Social Media as Inspiration and Canvas
By CLAIRE CAIN MILLER for the New York Times
Many museums and art shows use social media to talk about art. But for some, social media is more than that — the videos and photos shared online are pieces of art themselves.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a piece created from anonymous Flickr photos. The four Guggenheim Museums showed 25 YouTube videos selected by judges from the art world. And the Volta, NY, art fair this month exhibited videos uploaded to Vimeo, the video-sharing site.
For some curators and art collectors, the idea that social media postings constitute art is a logical reflection of the times.
“We think that art’s meant to characterize its time and explain what it’s like to be alive now,” said Hugh McGrory, creative director of Culture Shock Marketing, which curated the Volta show. “The art that sums up the present is on the Internet. It’s not in the galleries; it’s not in the museums.”
For others, these pieces raise an eternal question, asked as often today as when Picasso first showed his discombobulated nudes: What qualifies as art?
Video and computer art made by artists like Nam June Paik and Bill Viola have found homes in museums for decades. But the idea that anyone who uploads a video, photograph or even a Twitter posting to the Internet could be an artist is a controversial one, and there are few such works in museums.
“Part of it is educating the collecting base this is the bleeding edge of this work and moving image,” said Debra Anderson, chief executive of Culture Shock.
As artists create works online, the role of museums could forever change, because the works are available for anyone to view on their computers or cellphones, said David A. Ross, a professor at the School of Visual Arts and former director of the San Francisco MOMA and the Whitney Museum.
“I’ve always believed, without any disrespect to museums and their purpose, that any art form that would create direct links between audience and viewers was wonderfully transgressive, insurgent, radical and necessary,” Mr. Ross said.
Instead of people relying on museums to show and tell them about important art, they are increasingly looking at pieces online and making that determination themselves, he said.
The role of museums that will outlive all others, he said, is preserving digital art, “so it is still available in 200 years the same way we look at paintings from 200 years ago and try to understand that world, that moment, that artist.”
For Mr. McGrory, the museum itself is an anachronism.
“Outside feels like an accelerated present taking us toward some exciting future, but once you step inside it feels like the past — it’s as if Twitter doesn’t exist, it’s as if Facebook never happened, it’s as if Pixar never happened,” he said.
To combat that, he showed the Vimeo videos at the Volta fair not just in the exhibit room, but also in the elevators that took viewers to the exhibit and in the buses that transported them between exhibits.
The ability of artists, or even people with a camera and computer who don’t think of themselves as artists, to post their work online also changes the route that artworks take to museums.
Typically, an artist develops a relationship with a gallery owner, who shows the artist’s work and catches the attention of a museum curator. But as the Internet has done with many industries, it has the potential to cut out the middleman.
“The Internet’s just changed everything head over heels,” said Glenn Marshall, a video artist whose work was exhibited at the Volta show and will appear at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, this spring. “I just put my work up on Vimeo and all it takes is one person who loves it to tell someone else.”
Vimeo, which is owned by the IAC/ InterActive Corporation, started as a way to share videos with detailed privacy controls and without ads in the video player, and like YouTube, it has its share of family videos of babies’ first steps.
But it quickly took off with artists because of tools like large video uploads and high-definition video sharing. Video creators often list their production tools below the film, and viewers ask them technical questions in the comments.
Artists use computer tools like animation, data visualization, Google Earth, Adobe software like Illustrator and a computer programming language called processing that was developed at M.I.T. for visual artists.
Mr. Marshall says that writing software is comparable to painting brushstrokes, and that a software application is a work of art.
Not everyone agrees with him. When he submitted to Apple an iPhone and iPad app based on his art called Zio, Apple rejected it because the company said it did not have functionality.
“I politely and calmly wrote back and said it has a higher functionality of art,” Mr. Marshall said. The app was approved.
The San Francisco MOMA has been grappling with the idea of online creations as art for years. Along with other museums, it has teamed with New Art Trust, a group that seeks to conserve electronic art. Benjamin Weil, a former curator, started a project to preserve Web sites as frozen moments.
Another of the museum’s pieces is a large, mesmerizingly beautiful yellow, orange and purple collection of photographs of suns that were posted on Flickr, the photo-sharing site.
It is titled “5,377,183 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 4/28/09,” based on the number of photos that the artist, Penelope Umbrico, found when she searched the Web site for the word “sunset.”
“Looking into this cool electronic space one finds a virtual window onto the natural world,” she wrote on her Web site.
The Ludwig Museum is curating an exhibit on land art, which is typically created in nature using natural materials. It will include a piece by Mr. Marshall called “The Nest That Sailed the Sky” that uses animation to show birth, life and decay.
“Glenn Marshall’s film is a sort of a missing link between the very beginnings of the land-art development and new tendencies within our exhibition,” said Beate Reifenscheid, the show’s curator.
Whether these works qualify as art is a question that will be determined by curators, gallery owners and art viewers over time.
The more important question is whether the works are good, said Terry Barrett, the author of “Why Is That Art?” and a professor of art education at the University of North Texas. If they are, people will view them, whether online or in a museum.
“I can see many art worlds — the art world existing on the Web and in local communities and in New York,” he said.