Middle Ground #10: What the People Need – Digital Viewers Still Like Real Art
Essay / June 2022
Middle Ground #10: What the People Need – Digital Viewers Still Like Real Art
By Jacob Barnes
Although I’ve devoted a great deal of my time to print media, I still struggle to read it. This applies less so to books, but is certainly true of periodicals: while my household subscribes to no fewer than five magazines, I still prefer to read the articles online, even with the print version next to me. I will often share articles with Ella, or skim through pieces when I wake up or am waiting for something to upload, for which the digital copy is much more useful. Don’t get me wrong—I still love getting the issue, ripping open the packaging and flipping through the pages, but the print version is more totemic than functional; a testament to the mental and physical labor of the issue. Sometimes, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I love nothing more than cracking open the latest issue of my favorite magazine with a cup of tea in the apartment’s best reading spot, and I’m convinced there is no feeling in the world more satisfying. The physical object is not discarded in favor of the virtual experience, but instead, where and how I read becomes subservient to the experience I’m trying to have, or what I need it for.
While I may be at risk of boring everyone to tears with a rather maudlin aside, there is a point to be made. I recently went back to an interview photographer Ryan McGinley did with Hillary Navin for Apartamento Magazine in which McGinley spoke very lucidly about the effects of the internet on sociality, and more broadly, lived experience. When Navin notes that McGinley’s crew are known as the “Last Bohemians of Manhattan,” McGinley responds:
I’ll tell you what it is—the thing that separates it from what’s happening today is the internet. That’s it. We weren’t the last bohemians or the last group of people that were gritty or whatever; the internet just changed the game. There are no secrets anymore. If you want to portray your life as this thing through your blog or your Instagram, you’re always going to get blown up by somebody else. The same things are happening now, but at the time, the only evidence that existed was Dash [Snow]’s work, which was insane and dark, and crazy, crazy druggy.
What McGinley seems to be getting at is a point about post-internet ontologies that strikes closer to the truth than certainly anything I’ve read recently. Indeed, however concerned we are with how life has changed in the post-internet world, there are manifold ways in which our lives haven’t changed. As McGinley notes, he, Dash Snow, and Dan Colen weren’t the last of the Manhattan bohemians, nor the last people to be gritty, but the terms around the dissemination of any record of them has changed. McGinley rose to fame as a photographer of the early 2000s downtown scene, but the implications of carrying around a camera (or now, choosing not to) are much different than they were then. The meaning around the resulting images has changed, but the primary activity hasn’t. There are now millions of flash-heavy photos of teenagers up to no good on the internet, but that doesn’t mean that McGinley’s work signifies nothing, or conversely that there isn’t art to be found among contemporary images. Most importantly, it doesn’t mean that we really feel any differently about miscreants getting shit-faced on camera; it’s only that its artifacts are understood in a different context.
Understanding this simple point has profound implications for how we reflect on the digitization of the art world. For years now, huge swathes of the art world have been concerned with how we can better transport the gallery online. Enormous sums of money have been poured into creating online viewing rooms and digital viewing opportunities replete with video, the ability to move through digitized spaces, and endless links to click. Conversely, this shift has been a source of much consternation among the industry’s traditionalists—what if the gallery disappears? This line of thought has admittedly dissipated in the last couple of months as we return to standard gallery operations, but the move online continues to equal parts intrigue and baffle people.
But, as McGinley inadvertently points out, none of it matters. It’s not that we feel any less devoted to seeing art in person, or at times, any less enthralled by viewing JPG after JPG, it’s that the context of those activities has changed, and that each of those processes achieves something different than it did before. Art viewed in person is equally captivating; the change in social context since the pandemic has not undone hundreds of thousands of years of social and biological conditioning, dating back to when we scrawled messy pictograms on cave walls. We just don’t feel like we have to stand in front of all the work in the world in order to thoroughly engage in a global marketplace, nor is there the social pressure to do so. With this in mind, viewing art in person is a pretty terrible way of cataloging work, in your head or otherwise. For most of us, even when we try, we usually end up taking pictures to reference later anyways. So, as a collector looking to buy, why not avail of JPGs and PDFs when it only economizes a process you were already working with? It bears no relation to how much you like viewing art in person, it just reflects the facility and proliferation of digital images in today’s world.
For those who point to the rise of NFTs as evidence of some fundamental, ontological shift in the value of the digital image, stop deluding yourself. NFTs simply reveal what’s under the hood of any luxury asset and its collection: monetary value. That’s not to say that people aren’t sincerely interested in digital art, or take very real pleasure from it, but as with everything that stands to make the owner a buck, it will attract its fair share of punters, and suggesting that everyone that calls themselves an NFT collector has a deep-seated love for encrypted images is about as glib as saying that the buyers at a Sotheby’s Evening Sale buy only for the love of art.
Ultimately, what this means is that the industry should try to build online systems that reflect the actual use value of digital images, not some kind of ersatz gallery space that looks to recreate viewing art in person, only to create an experience no one was looking for. Hence, metrics like indexicality and ease of navigation should be what we look for in future generations of online platforms, as well as the ability to compile various images from multiple gallery offerings (this last one is in specific reference to the fair context, which has now almost entirely integrated ancillary online offerings with in-person events).
This too will hopefully help do away with the stigma around online programming. While no one is arguing that work is often more captivating in person, online programming is more about functionality than reinventing the way we experience artworks. If it is the job of a commercial gallery to reach a market that is largely dealing with digital images, it’s not only beneficial, but indeed superior to have a clickable web page full of the information you often need to labor to disseminate. It is meant as no disrespect to the physical work, but looks only to acknowledge a truth around how the contemporary art market functions.
In the end, the message is simple: The online art marketplace needs to remember that while the game has changed, many of the rules and principles have remained the same. Instead of worrying about what everyone wants, perhaps more people should think about what everyone needs, and work towards addressing those pressing questions.