By Sage Adams
As I was posing questions for discussion, I was operating, perhaps problematically, under the assumption that gallery and theater spaces were standard and that digital spaces may perhaps undermine them or fail to adequately engage spectators. This is an especially salient question given the limited access to gallery/theater spaces during the pandemic, bolstering an already large-scale acceleration of the 21st century digital takeover. However, I was taken aback to hear that many people in class strongly preferred digital methods of engaging with art as opposed to the gallery space. Among other critiques, people noted that galleries were too formal or sterile, they impose strict criteria for which art is considered valid, and imply something is wrong with you if you don’t appreciate a certain piece of art on display. On the other hand, there was a general consensus that digital spaces are a valid addition rather than a source of degradation to traditional art spaces. In particular, there was discussion of curated art pages and tiktok videos as methods to democratize art and increase its reach. At least one person stated that they were familiar with Can’t Help Myself, a piece I presented in class, but would never have known about it if not for social media.
In hindsight, I now recognize a parallel between the work that moving image artists were doing to problematize the gallery/theater dichotomy and the advent of digital art spaces. By blurring the lines between formal art contexts, moving image artists asserted not only their right as artists to properly contextualize their art, but also the right of spectators to engage with art in various non-traditional ways. Similarly, digital spaces offer us the opportunity to encounter art on our own terms; we gain more control over contextualization, method, depth, and duration. This democratization of art has been an important offshoot of the greater democratization of knowledge that the internet has contributed to. The ability to discover new pieces of art online with a wealth of information available at your fingertips is priceless.
Though the breaking down of barriers and limitations in the art world expands its reach to ever more people, there is a tension: sometimes limitations serve important purposes. Encountering art is not the same as engaging with it, and leaving everything up to spectators can potentially undermine the work of the art and artist. For instance, the constraints of the gallery and theater spaces force a focus on the art which is on display. It’s considered bad form to check your phone during a movie or take a call at the museum. In digital spaces, or in the home, these social and artistic customs lose their force. It’s incredibly easy to be distracted by a notification, switch to a different app, or even to have your feed refresh only to lose the art you were looking at. Humans are easily distractible, and the oversaturation of online content only feeds into this tendency. If the post of a piece of art isn’t immediately interesting, we’ll just scroll past it. If it’s not entertaining, we won’t work to understand it. Alternatively, in museums, I frequently find myself looking at all the pieces of art displayed in a particular gallery or room. I don’t want to be gauche, disrespectful, or miss out on an important continuity by skipping unappealing art installations. I’m more likely to engage cognitively, to read the plaque on the wall, to attempt to determine why this piece of art was chosen for a curated exhibit. So, even as digital spaces afford greater opportunities for us to encounter art, what good is it if we don’t care? What do we gain from staring at a screen-sized photo of a ten foot painting for a mere 30 seconds before promptly forgetting and moving on to the next post?
Even with the reading for our class, which I did my best to genuinely work to understand, which I had to pay attention to lest my presentation be terrible, there is still a limit to how much I can learn when I can’t see the central pieces of art in person. The best I could access were the pictures in the reading (with explanations), pictures and videos posted online, and gifs. Despite such a heavy emphasis on the physicality of art pieces from Breer, Duchamp, and Paik, I will always lack some of their intended effect because I was unable to interact with these pieces in real life. Not only was physical apparatus and situation in space integral to their works, so was the complicity, even necessity, of the spectator as an integral element of the art itself. It was disappointing to be unable to experience these works of art in their entirety. Something is missing.
But how often do people consider the missing element when they come across art online? We’ve been so inundated with pictures of the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that we become completely blind to the fact that there’s more than the photo; the scale of the paintings, the brushstrokes, the texture and thickness of the paint, the true hues of the colors. We are so conditioned to the mere image, replicated digitally, that we forget the physical. Equally worrisome are the stories of visitors to the Louvre taking pictures of the Mona Lisa then moving on, more concerned with telling people that they saw it than actually seeing it. Even when the physical is right before us, we still fail to recognize its importance.
I think, then, that we come right back to the problem moving image artists attempted to address: context of art is important, and when it’s wrong, the art is unable to come into its entirety. Different art works best in different spaces, and artists deserve some degree of say in which spaces those are. But this is not to discount the digital entirely. While paintings may be best in the gallery, while experimental video art may be best in the theater, and while pieces like the Mutoscope may bridge both spaces, there are countless forms of art which thrive in the digital. It’s up to us to recognize which forms these are.