IS VIRTUAL ART THE FUTURE WE WANT?
I'm publishing this recent excerpt from my photography journal to initiate a conversation about online "galleries" and art sales during these rapidly evolving times. Your thoughts and ideas are welcome, either below or in the social media posts linked to this page.
NOTE: The panel discussion Experiencing Art: Under Lockdown & Beyond was inspired by this journal entry, hosted by Juri Koll (Venice Institute of Contemporary Art) and featuring Tarrah von Lintel (Von Lintel Gallery), Claudia James Bartlett (Director: Photo LA), and myself. A recording of the engaging, one hour ZoomCast is available here.
Journal Entry – Chungking Studio – May 9, 2020
Something on most artists' minds these days is how this world pandemic will affect our lives, our work, and the exhibition/sale of artwork in the near, intermediate, and long-term future. While complete answers to these questions are unknowable, this feels like a good time to explore what the post-pandemic art world might look like, and consider strategies to meet the new challenges and opportunities.
I do not like change, not as a general rule. A day doesn't pass without some pang of nostalgia, particularly with regards to how technology has devalued the things I hold dear. So what might this brave new world look like? How best to prepare for an uncertain future? And what evolutionary path is in store for photography?
Today, people and businesses are scrambling to move their existence online. Personally, I can't stand the idea. It's the opposite direction I want for myself and the world I inhabit. But the forces pushing our interactions into the ether are irresistible. I can only hope that we also experience a growing appreciation for things in the real world, and not all just tunnel deeper into our burrows.
It seems clear that many businesses I love will not survive. This despite remarkable optimism on Wall Street and fanciful pronouncements ("cheerleading") from the White House. Some of these lost businesses will be galleries, many already struggling to hold on pre-COVID-19. This makes me enormously sad, as I hold deeply to the archaic notion that art is best appreciated in real life.
Galleries closing is sad, but is it bad? Yes, if course it is – having spaces to show and see art is absolutely essential. But might there be certain benefits to some galleries closing? Is it possible that there are too many exhibition spaces in Los Angeles?
Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020
I've seen a great deal of art in the last few years, some of it not very compelling. Could a reduction in exhibition opportunities increase the overall quality of work? And with many artists taking advantage of this time to reflect on their process, might the pandemic inspire enduring new creations? I wonder if our collective experience might even stimulate a cohesive art movement or two, the likes of which we have not seen since the very idea of art movements was seemingly discarded towards the end of the last century.
Damn, I am so old fashioned, I'm scaring myself. But, back to the future...
Galleries will close and art “experiences" will migrate online in an accelerating manner. While this is neither all good nor all bad, I fear the worst. Art requires context, and that's something the Internet does not provide to a meaningful extent. A quick Google search of an artist gives little insight into their life, their work, and the ideas that underpin their career. Often, a bunch of images just flicker past in random-ish order, giving us a false sense of knowledge and understanding.
Luckily, we have books and museums and art writers to help us explore deeper meaning, but we've also become increasingly satisfied with cursory perusals. As far as contemporary artists are concerned, how will we truly come to know and experience their work as it migrates increasingly online, no matter how "immersive" the virtual experience?
Regardless of my passionate entreaties, to the Internet art will inevitably go. And of course, for the time being, online exhibitions are what we have. Clearly, some art forms will fare better than others. Video is a natural fit, but any type of subtle, non-graphic work is probably doomed. Photography may do okay with some caveats.
Pre-COVID-19 opening – Paradox California: Chelsea Dean & Osceola Refetoff – Launch LA – 2019
What your next gallery visit may look like...
The Internet "democratizes" photography in two problematic ways. When we gaze upon our small, backlit screens, great photographs do indeed look good. But so do good and even mediocre images, better in fact then they would look printed. Contrarily, truly outstanding photographs require in-person viewing to fully appreciate their luminance and subtle detail. Ideally this viewing is in a well-lit space devoid of excessive distraction. Add a measure of context by placing the work in well-curated conversation with other images, and you have the makings of a transformative experience.
Online viewing tends to be the opposite of all that. Rather than a thoughtfully selected presentation, we often experience a random onslaught of disjointed images. Welcome to your Instagram feed. So while photography is ever-present in our lives, its pervasiveness actually diminishes it as an art form. I call this the marginalization of ubiquity. And these same forces also erode salability.
Many galleries have addressed these issues by championing the photo that is not a photo. What's hot today are unique editions of non-camera-based exposures or various mixed-media interventions specifically intended to make the finished piece something "more" than a photograph. To be clear, I am a fan of much of this work, and cognizant of the collector appeal of one-of-a-kind artworks. But I do hope this time in isolation will renew interest in photography's primary function: the representation of real things in the world.
Of course, there are ways to improve the online viewing experience. Without question, every artist and gallery requires a well-designed and regularly updated website. But during the course of this entry, I've come to believe that a rush to show artwork on the web may actually be counterproductive. To me, viewing new work online before an exhibition decreases the pleasure of discovering it in person.
Does Not Reproduce – 2019 "The exhibition will display works of art that suffer significantly from their translation to a 1080 x 1080 pixelated square." (photo/quote courtesy Von Lintel Gallery)
In the end, isn't that the very experience we're trying to sell? Are we not specifically asking collectors to value the opportunity to experience well-crafted images in their homes, on their walls, in their real and actual daily lives? As a collector as well as a photographer, I'm supremely conscious of the value of living with artwork, particularly so during this time of self-isolation.
I well understand that galleries are having a tough time. I get that collectors are increasingly fickle, at least partially because their noses are buried in their phones. It has become increasingly evident that many galleries will need to go out of business, perhaps via the intermediate step of moving their operations entirely online. The reduced number of physical galleries that remain may best be served by re-embracing their traditional role of connecting artists and collectors by establishing context, value, and the desirability of ownership for the carefully selected work they represent.
So fewer galleries presenting more relevant artwork, serving a relatively constant pool of genuinely informed and engaged art patrons. People who continue to value interacting with art in real life, first in galleries, and later in the comfort and safety of their well-curated homes.
I believe the fool's race to chasing online eyeballs will result in the same fate of our great journalistic institutions, increasingly absent from our daily lives in this time of greatest need. As a photojournalist, I know firsthand how that story turns out. Actually, what do I know? I still get the L.A. Times delivered to my home, where I'm constantly scheming about how to fill every square inch with artwork.
So sure, we'll be looking at art exclusively online for the foreseeable future. But it's my hope that this time of self-isolation will rekindle an appreciation for real things in the real world. When the doors finally re-open for social-distance-appropriate viewing, let's reflect on the blank wall space we've all stared at for months, and enrich our own lives by supporting local artists and galleries. As I recall reading in the L.A. Weekly, one good thing about physical galleries, you're not allowed to touch anything anyway.
Art Collection – Chungking Studio – 2020 – I see empty wall space!
Journal excerpt lightly edited for clarity and length. I welcome your thoughts and comments.
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