Social media influences both the way we see art and the way it is exhibited in museums. So what exactly do we see while taking a picture on Instagram and looking at art?
Here is what it’s like going to big museums. You wait an hour in a line to go through security, then in another line to get your ticket, then another to check your backpack, and you already feel you need a coffee before you can look at the paintings.
But why do you actually bother? Just switch on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and google the paintings. You can find most of them on the internet, on Google, or on Instagram. Well, most of us would agree that seeing a digital copy of a work of art is not the same as actually being inside a museum and experiencing it.
Experiencing art. What a lovely expression. I used to think of experiencing art with gazing at the canvas, with the feeling isolation from the rest of the world, with aesthetic, and even spiritual, experience. Well, I used to think that way.
But in the XXI century, we are able to experience art differently. We need to post it on Instagram with funny, smart, or hipster captions. We need to make a memorable Instagram story about it, which will disappear after 24h from the memory of Instagram, ours, and our friends’. Often we take a few selfies and, of course, add as many cool hashtags as possible. Maybe we record a few videos for our vlog, and take even more photos. However, plenty of museums and art lovers in the XXI century struggle with these activities.
Recently, I came across a video How “Instagram traps” are changing art museums by Vox. The most fascinating part of it was when Alixandra Barasch, an assistant professor of marketing at NYU, talked about her research on how taking photos changes our museum experience.
It seems that our fellow Instagram and his friends are changing the way we see art and the way museums show us art.
Social media platforms, especially Instagram, allow that anybody can judge and criticize art. This influences how museums exhibit art. Jerry Saltz, an art critic at New York Magazine and the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for art criticism, points out that
“Social media have made (…) art commentary juicier, more risky; the critic has become as vulnerable as the artist.”
Because anybody can criticize and start up a sudden digital backlash, some museums react to users’ criticism, often by taking down controversial works. In theory, a person with a smartphone can force a museum to take down its work. How? For instance, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon was forced to remove a video of chickens in digital (fake!) flames after Twitter users label it as animal cruelty. Isn’t that a kind of censorship?
“galleries and artists are thinking more along the lines of how their work is going to be seen on social media.”
He also recalls a situation when museum authorities were changing an artist’s installation to make it more instagrammable.
“I know of one situation where the installation took about a day, but then the gallery spent three days with the lighting because they wanted to make sure that the lighting worked well for Instagram.”
Some museums are resisting the influence of social media. Only a few years ago most of them took down the photo ban, yet some exhibitions are still photography-free. The problem is that it doesn’t really work. James Turrell’s light installation in the Guggenheim Museum in New York is a very good example. The artist himself requested that photos are prohibited because they destroy the experience. Results? The tag #Turrell was shared more than 5000 times on Instagram, and it became the most instagrammable exhibition in the history of Guggenheim as of 2016.
The PBS’s article Is Instagram killing our museum culture or reinventing it?, suggests that museums are changing how they curate exhibitions to make them more instagrammable.
The article refers to “Culture Track,” a research conducted in the US between 2001-2017. It focused on a question of what is the current definition of culture.
Culture Track suggests that the definition of culture changes rapidly and partly refers to the social media realm. Culture is fun, speed, and social experience. We would rather have
“social interactions, as opposed to quiet reflection, when attending cultural events like exhibitions.”
Museums want to provide more options for visitors to engage with art through Instagram. Some of them provide special “Instagram walls” spaces or installation intended for visitors to photograph them. There are more and more museums that create spaces for people to take photos and selfies. To see the examples watch the full How “Instagram traps” are changing art museums by Vox that I posted up at the beginning of this post. Visitors have the ability to use Instagram to enhance the way they see art.
For some, Instagram is a space for curating art just like a gallery. An art critic, curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries Hans Ulrich Obrist has nearly 250,000
Instagram followers. He says that
“I have always considered Instagram a curatorial platform. It makes sense to actually generate an exhibition online instead of merely showing images of art shows.”
Internet users in the UK, France, and Germany, who took part in 2015 study conducted by Instagram, saw Instagram as the “art gallery of the future.” Yes, we do curate our own mini galleries. Yes, we do share our opinions on art experiences. Yes, we do disseminate the love (or hate) for art and popularize exhibitions. But we are also missing something.
Social media change our mental perception of art.
An article on psychologicalscience.org talks about a researcher and psychological scientist Linda Henkel who proved that museum visitors who were taking photos have a worse memory for objects and their details.
As Hanken claims, the museum visitors
“whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them.”
Painter Riad Miah, argues that
“It’s the subtlety of seeing something in person that makes a work art, whereas seeing something on social media is just an invitation to get the conversation started.”
Ingrid Langston, communications manager at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, warns that due to the fascination of social media
“people will mediate their experience through this little screen.”
Jia Jia Fei, a Director of Digital at the Jewish Museum, New York City, and Formerly Digital at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, argues in her TEDtalk Art in the Age of Instagram, that social media makes us enjoy art less. According to research she refers to, people who went through a museum with an aim of taking photos for social media, enjoyed it less than just looking at art for the sake of art.
There is something very true that with a social media app in our hand, we perceive art differently. The Instagram account makes us more than only a member of the audience.
We search for a perfect angle, for the Instagram-pleasing esthetics, for something that would gain a lot of likes and comments. We are selling the art we see to our Instagram followers and all the digital world.
Often, we photograph art not because we really believe it is so awesome that those 500 people we don’t even know the last names of just gotta see this picture. Often, it just seems instagrammable. It just seems that it might get some attention. Or maybe it simply suits our Instagram profile style, matches the colors of other photos, maybe will be a good photo for an inspirational quote…
Often, we take a photo and move on, like hunters who forget about their pray as soon as they get it. And so we are sometimes missing something in that rush of photo-hunting. We are sometimes missing the art.
And what do you think? Let me know in the comments.