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Art in the Era of Social Media

Vanessa Silvera discusses how art has shifted and grown in the age of social media


It’s a typical morning and you’re rattled awake to the dreaded sound of your iPhone alarm clock. You reach over to turn it off and the next thing you know you are knee-deep on the Explore page of your Instagram and rushing out the door after having lost track of time. Social media has become an integral part of contemporary society, shaping how we communicate and interact with one another, both on a micro and a macro scale. It has even infiltrated the art world: nearly, if not all, artists, art industry professionals, and art institutions have an online presence. But exactly what impact has social media had on the art ecosystem over the last few years?

List compiling the top 100 hashtags on Instagram with #art coming in sixth place with nearly 650M tags. Image(s): Top-Hashtags

For artists, digital image-sharing platforms provide a means to expand their audience base, reaching potential buyers that would normally be out of reach. This is especially promising for artists who are not formally trained or lack contacts to help launch their careers. For Canadian mixed-media artist Lauren Brevner, Instagram changed her life. Unable to afford art school, she decided to teach herself and after some convincing from her brother, opened an account on Instagram (@laurenbrevner). Currently, she has a following of 57.4K and attributes all the shows, clients, and sales she’s acquired to people contacting her via the app. By operating outside the gallery system, artists have the freedom to make and show their art however they want. Also, because most commercial galleries take a 50 percent cut, by removing the middle person, artists can keep the entire profit to themselves.

On the other hand, the accessibility of social media to anyone with an Internet connection makes it extremely difficult to stand out in an endless sea of talent. For those emerging onto the art scene, an inability to breakthrough could lead to a negative self-perception of their art’s worth or doubt of their talent. Even for those who have found success, the constant positive or negative reinforcement conveyed through likes and comments can affect the kind of content they produce. Finally, there is the added risk of your work falling prey to copying or plagiarism.

In addition to artists, institutions like the art museum have also felt the effects of digitization in today’s landscape. For instance, they are no longer constrained by geography and can share their collections with the public through their Instagram accounts. Their public, which was once primarily local, has now expanded worldwide where anyone can engage with the art from any place at any time. Of course, perhaps with the exception of photography and other digital-based work, online viewing is no substitute for the in-person experience. However, social media can serve as an advertising tool, drawing in audiences to view the art in-person if possible. In 2017, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s exhibition Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors resulted in a 6,500% increase in membership thanks to its impressive digital footprint.

Once visitors enter the museum, a secondary phase of digital interaction commences: photographing the art, the building, and themselves within those spaces and proceeding to post those images online. Social media habits, particularly the use of hashtags and geotags, allows museums to gain insights and base future programming decisions on them. Furthermore, posting on behalf of the museum and spreading the word about a cool artist or exhibition is a source of free marketing for them. In a broader sense, what we are seeing is the creation of a dialogue between the museum, once the uncontested authority on all things art, and the masses, whose feedback is being taken into consideration.

Visitor photographing Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room "The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away". Image(s): CBC News

While there are clear advantages social media can offer an art museum, how does this shift impact the ways in which we consume art? Does compulsive photographing and posting enhance our experience with the artwork or is it restrictive? In some cases, such as Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, photographs are central to experiencing the work of art. The artist encourages audiences to take photos not just of the work, but of themselves within the work. Is the art the object being showcased or is the art the experience, documentation, and conversation surrounding the object? This raises an interesting debate as to whether places like the Museum of Ice Cream, where people come to take photos in “Instagrammable” spots, or the Pink Wall Building in Los Angeles can be considered art and why or why not?

Like anything else, however, social media sharing has its drawbacks, including its resulting in a more superficial way of engaging with artwork. According to one study, taking photos with the purpose of posting on your social media accounts detracts from the enjoyment of what you’re experiencing. Unless they are being taken for your own memory, this preoccupation with how you come across takes focus away from the image and to your self-image. There is also the issue of canonizing artwork that is more Instagram-friendly than others. There may be incredible work being made that might not be as photogenic, but is nonetheless worthy of our attention. We do not have to look much further than some of the paintings made in the 1950s by Abstract Expressionists. Photos don’t do the work of artists Mark Rothko or Agnes Martin justice since they fail to capture the sheer scale or emotional impact we get from in-person viewing.

Artist Richard Prince selling other users enlarged Instagram posts at a New York gallery for $90,000 each. Image(s): The Telegraph

The bottom line is that despite the limitations social media might have, they are outweighed by its benefits. Even if that were not the case, image-based social media apps, through their immense reach, have become key in launching the careers of artists, building the brands of public and commercial art institutions, and shaping the consumption and conversations about contemporary art and culture.

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