Walking through Westminster on a sunny, crisp London afternoon is one of the few pleasures that Londoners can enjoy in times where social-distancing, face masks and viruses take centre stage. I check my phone, it’s noon. “Oh no, the lights might not be on yet”. I cross the street, pass a few cyclers look up and see five people blocked in front of it, arms in the air, phone in their hands, still like statues.
In that moment I had a glimpse of hope that Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s remembering a brave new world (2020) for the fourth Tate Britain Winter Commission program was lit. And it was.
There were fifteen people in front of Tate Britain’s adorned facade that lately has been popping up every three to four posts on my Instagram feed. Everything is right where it was on those images: classical portico designed by architect Sydney R. J. Smith in the early 1890s filled with neon lights which create the illusion of suspended figures, printed vinyl imposing colour around the columns and flickering discs on the roof making it behave like a sequin skirt. Although I was fascinated by the installation’s comment on colonialism through the juxtaposition of the architecture’s identity and the Bollywood imagery, my eyes kept moving away from the funky, tattooed version of Tate Britain and started observing the visitor’s behaviour in front of it. Selfies, pictures, camera clicks, Instagram story videos all revolved towards this artwork, I overhear “this is so instagrammable!” while noticing the tiger.
Holding predominantly visual content, Instagram is one of the social media platforms with the most active users alongside Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp. While the most popular content shared on the platform includes food, animals, travels, inspirational quotes and human faces, art is another category that has been increasingly shared in the past few years. Why is this? And what are the repercussions of art being shared online?
Since the beginning of time art has been a status symbol. Through history, the upper-class would always invest, collect and commission artists to show their power and richness. Just as Kings and Queens used sculptures and paintings to remind their subjects of their kingdom’s power and intimidate their enemies, many contemporary aristocrats attend auctions and collect artworks for the economic status it gives them (and some because they actually like the work).
Sarah Thornton vividly narrates her witnessing of an art auction at Christie’s in her book Seven Days in the Art World (2008) and makes the reader understand that these events are about money, art and bidding as well as gossip, scandal and status quo.
Therefore, what privately owned art does socially hasn’t really changed that much in terms of who owns it and why. But I believe that one major change today is that if one can’t really buy art, they have the option to take a selfie with it. Comparing the idea of owning an artwork to one of posting it is unrealistic, but the reason why we do both and the consequence of both actions to some extent can be more similar than we think. On a social level, you might be the man of the hour for bidding on a Marlene Dumas for over $1,100,000 making her “one of three living women artists to trade for over one million dollars”1, as Sarah Thornton narrates, just as you might feel like the man of the hour when your post of Remembering a Brave New World (2020) reaches 265,000 likes. In both situations, despite being very different and happening in two separate dimensions, there is a sense of validation, of putting oneself out there to gain popularity and feel a sense of power, which can take the form of gasps and whispers during an auction or of likes and comments on a post.
On an artistic level, one also commodifies and consumes the artwork in both scenarios. Just as art objects sold at auctions become commodities because they are treated as goods that can be bought at a monetary value, Instagram commodifies the immersive installations or performances which involve an artistic experience rather than object, that rarely can be owned by anyone, by giving them a value in the form of views and likes. Installations like remembering a brave new world (2020) are the artworks that are instagrammed the most, either because they are perfect backdrops to pose in front of, or because they are aesthetically striking, and therefore serve as great content for one’s profile. Either way we are compulsively sharing the experience the artwork gifts us, which reflects on today’s tendency to acquire experiences rather than goods and consequently sharing them on social media. After all, what is the experience worth if it’s not shared and validated by our followers? This major reason which justifies our compulsion to share art digitally does not conceal the disfavour this action might do to the artwork itself.
The fact that viewing an artwork on our screens is different than viewing it in person is a given, but seeing Bruman’s installation on my friend’s Instagram stories before seeing it in person must alter my experience of it. Claiming that it completely modifies my perception of the work would mean diminishing the installation’s power. However, I can’t help but question whether it would have been even more impactful if I hadn’t seen the trailer. Something that gets compromised on Instagram is the art object’s aura. To Walter Benjamin an artwork’s aura is its uniqueness in the space in which it is physically present now. In fact, in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) he already expressed his concern with photography at the time and how its use to document art could be problematic as it tears down the artwork’s atmospheric quality.
Having said this, the problem of photographing art today extends to how the possibility of taking a picture of anything around us by using our phones distorts the viewer’s engagement with art. If you search #tatebritain on Instagram, 218,000 posts come up and if you scroll through them you will notice that approximately out of nine posts, seven are images of Bruman’s artwork. This is further evidence of how viewers are engaging with her installation. They take their picture and take off. Most of the time there is no sense of contemplation and deep reflection about the work. Is this the new quality that art needs in order for art institutions to not only have visitors, but actually get them to engage with art?
Art institutions are selecting more and more Instagram friendly artworks and exhibitions. James Turell’s Aten Reigh (2013) at the Guggenheim in New York, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room (2017-2018) at The Broad Museum in LA which Tate Modern is planning to host in 2021, In Real Life (2019) by Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern, and Space Shifters (2020) at Hayward Gallery in London are just few of the examples that come to mind when thinking of Instagram-popular exhibitions. If we consider that the National Gallery lifted its photography ban in 2014, it seems like institutions are opening up to the idea of being selfie sets. On the other hand, most curators still state that their aim is not to make their exhibitions Instagram sensation.
Cliff Lauson, one of the curators of Space Shifters (2020), explained his take on the matter to The Art Newspaper by stating that the show “was about artists using innovative materials in a way that creates a unique experience and makes the viewer part of the work. The compulsion to document, photograph and share with your friends might be an extension of that, in that it is, in one sense, an experience-based economy that we live in.”2 Meanwhile Lauson explanation of art being shared on Instagram as only a consequence of the general popular use of the platform is understandable; I also believe that curators are more aware of the way visitors are interacting with art and therefore try to give institutions makeovers to make them become more Instagrammable especially to sell tickets and get younger generations through the door.
Over two million visitors attended Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life (2019) exhibition at Tate Modern, which if you couldn’t make you probably saw through your friend’s posts, while the Louvre’s blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition which ran from October to February of 2020 had half of that. This is just to show how an institution promoting artists that set up Instagram friendly experiences will sell more tickets than ones which stick to “just showing traditional art”.
While most of us are guilty of oversharing on social media and posting our museum visits, I sense a desperate need to reflect upon how we contemplate art. Switch off your phone when entering a gallery, see how that changes your experience of it. We are all driven by what seems like enthusiasm towards art, and a generous act of sharing what we see with others, but we don’t see that we are compromising the artwork’s aura and our own experience of it when doing this. One might argue that there is no correct way of experiencing art, which I also believe is a fair point.
In fact, going back to a time where we could enjoy things without a screen in the way seems very romantic, but also impossible, especially if we consider that after a year of smart working, video conferences and FaceTime cocktail dates with friends, people still take their phones out to take a shot of remembering a brave new world (2020). After all, we have found an alternative way to commodify and consume experience-based art which tries to escape this fate with the same nonchalance we would have when buying a double cone from an ice-cream truck.
1 Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, (London: Granta Books, 2008), p. 22-23.
2 Ben Luke, “Art in the age of Instagram and the power of going viral”, The Art newspaper, (2019), https://www.theartnewspaper.com/feature/art-in-the-age-of-instagram-and-the-power-of-going-viral.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, (1936)
Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World, (London: Granta Books, 2008).
Trebor Scholz, “Platform Cooperativism”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung: New York Office, (2015).
Ben Luke, “Art in the age of Instagram and the power of going viral”, The Art newspaper, (2019).
Christian Fuchs, “Communicative Socialism/Digital Socialism”, tripleC, (2020).
Pita Arreola-Burns and Elliott Burns, “Volume: Social Media Metrics in Digital Curation”, (2020).