoji should be considered as art. But in contrast, MoMA’s Architecture and Design experts carefully formulated the emoji as a design innovation, rather than as art, in both their official announcement and exhibition design, as my close analysis has shown.
Nevertheless, as an art historian I have argued that Kurita’s emoji can be viewed and defined as art, because it is now housed in such a prestigious art museum MoMA’s permanent collection — a new fact that endows it with a sense of authenticity and permanent locationality and an aura of “art,” among other credibilities associated with MoMA. By creating an exhibition of the emoji, in which the emoji characters were treated like objects, MoMA also provided material objecthood to the emoji that would otherwise have disappeared history or existed virtually. Through this study, we have been also able to see how the role and function of image-based texts, of design, and of the museum have been changing significantly and increasingly quickly in past few decades. This analysis has in particular revealed that they have been undergoing the changes together in relation with each other.
About the author
SooJin Lee is an assistant professor of Liberal Arts at Hongik University in South Korea, where she teaches interdisciplinary courses on art history, cultural studies, and media theory. She received a doctorate in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014, and her research interests include issues of cultural translation, representation of identity, and intersections of art history and consumer culture.
E-mail: leesoojin0608 [at] gmail [dot] com
This work was supported by 2018 Hongik University Research Fund.
1. Danesi, 2017, p. 2.
2. Issues and questions remain today for emoji to be considered a potentially ‘global’ language or communication tool. Notably, diversity is a contentious issue, as early emoji characters represented limited views on race, culture, religion, sexuality, and gender roles. In response to the rise of criticism and the increasing use of emoji around the world, new characters have been added to resolve the issue. For example, Apple’s new emoji characters in 2017 include a woman breastfeeding, a woman wearing a hijab, a dark-skinned man with beard, a taco, a stuffed bread that looks like kebab, a male couple, and a female couple. Samsung also provides all of its emoji human faces and figures in various skin colors. Currently, over thousand emoji characters are known to be available, and of course, this number is expected to grow. For more on emoji’s issues with cultural difference and arbitrariness, see Danesi, 2017, pp. 13–31, and Mendelson, 2015, pp. 52–53.
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8. Antonelli (2012). Emphasizing how MoMA applies a “tight filter” to any category of objects, Antonelli says that the 14 video games were selected for acquisition based on four standards, namely, behavior (interactivity with the player), aesthetics (formal elegance), space (the design of “the space in which the game exists and evolves”), and time (the “dimension of time expressed ad incorporated into the game”).
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10. A photograph of the exhibition that shows some old and new versions can be found by following this link to Rachel Mealey, “Emoji inventor Shigetaka Kurita says MoMA New York acquisition ‘feels like a dream’,” ABC (10 February 2017), at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-11/meet-the-man-who-invented-emoji/8249456.
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Received 8 August 2018; accepted 9 August 2018.
© SooJin Lee 2018. All Rights Reserved.
Emoji at MoMA: Considering the “original emoji” as art
by SooJin Lee.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 9 - 3 September 2018