In his documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse (2008), critic Robert Hughes details the mid-twentieth century adaptation of artwork as ‘object to view’, to artwork as ‘object to be seen’. Hughes pinpoints the crucial tipping point, an “emblematic event”, late in 1962, as the moment when de Vinci’s masterpiece was met in Washington by the Kennedys, and like any state visit their greeting was captured by the cameras and flashbulbs of the press. To Hughes, the Kennedys’ positioning in relation to the Mona Lisa (1503 – 1517) was both a “cultural extension of the arms race” as well as a means to cement the couple’s “status as new Medici” (Hughes, 2008).
From Washington the Mona Lisa travelled to New York where it went on display to over a million spectators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here queues of passive consumers filed past the artwork; “they didn’t come to look at the Mona Lisa they came in order to have seen it” (Hughes, 2008). At that time the act of seeing an artwork inherited a commodity value. Over dinner tables American couples could extol their cultural clout: “Last week Frank and I saw the Mona Lisa, have you seen it yet Betty?” Proximity and the appearance of having had an experience became more crucial than the actuality of a meaningful experience.
For over fifty years we have ridden the wave of that moment, momentum building and fuelling the art market boom, proliferating art fairs, celebrities attending V.P.V.s and artists becoming celebrities. The snide comment delivered over the dinner table has morphed into a 21st century parlance, the Instagram post. Why wait to boast over a meal, down the pub or around the water cooler when you can instantly relay it to your followers?
Today it isn’t enough to snap a photo of an artwork. The ritual of photographing art and/or being photographed with it has become as elaborate as the Kennedy’s choreographed meeting with the Mona Lisa. I recently attended a talk by contemporary art heavy weight Joseph Kosuth (The Zabludowicz Collection, London, 3 February 2016) during which he recalled a recent exhibition, Agnosia, an Illuminated Ontology (Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, 2015). In particular he noted with bemused puzzlement the manner in which young female patrons had co-opted the exhibition as a photo opportunity. Whilst not quite figuring the exact meaning of this ritual, Kosuth lamented having missed the chance to witness it.
In the Q&A I asked Kosuth whether this manner of consumption concerned him. Whether we’d replaced intellectual or emotional engagement with the search for photographic opportunities? And whether this posed a danger to conceptual art? His response, which I hope to have accurately noted down, was “I hope to survive it.” We might take this witticism one of two ways:
- “I hope [in terms of life expectancy] to [outlast] it”.
- “I hope [my artwork] survive[s] it”.
or maybe a subtextual third:
- “I hope to survive [this conversation]”.
Kosuth may not feel the threat of our IBMSN filtered culture, yet it is an issue that we must address, and thereafter actively determine our reaction to and participation with. For example, inputting #josephkosuth into Instagram’s search function returns 3,648 posts. There are also posts filed away under #josephkusuth, #josephkusoth and #josephkosuthh. This amounts to a huge secondary exhibition space, a democratic[ish] curatorial project, openly accessible and lacking regulation.
Effective image creation requires an instinct for composition, a flair for style and an intrinsic ability to relay lifestyle in an effortless manner. From Kosuth’s Sean Kelly Gallery exhibition, one work repeatedly appears in Instagram posts. 1, 2, 3, 4 (1993) is made from red neon and shows four permutations of a drawn cube. It presents a play in shape and space, in a manner akin to Kosuth’s frequent play with word and image. It also, inadvertently, presents an opportune selfie backdrop.
By my count there are twenty-nine Instagram images showing 1, 2, 3, 4 and a human subject at Agnosia, an Illuminated Ontology. Within this sample four compositions exist, each presenting the subject in a certain spatial relation to the artwork:
- subject framed by the 3rd permutation of the cube
- subject[s] in front the entire artwork
- subject[s] nearby the artwork
- subject[s] positioned between the 3rd and 4th permutation of the cube
Of the four, the ‘framed’ variant is the most numerous, used in ten out of the twenty-nine images. Further investigation of this composition reveals smaller variations. For example, of the four ways the subject may face: stage left, stage right, away or towards the audience, it is stage left that most commonly occurs. Ideally the cube should be perfectly centred within the standard square framing of Instagram, and thereafter the subject’s head should be situated centrally within the cube. Filters may be employed to ensure a strong red colour.
Such codified behaviours reveal that art audiences are becoming increasingly naturalised and proficient at performing in front of artworks. Acting out the experience of appreciating art seemingly surmounts art appreciation. This prosuming audience understands the value of a beautifully shot photograph and will contort themselves to achieve it. What we consider to be ‘beautifully shot’ becomes a product of gentrified eyes. Success is paid in ♥s and comments, our new currency.
For example Instagram user yrene__ has generated two-hundred and fifty-seven likes and ten comments for her ‘version’ of 1, 2, 3, 4. She has also employed thirty-three hashtags to proliferate the image. At what point should we finally admit that we are only attending exhibitions in order to entertain our followers and extend our following? How are galleries engaging this Instagram economy, and are they beginning to pander to it?
A few years after the Mona Lisa’s voyage to the New World, Guy Debord wrote his oft-quoted The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Set into nine chapters and two-hundred and twenty-one paragraphs Debord ruminated on the new emerging relation between public and image, and the political ramifications of this. Read in isolation many of his remarks still hold weight and relevance today. When he writes that “real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it” (Debord, 1967, 8), he could easily be referencing our disposition to experience life as an image making opportunity. We are opting to turn our lives into a sequence of spectacles.
Expanding, or extrapolating this thinking, we might arrange the relation between gallery, audience and Instagram as an elaborate feedback loop. Channeling our image and the image of artworks into a system specialising in the spectacle, we contribute to an image culture. The mechanisms of the system also contribute to the particularities of our image making. And potentially the artist and curator respond to this trend by crafting their work towards this relationship.
Artist and writer David Robbins might typify these activities as High Entertainment, a term he employs to describe a new cultural pole, situated between those of art and entertainment. By his definition, High Entertainment “is entertainment that shares something of art’s ambitions for the culture” (Robbins, 2009). The Instagramming gallery-goer seeks out the credentials of art but consumes it as entertainment. The elitism of art is brought down and the populism of entertainment is shifted up, meeting in an experience that infers intelligence but is potentially hollow.
How do we combat this, or should we even try? When Instagram infringed on our dining experiences, some restaurants in New York banned customers taking their phones out. Whilst many galleries and museums ban photography claiming the preservation of the work or copy-right issues, these tactics require enforcement and therefore are often impractical.
In reality, abstinence might be our only option. Quitting is never easy but we’re much healthier for it. Like a smoker giving the chain up we might incrementally alter our behaviours. Begin by avoiding flashy photo-op exhibitions where the gallery is curated towards our narcissism. Cut down on the number of photographs you take and refuse to pose in front of artworks. Read the press release for once and try to work out whether it is sincere or is simply a pseudo-intellectual arrangement of art-jargon. Try to connect with an artwork, remember how art used to leave you awestruck.
In The Mona Lisa Curse, Hughes laments the changes his life has been witness to. For over fifty years the tides have been moving in one direction: art is now either a commodity, or a backdrop to our own commodification. In the not so distant future we may be subject to an art world we no longer understand, no longer respect and no longer wish to be subject to. We are due a sea change and have the power to enact it.
Elliott Burns is a recent graduate from Central Saint Martins MA: Culture, Criticism & Curation. In 2013 he co-founded the Data & Ethics Working Group and has recently launched a curatorial collective SPIEL.
Debord, G, (1967), The Society of the Spectacle. Soul Bay Press Ltd, Sussex.
Hughes, R, (2008), The Mona Lisa Curse. (accessed 19th February 2016: https://vimeo.com/62973616)
Robbins, D, (2009), High Entertainment. (accessed 25th February 2016: http://www.high-entertainment.com/introduction/)
Stapinski, H, (2013), ‘Restaurants Turn Camera Shy’, The New York Times, 23 January.
 Image Based Mobile Social Network.
 It is unlikely to damage his market value, debase the intellectual acclaim he has amassed or change the way history records his contribution.
 As of19:26 (GMT) on Monday 15th February 2016.
 Spelling mistakes often occur in the rush to publish content.
 Limited to those accredited with a #josephkosuth.
 Coincidentally the direction commonly used for cattle studies.
 Individuals who combines the acts of producing and consuming.
 Invigilators love it when you do this, watch as they try and maintain a straight face.
 You’re not missing out on anything by missing these shows.
 Pro-tip: go to a national gallery where they exhibit old paintings.