The writer Rob Horning recently published an insightful essay in the summer issue of the magazine Even, about the implications of the selfie-driven museum experience, and the transformation of museums that is occurring in our time.
Horning’s observations about what social media is doing to museums (or more accurately, what museums are doing in response to social media) can be summarized in his line “Museums are no longer spaces in which to experience art, but rather spaces in which to perform the self having art experiences” (emphasis his). His essay echoes countless panel discussions at recent art fairs and CAA conventions about what is happening to museums — the bewildered hand-wringing among academics, curators, museum directors and trustees has become so ubiquitous as to practically be a Saturday Night Live parody of itself.
Museums, Horning writes, “no longer serve as a respite from commercialism but as its wellspring, replenishing its pool of symbols of aspirational prestige.” They “latch onto social media to boost their metrics,” becoming “an appendage of the phone and its platforms” and functioning solely to lend “an aspirational glamour to the digital documentation of one’s free time.”
He concludes damningly: “We can dispense with the idea that visitors come to museums to experience transcendence, or to cultivate their eye, or to participate in a novel social configuration. Instead, visitors are presumed to be ‘brand ambassadors,’ affiliate marketers who will eagerly promote an experience in exchange for perceiving themselves to be influential.”
Horning is right. Museums have become consumer playgrounds with something that was once understood as “art” filling in as the backdrop. But so what? Museums had been (still want to be) the new churches, and now, ironically, museums and churches have both become the new vaudeville halls, exhorting us to feel good with happy-clappy, immersive experiences that involve video projections and interactive performances. They provide the context in which we shop, abetted by our devices, for a concocted idea of ourselves. The thing that hath been, is that which shall be.
I share Horning’s dismay about what museums are turning into, but I don’t view the situation as bleakly as I imagine he does. What surprised me about his long, interesting, knowledgeable essay is that he never once mentioned artists. This is not uncommon in the art world: while you would never design an operating room without consulting a surgeon, or enter a complicated legal agreement without consulting a lawyer, major decisions regarding the selection, placement, and experience of art — decisions that sometimes involve many millions of dollars — are routinely made without ever consulting people who actually make the stuff.
Horning never introduces the question of what artists themselves intend, or how they understand this new smartphone paradigm, or what they think is interesting. He only tangentially brings up the question of how art itself is changing in this new social media world — a question that is far more interesting than “what is the purpose of museums.” Does he mean to say (by letting it go without saying) that artists will obviously just bend themselves to do whatever museums and art mobs demand of them? Some will of course, and already do, engage in the earnest influence-foraging and crowd-pleasing that denotes success in the attention economy. (I can’t wait until an artist makes a work in which the audience stands in line for nothing.) I’m not talking about the kind of so-called “selling out” that P.G. Wodehouse referred to when, after having reluctantly permitted TV and movie versions to be made of his Jeeves books, remarked, “today I should not object very strongly if somebody wanted to do Jeeves on Ice.” Wodehouse had already created something solid, whereas so much of the hash that museums are slinging today only looks good on a cell phone. (“But… the engagement we’re getting!”)
As for audience members, Horning does suggest that they might not buy into museums-as-vacuous-selfie-backdrops forever, when he comments that knockoffs like the Museum of Ice Cream and Rabbit Town in Sri Lanka “are too self-evidently contrived to have much lasting appeal.” But surely the same goes for any museum experience, even one by a “real” artist, that involves a long line followed by less than a minute in some tarted-up groove-closet. And if I, a lifelong and avid museum-goer, would prefer to find my pleasures elsewhere than this new direction of museums (specifically in the back galleries with the old stuff), then obviously there are artists who are already way ahead of me.
All of which is to say: I care far less about the plight of museums than about what artists themselves are up to. I don’t want to know about the artists who want in; I want to know about the artists who want out. Let’s even drop the term ‘artist’ to make it easier to distinguish the shit from the shineola: there are people out there looking at and interpreting the world, making stuff out of thin air, who are not engaging much with the art world. What are they doing? What does their work look like? How are they distributing it? Would we even be able to recognize what they are doing as art?
I realize I’m summoning a romanticized, La Bohème version of artist outsiderdom; but isn’t it always true, as Honoré Daumier (whose acidic cartoons are used to illustrate Horning’s article) might suggest? Away from the crowds and inanity of those 19th century salons, as Daumier well knew, were the Refusés, the artists we were all weaned to revere for their rejection of the status quo. What seems inevitable in retrospect can have been anything but easy or comfortable at the time. And the contemporary so-called art that we’re all photographing ourselves in front of in museums will, much like those academy painters in Daumier’s cartoons, be forgotten, and in a hurry.
I suspect that great artists will run, are running, from the art world mess so fast that nobody knows what they are doing or where. Meanwhile nobody really knows what “art” will be in the post-camera, post-Internet, post-smartphone, post-Twitter world, but they sense it won’t be — it no longer is — what we have understood it to be for millennia. And so they’re making do and filling space with whatever is easy, because the only currency that matters (other than actual currency, which always matters) is virtual bums in seats.
I have faith in the artists. They always find a way.