How digital is changing art-making and being an artist
Let’s be honest, art prizes are ten a penny. But back in January, a new prize launched that caught my eye among the, ahem, competition: one that only accepted entries via an app. It’s an intriguing prospect, and became even more so when I saw the shortlisted work: much of it was conceptual, a lot of it site-specific. None of it was the pastel-y, art-directed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life fodder that’s so usually the art darling of Instagram. The four shortlisted artists were ideas-driven, making complex work that frankly you’d be likely to scroll past if interacting with them in the usual way we consume art through image-led apps.
The competition in question was the ArteVue prize, orchestrated by the app of the same name—billed as “the first social media platform for art”—which launched in summer 2017 and has just unveiled its Android edition. The premise of the app is as a non-profit platform for collectors, galleries, and artists to interact with one another and buy and sell work. Algorithms show content according to users’ likes and interests to curate what they’ll find on their “discovery” page.
“The idea of the app and the prize was to democratize art,” says ArteVue founder (and funder) Shohidul Ahad-Choudhury. The entry process was simple and required no particular pedigree: the artist uploaded their images, a brief description of their work, and a PDF, if they wished, and used the #arteprize hashtag to be considered. The difference between ArteVue and a platform like Artsy, one of the more successful online art and gallery databases, is that ArteVue isn’t curated, it’s completely user-generated. Artists can put their work up for sale with no restrictions, tapping into an interesting trend that Ahad-Choudhury, stating that 80% of sales in the the art world are for art below $2,000.
Ahad-Choudhury is far from the first to use the phrase “democratize art” to describe a recent web or mobile-based platform for art. There’s been a wave of similar products recently, including Artvisor, Curatious, and Mangus, the self-described “Shazam for Art.” And then, of course, there’s Instagram, perhaps the original art world “disruptor,” to use an awful phrase, even if not the app’s original intention. So what’s the difference between artists using these new platforms to connect with potential galleries, fans, collectors and so on, and how they’ve been using Instagram for quite some time now?
Instagram, says Ahad-Choudhury, always offers only one format for displaying and viewing images and videos—it’s the same for a complex, conceptually based installation as it is for a picture of a cake (or a dog, your shoes, a bunch of drunk people, and so on). With ArteVue, on the other hand, the artists can create their own gallery page, curate works, and write about what they’re making in a certain detail that existing platforms aren’t cut out for. “Instagram is about half a billion people and 20 billion posts, and less than 1% of those are are art-related,” Ahad-Choudhury points out. “We wanted to go one level further, and say, ‘if you like that, how about seeing another 20 [related works]? It gets that person hooked on art, it’s a form of escapism.”
Developed and designed by Ahad-Choudhury, Ben Dobson, and Peter Goodwin, the app uses image recognition software and metadata to guide the users towards other works and automatically generate hashtags from images uploaded. The focus at the moment is merely on getting artists to upload their work to the app, but it makes me wonder: will artists start to modify their work to make it friendlier for such platforms? Are they already? And if so, is art playing the algorithms, or are the algorithms playing the artists?
Access and Insta-Recognition: A Brave New Art World
Even if platforms like ArtVue are actively working to provide a different, and better, platform for displaying artwork than on Instagram, it’s safe to say that the rise in these types of art-sharing platforms can be traced back to that very app. The most visual of our social media platforms has spawned a whole new category of work that’s “Insta-friendly,” for want of a better term. It’s a cliche for a reason that people today—especially online, i.e most of the time—have very short attention spans, so any piece of art they see on such platforms has around three seconds to engage. Otherwise, on we scroll, for the most part.
Instragram is one of the main culprits in overhauling how we see art, judge it, and make it. Take Canada-based artist Brad Phillips, for example—a man currently boasting 32,600 or so followers on Instagram. Phillips has described the platform as “both an amazing and horrible tool for me and other artists”, and speaks of a love hate relationship with it, veering ever more towards the former.
While it’s meant he’s sold a hell of a lot more work (poor lamb!) and garnered him a ton more solo and group shows and a hardcover book “published by a reputable English art book imprint,” one of his gripes is that none of the sales or steps up his career ladder were facilitated by his New York gallery. Thus, he concludes, “The art world right now is a youth-fetishizing cannibalistic death cult of speculation and interior design masked as progressive painting.”
Hyperbolic? Perhaps. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Instagram can truly make a creative’s career. When I spoke to illustrator Polly Nor for Creative Review last year (one million followers and counting), she told me,“I don’t know where I’d be without Instagram.” For Phillips, Instagram has meant the increasingly obsolescence of galleries, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for artists starting out, since they often take 50% of the money from art sold. But the flipside of easy access—a world where, as the Phillips puts it, “a jpeg has almost as much value as the physical object”—is easy copying. As we’ve explored on the site before, designers and artists are frequently seeing their work ripped off by both big brands and individuals using on-demand services.
This has been a massive problem for Nor, too, who has seen her own work turned into memes, traveling the internet uncredited. She felt that dissemination “devalued” her work at the time; but since, that proliferation of her own work through others has meant she’s gotten to the point she can make a living from her art alone: “I have my shop but I don’t really do much commissioned work.”
As Phillips points out, sales-wise, digital cuts out middle men, provides a direct conduit from collector to artist, and offers a supposedly democratic chance for work from anyone and everyone bubble to the surface according to what makes it in the online mass-popularity stakes. In my view, that inherently makes it undemocratic: some creatives are simply better at playing the social game than others.
A New System of Haves and Have-Nots
Online platforms and the digital realm in general have provided a lower barrier to entry for showing work, and put agency into the hands of the artist over gallery or press—but the web has also turned the artist into marketer and self-promoter. Some very brilliant artists make incredible work but couldn’t write a pithy artist statement or build a hip website if their life depended on it. Perhaps because of my ink-stained, weary, Victorian peasant heart, I’m a bit of a Luddite, and this is where I find that the utopian democracy of the “anyone can make it!” online world crumbles. Some of the best artists—those making work that’s perhaps inherently ephemeral or performative; or even just those who have little time for, interest in, or understanding of website-building—are inherently at a disadvantage if they’re being judged, in part, by the quality of their website. Some people are just better at that—and more interested in it—than others.
Charles Broskoski, co-founder of the online platform Are.na—“an open-ended space where you can organize your thoughts, projects, or research with anyone else”—has a different opinion on this. He firmly believes that everyone, and particularly artists, should learn how to make their own website. “It’s the one place you can contextualize your work in the way you want to,” he says. “You can frame things, set out a narrative, or have no narrative at all. It’s the place you can set yourself up as an artist.”
Perhaps it’s this build-it-yourself mentality that makes Are.na feel different to platforms like ArtVue and Instagram. While image-led platforms like Instagram could be said to put artists in the position of modifying or curating the work they upload to be more instantaneously eye-catching—fit for square frame, ripe for visual click bait—Are.na is designed more to facilitate the process of art-making, rather than displaying the end result.
Other platforms for artwork occupy other places on the spectrum that ranges from self-coded artists websites to the rigid format of Instagram. Just as digital has meant vast new horizons for artists in terms of media they use, it’s also meant vast new opportunities for disseminating their work. The gallery system is slowly but surely being tipped on its head as traditional representation and hushed white walls are crumbling, and as we increasingly engage with art outside of its physicality.
Yet with this online democratization of art also comes a new system of have and have-nots, particularly if we ignore the analog. Some art won’t catch the eyes and algorithms of users on the likes of ArteVue or any of the self-proclaimed art Shazams; many artists are frankly terrified of things like coding, site building, and even using social media. Does that make it less worthy or interesting? No. Use these new platforms wisely, use them sparingly, and use them alongside a healthy diet of art IRL. And please, artists, don’t go trying to fit all your work in square boxes.