I will publicly admit that I like a good flash mob. I know they’re passé, but the ones with music get to me. They remind me that art can be anywhere and that the world is full of creative surprises. Living in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where spontaneous art rarely happens (even though it’s a college town), this reminder feels particularly important. I think if I were walking somewhere with my daughter and a high-quality musical extravaganza burst out, I would weep with joy.
Unfortunately, it also has some things that cause me to question my loyalties to the art. Mainly, it is a professional endeavor. There are (hidden) cameras everywhere and it ends up being an advertisement. Also, they break what, for me, is the cardinal rule of flash mobs: they wait for applause. The performers are supposed to just walk away nonchalantly. That’s part of the genre.
So, this made me wonder just how amateur and ephemeral flash mobs should be. Isn’t the whole point that anyone can do it and that the event is for the spectator, not the video? Certainly, people want a record of the event, but if the performance is for the record, then it becomes just another video, not the moment-in-time it’s supposed to be. All a flash mob is large-scale performance art. So, is being large enough to make the mob meaningful, or must it be crowd-sourced, composed of people recruited for a one-time event?
The other side of the argument is that the best flash mobs do, in fact, seem to be rehearsed, coordinated, and well financed. My all-time favorite takes place in the train station and is an advertisement for a Belgian television show.
I also love one that turns out to be an advertisement for what is probably the best painting ever created.
(I realize now that they too use Ode to Joy which, as we all know, is so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget how extraordinary the music actually is.)
So, I’m torn. As the art-form changes, we lose the special, amateurish, and revolutionary quality that existed when it first began. This loss is the same one my age-group has seen with the internet as a whole. There was a time when most things on the web were countercultural. Now online is the standard. There was a time when the web was purely democratic and anti-corporate. Now it takes tremendous effort just to defend net-neutrality. The web is a mall, it is a library, it is many television channels, and the word “amateur” has largely been co-opted by porn.
This may also be the same thing that happens with any form of art. A genre or technique that starts from one person soon becomes a school, then it becomes a movement, then it becomes a standard, and then it becomes the dominant voice to rebel against.
So, I don’t know if what is happening with flash mobs is the inevitable evolution of art, the inevitable commodification of capitalism, or the simple price we pay for mass distribution of worthwhile entertainment. All I do know is that in the past few years, my love of flash mobs has moved from an artistic pleasure to a guilty one. How odd it is to claim that flash mobs just aren’t what they used to be.
Let me know what you think. How amateurish should flash mobs be and feel free to share your favorite one!