“Quit Blocking The Painting…”

“Quit Blocking The Painting; I’m trying to Instagram”: Art in the Digital Age
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A viewer's Instagram documentation of a visit to Rain Room at MoMA

Since the dawn of the mechanical age to present day, when technology is embedded in most everything we do, the ways in which humans perceive and consume art have shifted dramatically. French philosopher Paul Valéry writes, “in all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power.”1 While the “original” was once something concrete, possessing that which Walter Benjamin defines as an “aura,” the actuality of works now exist in their mechanical reproductions.2 While once there was a definitive original, the division between the original and its copies is no longer relevant due to the integration of digital and mechanical means. The meaning of mechanical reproduction has shifted between the time of Valéry and Benjamin and present, as the multiplicities of works and their representations now emerge by way of digital reproduction and the platform of social media.  In a day and age where social media is rampant, art and its digital circulation have been consequently affected; with such, mechanical reproduction and cultural fanfare have perpetuated the human desire to exist and interact in a simulated reality.

Due to postmodern mechanical reproduction, as Andrew Robinson explains of Benjamin’ thesis, “art is ‘liberated’ from its dependence on ritual.”3 Previously, art was “fundamentally connected to its insertion in tradition,” namely referring to works such as cave paintings, totem poles, and others of the like.4 Embedded in ritual and as unique originals, these works possessed an aura. However, the reproduction of works has resulted in “a loss of tradition, [bringing] the work of art into the distinct life-situation of the reader, viewer or listener” and emancipating the work from its aura.5 On the surface, the detachment of art from its former role is a positive advancement. However, Benjamin writes that “the manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.”6 In contemporary times, the digital media with which we are bombard defines one such historical circumstance active in structuring our perception. Technology had the potential to afford us with a new approach to art, but it seems we have mistreated an opportunity with regard to the emancipation between art and its aura. While art was previously examined through contemplation, we are moving into an era where distraction is the goal. The difference can be distinguished in that “contemplation is a kind of domination by the author: the work of art absorbs the audience. In contrast, distraction involves the audience absorbing the work of art.”7 Because of mechanical progression, not only are artists able to create larger bodies of work due to the rapid, cheaper method of digital production, but audiences are also able to view more by way of virtual venues. With the accessibility of art by means of technology, we are faced with an endless array of items to process. Consequently, in an attempt to partake in the most we can, our once pensive response to art is sacrificed. Rather than seeking thoughtful interpretation, our priority has become to inhale all we possibly can from the massive pool of art technology provides. It might be said, then, that the aura of art in the digital age now lies in our feverish urge to partake in a work’s ongoing network of simulations.

The inception of social media directly resonates with our cultural need to ingest information most rapidly. With the instantaneous nature of forums such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and other sources of the like, excessive amounts of information are at our disposal. However, as our rapid pace of consumption has become integrated in our daily lives, it seems we have less and less time to experience a full reaction to all we encounter digitally. Our apparent intimacy attempts to satisfy our postmodern need to “bring things closer” believing that this will overcome the “unique phenomenon of distance,” a characteristic of Benjamin’s “aura.”8 On the contrary, in our proximal yearning we are constantly distancing ourselves from the ritual value of art; instead,we intensify the false reality that surrounds us by way of simulative works. Jean Baudrillard is a theorist who argues that “postmodern societies are organized around simulation and the play of images and signs…a new social order which simulation rules.”9 With the aid of technology, “present-day simulators try to make the real…coincide with their simulation.”10 Artists, in their recognition that technology has shifted the way viewers consume art, now attempt to create highly sensitive reproductions of the real with the help of technology. There is no longer a need for the “real” as it is something that now exists in reproductions that can be iterated indefinitely. In establishing this rupture between the reproduced and the imagined original, and in acknowledging that the imagined can be endlessly replicated, it stands that the real is, in fact, not real at all. It is rather the “hyperreal” that is the culmination of infinite simulations. Essentially, the reproduction becomes the real while the real becomes the hyperreal; its existence as reality is amplified by technological reproduction.

The hyperreal is “more real than real” due to its intense infusion of exaggerated simulations.11 Baudrillard discusses the example of Disneyland to demonstrate the reality principle. Disneyland is nothing more than a dreamlike microcosm functioning within the confines of supposed reality. Although, Baudrillard contends “the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that sufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there to specifically maintain the multitudinous affect.”12 It seems that Disneyland is presented as “imaginary” to highlight the potential for its surroundings, the greater Los Angeles area, to be real. But ultimately, as Baudrillard emphasizes, Los Angeles itself is non-real and rather, hyperreal. Los Angeles is often used in exchange with “Hollywood” to signify tinsletown and its superficial glamour. It is a region supremely demonstrative of a simulative existence in that the people and lifestyle unique to Los Angeles paint an amplified portrait of that which actually exists. In its inflated collection of all things star-studded, Los Angeles serves as the prime example of the modern-day shaping of a hyperreality. Hollywood’s allure is heightened by the media that surrounds it—by the Instagram photos that evoke an embellished people, the Facebook photos that sculpt an ornate landscape, and the constant flow of Tweets that promote an ostentatious lifestyle.

Through the media, we are overwhelmingly fed the hyperreal. Consequently, it shapes our thoughts and behaviors based on its artificial codes and morals. We are in an age where we are experiencing “the ‘ecstasy of communication’…[such that] the subject is in close proximity to instantaneous images and information, in an overexposed and transparent world.”13 While the repercussions of this vary, there are also benefits that come from a closeness made possible by digital communication. There is a new relationship being formed between the artist, his art, and the public. Particularly for the current generation of artists, social media is being used as a tool for the dissemination of work. Social media has enabled the artist to meet the audience through a most accessible platform unlike any other. Furthermore, the interaction is proving lucrative in some cases as artists take advantage of the wide audience they have established. For instance, take National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey. The artist declared an Instagram flash sale where for twenty-four hours each photo he posted would sell for one hundred dollars. With over 150,000 followers, Huey experienced a major influx of demand resulting in over $10,000 in sales and the decision to maintain the print sales for an extended period of time.14

In Jeff Bercovici’s Forbes’ article, he relays that Huey’s intention was valid. Huey affirms that “the sale was about teaching digital followers to be consumers of physical art objects.”15 Bercovici further argues that Instagram photos are formatted in such a way that they are “recognizable” and “occupy a special niche…that falls somewhere between fine art and postcards you might buy at the museum gift shop.”16 That being said, while Huey and Bercovici both maintain that the sale does not devalue the original, why is it the artist felt the need to spark a need in digital onlookers to consume the physical? What is truly at the heart of Huey’s aim?

In our simulated present, social media has become a fun house of “mirror reflected images projected from other mirrors onto the omnipresent…screen of consciousness.”17 As we proceed to live life not through direct experience but rather, in the simulation of it, the same can be said for the way we interact with art. Many people now come in contact with works online before they are greeted by them in the flesh.  Depending on the viral success of said work, the volume of reproductions digitally consumed may move a viewer to pursue the work in real life. While ideally one would like to say the viewer seeks the work to enjoy the experience of the actual, it seems the “reality” of it is that the viewer’s goal is simply to partake in the virtual frenzy that surrounds it.

To provide an example, this fall Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition titled I Who Have Arrived in Heaven made a home for itself at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea. A particular piece called Mirrored Room was the hit of the show, drawing crowds of people who lined up for hours (even before the gallery opened) to await their allotted, forty-five second encounter with the work. The room featured mirrored walls with seventy-five different-colored LED bulbs, causing a reflection that appeared infinite. The room was built for momentary meditation, to take in the ethereal surroundings and to ponder time and space.18 However, it drew flocks of people who were not looking to pause in contemplation during the short time they were granted. Instead, as Kusama’s show gained a prominent presence across social media feeds, the moments inside the room became focused on obtaining the perfect snapshot to post online. Because of its digital popularity, according to William Grimes of The New York Times, the show became all the rage to a “broad, mostly young, demographic.”19 In this regard, social media may have served to benefit the art as many who had never heard of Kusama were introduced to her aesthetic and interested in attending.

While Kusama may appreciate the vast gathering brought upon by the exhibit’s widespread cyber presence, as a dedicated artist, it is safe to assume her primary concern would be the lack of meditative engagement visitors experienced.20 The value of social media exposure is rightfully diminished upon the recognition that it is distracts viewers from the work. One visitor, Nancy Lundebjerg, supposedly “became jealous” when she had seen a friend’s posting of the Mirrored Room on Instagram. So in an attempt to join the masses, she braved the line prepped with a “smartphone and serious-looking Canon camera” to compose a better shot.21 One can imagine that the majority of Lundebjerg’s precious time was spent framing the perfect photograph, experiencing the work through her lens rather than her perceptive mind. The point being that while the work drew hordes of people who might not have otherwise been exposed to the Mirrored Room, for many it can hardly be said they were even present or immersed in the experience. The experience became about distraction, an attempt to absorb the scene through digital capture. When our intent prior to viewing a work is to ensure the absorption of it, we are no longer submissive to the art and stimulated to reflect.

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Museum goers walk through Rain Room

Kusama’s Mirrored Room is not the only work to have caused mania in the world of social media. Another recent sensation was caused by Random International’s Rain Room at MoMA, a room that showcased “a field of falling water that pauses wherever a human body is detected.”22 Like Kusama’s transformative space, this installation also struck a chord with members of the virtual community. As well, James Turrell’s return to the New York City art scene featured a piece titled Aten Reign. Site specific to the Guggenheim’s main rotunda, the work filled the space with layers of concentric circles emitting artificial and natural light in changing colors. Aten Reign, along with Turrell’s several other pieces, reimagined the dimension of space within the museum, distorting perception and bewildering the eye. Intended for solitary reflection,the display floored many viewers, yet for many it was merely a game of how to sneak a photo keepsake while security turned their back.23 The fact that the piece found its way onto social media is a notable cause to worry that the purpose of art has unwholesomely veered from its proper course. It might be said that if the viewer had accurately received the piece, he or she would have been so enamored that photographing it would not have been a thought that even came to mind.

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Museum goers take in James Turrell's Aten Reign

Our interaction with art has become less focused on the experience itself and more so on ensuring others are aware that we have experienced it. Our primary concern about the latter has several implications that define our postmodern consumption of art. New York artist and writer Brad Troemel writes that “art after social media both divorces art from its traditional relationship to the market while also becoming the hypercharged embodiment of the market itself.”24 As viewers further the hurried pace by which the market functions, artists have had to react accordingly. Before, it was up to the work to warrant attention for itself. Now, if an artist does not have a steady following in the first place, it is hard to garner the attention at all, no matter the quality of the work. For the artist, a great deal of energy must be spent on marketing himself, thus participating in and furthering social media activity. Yet, with this main platform for self-promotion being one that is most accessible—particularly for the younger generation—it welcomes an overwhelming number of artists that must compete for the greatest following.This poses hardships not only for the older generation of artists less accustomed to the digital age, but also to younger artists who struggle to maintain a level of attention needed to elevate their artistic endeavors. Ultimately, in navigating the art scene one must be prepared to engage in online Olympics, becoming what Troemel defines as an “Aesthlete: an overproducer who believes that artistic progression will come more surely from the stress of strenuous making than from contemplative reverie.”25 It seems that in actuality, rumination on both the artist and viewer’s part has suffered due to the social and mechanical reproduction of art.

In addition, art institutions are no longer the sole realm in which works are exposed to the public. To come in contact with a work does not require a visit to a museum or gallery—a Google search will suffice. That the institutional context is no longer a necessary intermediary between artwork and viewer would seem to make the relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer more direct. However, the common viewer may not recognize that ease of retrieval when it comes to art does not necessarily ensure a direct and accurate link to the work itself. Many now come upon an artist and his work through the surge of “reblogs, links, and digital reproductions that follow it through social media.”26 In this perennial chain of sharing, a game of broken telephone has come into play whereby “contextual information is divorced from the artwork.”27 On the one hand, this raw delivery of art to the viewer leaves room for impartial interpretation. On the other hand, the ultimate lack of information carried alongside works suggests grave ramifications for the future of art.

What is to become of a generation who views a Picasso on Instagram without any indication that it is by one of the most renowned artists of our time? Surely, acknowledging that a work is by Picasso does not and should not ensure a positive reaction from the viewer. But, when scrolling through your Instagram feed, does not such an established artist deserve to be viewed through a conditioned lens that separates it from the “selfie” that precedes it and the advertisement that follows? To move forward with art is to understand the past, for it is historical context that shapes the future of the field. Social media prompts an isolating disconnect between art and its context, resulting in a tremendous disservice to public consumers. If we are to cultivate a generation of proper viewers, they must be equipped with the aesthetic background needed to appropriately interpret art in the digital age.

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Fashion website Refinery29 posts about Meridith James's Land Lock

For the value of art to be preserved, we must find a way to offset the effects of social media. In some cases, artists are clever in recognizing that their work can be helped if it is constructed with digital dissemination in mind. Artist Meredith James installed an exhibition titled Land Lock whereby a specific piece featured a dizzying checkered floor with a seemingly impossible perspective. Although the work is impactful in person, it is best translated when photographed, for the angle at which the floor appears is most perplexing. Because of this, the work managed to span across the social media plane and invited many visitors eager to interact with it.While our growing obsession with social media should not require the creation of art to ensure optimal online translation, perhaps there is some way that artists and viewers may meet in the middle in a way that art is both created and responded to with a digitally conscious mindset in tow. All that is for certain is that the simulated web being spun to no end mustsomehow be ruptured so as to provide a vital wake-up call for both the artists and audience.

  1. Valéry, Paul. “The Conquest of Ubiquity.” Aesthetics. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Pantheon, 1964. Print. Bolligen Ser.
  2. Benjamin, Walter, and J. A. Underwood. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
  3. Robinson, Andrew. “Walter Benjamin: Art, Aura and Authenticity.” Ceasefire Magazine. N.p., 13 June 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2014
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, 1170
  7. Robinson, “Walter Benjamin: Art, Aura and Authenticity,” Ceasefire Magazine.
  8. Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,1170
  9. Kellner, Douglas. “Jean Baudrillard.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2013 ed. N.p.: n.p.,n.d. Print.
  10. Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Baudrillard. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, 1988. Web. 05 May 2014.
  11. Kellner, “Jean Baudrillard,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  12. Baudrillard, Jean, “Simulacra and Simulations,” Baudrillard.
  13. Kellner, “Jean Baudrillard,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  14. Bercovici, Jeff. “Another Photographer Just Made $10K-Plus With An Instagram Flash Sale.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
  15. Bercovici, “Another Photographer Just Made $10K-Plus With An Instagram Flash Sale,” Forbes.
  16. Bercovici, “Another Photographer Just Made $10K-Plus With An Instagram Flash Sale,” Forbes.
  17. Kellner, “Jean Baudrillard,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  18. Grimes, William. “Lights, Mirrors, Instagram! #ArtSensation.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Dec. 2013. Web. 05 May 2014.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. “Rain Room.” The Museum of Modern Art Website, 2013. Web. 05 May 2014.
  23. “James Turrell.” Guggenheim Website. N.p., 2013. Web. 05 May 2014.
  24. Troemel, Brad. “Art After Social Media.” Art Papers Magazine 37.4 (2013): 10-15. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.