In 1987 I stood in front of a broken wheelbarrow. The axel smashed and the wheel lays a few feet away. I was not on grandpa’s farm, or in the family garden. I was at a prestigious art gallery. The wheelbarrow? Not junk, not a tool in need of repair; it was a symbol of human labour. An artist created the piece, a curator decided it was worthy of display and there I stood. The exact same thing could be found in sheds, barns and garages across the country. I didn’t get it. I thought it was crap. I felt scammed. I also had no significant art history education, no context and whether something was art or not pretty much boiled down to “Does it appeal to ME?”.
There is, in North America, a long history of mistrust of art. Particularly the art found in galleries. In 1975 Tom Wolfe wrote in ‘The Painted World‘ “The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in modern art is merely romantic fiction. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened.” Canadians will be familiar with Barnett Newman’s “Voice of Fire“. A huge painting of an orange stripe on a blue background. There was outrage when it was purchased in 1990 that, to a degree, continues to this day.
We seem to be distrustful of art that is defined by critics, curators and collectors.
This is changing.
The public now has more influence over what goes on in galleries than ever before. Since the mid-2000s, many of us have started using social media. There are websites dedicated to the sharing of art. Deviant Art, according to Wikipedia is the largest online artists community. The site allows artists and patrons to post work where it is critiqued, discussed and shared via social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. There are many Facebook groups where people share art they like. On Pinterest, you can find carefully curated galleries on everything from Renaissance art, to abstract expressionism to macramé. Popular opinion on an exhibit is quickly spread through Twitter, Facebook and Google reviews.
According to the CBC, Thousands are lining up online for a selfie with AGO’s blockbuster Infinity Mirrors. The show is so popular on social media that Leah Sandals, and editor at Canadian Art says she is experiencing ‘social media exhaustion’.
I’m not sure what to make of this. Art is for the people. Perhaps social media is democratizing the art world. In the Washington Post article ‘Everybody’s an Art Curator‘ Ellen Gamerman writes about galleries in America that are deciding what does and doesn’t get shown in art galleries based on Twitter votes. Museums are crowdsourcing the curation of exhibits. This could have huge benefits in engaging people in the arts.
I do have concerns though. Art is not always popular. In the mid-nineteenth century, impressionism was seen as garbage. Today, thanks to dedicated collectors, we can enjoy the work of Monet and Van Gogh. Is there a line between amateur and professional curators? For me, there is a difference between good art and important art. Good art is the stuff I like. Important art contributes to the historical creative dialogue, spanning centuries and cultures. I’m not sure that in today’s climate, the National Gallery would have been able to successfully purchase Voice of Fire. That would have been unfortunate, by any measure it was a valuable investment.
What do you think? Is it fantastic that we can now use social media to influence what’s in galleries, particularly public galleries, or are we losing out when the voices of professional curators and art historians are drowned out?
Twitter: There’s new people in charge at major #art #galleries and it’s us! Are you the new art snob?
Facebook: We now have unprecedented influence in art exhibits at major galleries. Are you ready to curate some of the biggest shows on earth?