Reflecting the polyedric mind of its author, the Renaissance Man series is the site of unexpected encounters and perspectives that challenge the boundaries of visual culture. In this issue, Jeffrey Deitch advocates for free photography.
When I asked Banksy, through an intermediary, to participate in the “Art in the Streets” exhibition at MOCA in 2011, he wrote that he would consider being part of the show on two conditions: that there would be at least one day a week with free admission, and that there would be free and unrestricted photography.
I asked the museum’s financial officer to estimate the lost admissions revenue if Monday, the day with the sparsest attendance, were to be made free. After a quick calculation, the response was that we would stand to lose $50,000 in admissions revenue. I reported this to Banksy, who offered to send a contribution of $50,000 to compensate.
The question of open photography, however, was more complicated. Being new to museum administration, I had assumed that the “no photography” rule in museums had something to do with preventing flash bulbs from exploding and damaging paintings. It turned out that the prohibition was for legal reasons: the museum did not want to be legally liable for copyright violations. The museum’s legal counsel informed me that in order to permit open photography, I would have to write to every artist in the show, as well as every lender, and receive their written permission. We proceeded to send out 350 letters: one to every artist, lender and rights holder. As I anticipated, everyone gave consent—meaning that we could permit open photography and that Banksy could be in the show.
Public reaction to Banksy’s two simple requests was astonishing. By the end of the exhibition, attendance on the free Mondays had climbed to 8,500 people a day. It seemed that almost every visitor was taking photographs of themselves and their friends in front of their favorite artworks. People curated their own version of the show on their Facebook, Flickr, and Tumblr accounts, spreading the word about the show. Celebrities like P. Diddy and Chris Brown began visiting, sending photos of themselves with the art to thousands of followers. Bansky had a remarkably prescient insight into the impact of social media and free access on the increasing democratization of the art experience.
All of this was a year or two prior to the widespread adoption of Instagram, which would have accelerated the photo sharing and its results. It was a prelude to what the art audience now assumes to be a basic right: free and open photography. Many museums have now relaxed their photography restrictions, with some even encouraging photographic interaction, publicizing their visitors’ Instagram posts. Anyone can now become a published art critic by posting their chosen images and sharing their likes.
Art audiences, particularly American art audiences, have traditionally looked to authorities with institutional credentials in order to make their judgments about works of art. The small number of curators and art critics in influential positions has long had an outsized role in the shaping of artistic reputations. Now the Instagram feeds of formerly anonymous members of the art audience are beginning to rival the influence of published art critics. We are witnessing the puncturing of the old authority structure by art enthusiasts without any official positions or conventional credentials. A tastemaker’s Instagram post can jumpstart an artist’s career; a snarky collector can influence his Instagram followers to sell or liquidate.
The system of interlocking interests of museums, collectors, galleries and auction houses, coupled with the small number of authoritative critics, had created a narrow channel for the identification and promotion of artistic talent. Will the open forum of Instagram liberate the art system? During the next several years, we will see if the exchange of enthusiasm for artistic innovations on social media will be able to rival the deeply entrenched structures through which artistic talent is identified and artistic reputations are maintained. Will the work that is photographed and forwarded the most times at an art fair influence artistic trends more than a critic’s pick from The New York Times?
The old authority structure is being punctured
by art enthusiasts.
Last month I attended a conference on new art and technology during the opening of The Garage Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow. One of the topics that generated the most discussion was the contrast between the direct experience of art and its experience mediated through digital imagery. Some of the participants felt that the art experience has become degraded by the replacement of direct experience by digital image grazing. Without the sharing of digital art imagery, however, we would not even be aware of the existence of much of the interesting art that Instagram sleuths are discovering.
Street art may be the sector where photographs posted on social media have had the most impact. Prior to the advent of Internet photo sharing, street art was spread on the street. The Wild Style graffiti artists of the 1970s and early ‘80s used the New York subway system as their means of communication, getting the word out via the number 5 line of the IRT. Artists of succeeding generations like Shepard Fairey would travel around the world, getting their work up on every continent. Shepard understood how to place his work in strategic locations so that millions of people would see it. The reach of street art changed has dramatically in recent years, as artists can now post a photo or a video of their latest tag or pasting as soon as it goes up. A formerly obscure artist in a remote city can now connect with one of the widely followed street art websites and make an instant impact. Street art never had the complex structure of galleries and museum curators that created and maintained a hierarchy of talent. The open democratic structure of street art and its audience immediately embraced the open platform of the Internet.
My current art project on Coney Island in New York, described in somewhat exaggerated terms as “The Outdoor Museum of Street Art,” has been a laboratory for the interchange between actual art and images of the art circulating online. Thirty-four artists from a wide range of cities and countries painted walls constructed on the site of a formerly vacant lot. As in “Art in the Streets,” it seems that nearly every visitor is taking out a camera. Many of the posted images celebrate what has become a new vernacular art form: people theatrically posing in front of the murals. A few years ago, we would have had to wait for a review in a newspaper, which might never come, or possibly coverage in a magazine several months after the project was over, in order for the art to be documented and widely seen. Now, even before Coney Art Walls officially opened, hundreds of images of the work in progress were being shared. Digital photography has given the audience a new platform for artistic engagement and communication of the art experience.
The art selfie has also introduced a new model of art experience. The contemporary art audience is no longer satisfied to just look at an artwork: the improvised performance art of posing with works of art is an example of the viewer’s new expectation of engagement; in the process of taking his or her selfie, the viewer becomes part of the art. DIS Magazine’s book #artselfie and its corresponding website, artselfie.com, document how this phenomenon has transformed the relationship between art and its public.
Free and open photography is making both art and the dialogue around art more accessible. It is also connecting art more directly with the viewers’ experience. It may be that the post-Internet art audience is the most interesting part of post-Internet art.
All images: DIS, #artselfieCourtesy of DIS and Jean Boîte Éditionsartselfie.com