The black and white, 12×12 pixel images were developed by Japanese mobile company NTT DOCOMO in an effort to attract customers. Supervised by Shigetaka Kurita, the team behind the design of a new mobile internet platform featured pixel symbols that drew influence from weather forecasts, street signs and stock symbols from Japanese manga comics. Emoji jumped to a whole new level of cultural saturation when they were translated into Unicode in 2010, and were adopted by Apple into their iOS the following year.
This is not a wild leap in the dark for the MoMA. They are building on top of their already forward thinking inclusion of electronic art. They added the ‘@’ symbol to their collection in 2010, and possess a large number of video games and digital typefaces as well.
But are emoji really art? Their function sometimes appears pretty close to their original intent: advertizing and providing basic information like weather updates to a targeted audience. But, as with a lot of digital creations, the world has run with emoji in a totally different direction: they crop up in all kinds of communication online and on mobile platforms, sometimes anchoring the mood of conversation, or punctuating comments made on popular platforms, observed by millions. While they’re certainly not fine art, the options for combination and representation are seemingly infinite. The British Council has developed an app to feature the stories of Shakespeare in emoji form. World famous artists have been represented as emoji, folding the form back on the lineage of art, as it were.
The MoMA sees the inclusion of emoji in its collections as a valuable move towards recognizing human expression in an ever-accelerating digital world. They describe the context of emoji in their official press release:
Emoji tap into a long tradition of expressive visual language. Images and patterns have been incorporated within text since antiquity. From ancient examples to, more recently, the work of creative typesetters, these early specimens functioned as a means of augmenting both the expressive content of the text and the overall aesthetic quality of the printed page — and in some cases the icons were the language.
Whether you hate them or love them, there’s no denying that emoji are an integral part of digital communication. The exhibit in the MoMA will open in December and feature both 2D and animated depictions of the emoji.