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The 2015 release of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” music video, featuring a knockoff set based on James Turrell’s 2014 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, marked a tipping point in the art world. Celebrity endorsement had officially become a mediating factor in determining which art (good or bad) gets publicized, purchased, and/or plagiarized. Today, the art world and superstardom are governed by the same principles, and celebrities seem to benefit most from their voguish roles as benefactors of the arts. In this instance, the significance of light and space had been reduced to art direction and ambient lighting for a soon-to-be-viral song.
This theme continues to trickle down. A 2014 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that most forms of cultural consumption are declining, while new media and technology-driven engagement is on the rise — call it art as backdrop for selfies. In the past, galleries were responsible for publicizing their artists, but collectors and the public alike now love to be cued in to the intimate details of both artists’ and celebrities’ lives. This requirement of spectacle has forced fine artists to conform through digital channels to maintain relevance, as though they were celebrities or influencers.
Some may consider social media to be an equalizer for emerging artists — it is the cheapest and most efficient form of exposure, with potential to reach millions of people daily. But it doesn’t level the field as much as it seems, instead requiring embedded privileges of beauty, wealth, and social connections to amass a large enough following to amount to any financial gain. For artists, this form of payoff may not lead to any real opportunities. Will art sales be replaced with brand sponsorship or other forms of online synergy advertised on social media? Will art and history dissolve into a prop for Instagram feeds, and does this mean that the two are facing total cultural demise?
In an attempt to conserve light-sensitive works and avoid copyright issues, many museums historically banned photography in their galleries. But the ubiquity of iPhones, along with the irrepressible compulsion to take photos, has forced institutions like the Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA, and others to revise their policies. Restrictions, in some instances, are now nonexistent. Progressively more experiential exhibitions with viral ambitions have been opening at major institutions, encouraging visitors to post on social media. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles was one of the most visited exhibitions of the past few years, drawing audiences largely because it provided the ultimate photo op. Visitors were allowed 30-second intervals to view the work, just long enough to snap a selfie, creating a dissociated space in which the public viewed art through the lens of their iPhones. Celebrities from Martha Stewart to Kourtney Kardashian even stopped by, according to their social media accounts. The show’s success sent a clear message to other museums: Exhibit an extravagant, commercial, Instagrammable spectacle.
Celebrities are all too eager to insert themselves into this new environment. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West fancy themselves part of the art world — a kind of Yoko Ono and John Lennon pair, or muse and male artist, fulfilling the age-old stereotype of women appearing and men acting. (Feminist artist Carolee Schneemann, a contemporary of the period, always said Lennon wasn’t actually smart enough for Ono.)
Kanye insists that Kim is more than an influencer—rather, a “Marie Antoinette of our time,” wielding some kind of timeless importance, like a historical figure or contemporary cultural purveyor. The only truth in this assertion is that Kardashian, like Antoinette, benefits from social class imbalances, leading her to become the ultimate influencer, arguably the first and most powerful of the social media era, and for that she will be historically recognized. Building her brand out of the early days of social media, Kardashian is now one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world, parlaying this fame into a television franchise, an app, waist trainers, a cosmetics line, and even the 2015 book Selfish, consisting of her favorite selfies, released by the reputable art publisher Rizzoli.
Kardashian managed all of the above through embedded privileges — beauty, wealth, and social status — and building her career on an ability to provide spectacle. Now art provides direction for her brand, particularly art that is likely researched by the Yeezy team.
Kanye West’s own fascination with the art world and attempted transformation into a multi-hyphenate musician, art collector, designer, artist, and philosopher significantly undercuts the importance of work by contemporary artists. During his recent social media resurgence, West tweeted a photo of his dining room, including a large-scale figurative sculpture by the artist Vanessa Beecroft.
He didn’t mention her name during this series of controversial posts, even though they’ve collaborated in the past. Beecroft was the artistic director on the initial handful of Yeezy fashion shows, derived from her own performance art. But perhaps she was glad for the omission. Rather than engaging the public with art that inspires his work and life, West bizarrely and embarrassingly likened himself to and praised Donald Trump that same day on Twitter, consciously creating a spectacle and whipping up attention around his upcoming record drop. Maybe West cares less about revealing his artistic impulses than remaining in the public eye, no matter the cost or impact on his integrity. As he tweeted in 2016, “[N]o one can ask me or try to tell me what to Instagram…It’s my art…”
A glossy celebrity sheen can also undermine contemporary artists through sheer distraction. West’s Famous exhibition debuted in 2016. Despite being the rapper’s first foray into visual art, he managed to show the exhibition at Blum & Poe, a coveted Los Angeles blue-chip gallery. Of course, the exhibition lured massive crowds and plenty of media coverage, with audiences titillated by the depiction of naked celebrities in bed together.
This celebrity exhibition completely outshined a typical gallery show with its massive visitorship and plenty of reviews, two factors that would typically bolster the potential market value of any other lesser-known artist. West also showed at a very established gallery, denying that same opportunity to emerging and established artists.
This highlights the difficulty artists face today: The public is more interested in headlines and famous faces than symbolically and historically significant work. Rather than focusing on the conceptual content of their work, artists must now compete with celebrities and post exciting social media content to keep up with frantic interest in pop culture.
Other artists seeking recognition for their work are continually challenged to walk a fine line between seriousness and celebrity. Awol Erizku, the artist who photographed Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement, had been steadily producing a body of work for years but struggled to gain notoriety in the art world. Suddenly, he was catapulted into internet stardom after Beyoncé posted the now-iconic photo of her grasping her pregnant belly, which became the most-liked image on Instagram in 2017.
Despite Erizku’s instant fame, he hasn’t said much about the photograph, perhaps wanting to be known as a serious fine artist, rather than Beyoncé’s portrait photographer. For years, he created work challenging historical portraiture and white ideals of beauty, but all of sudden he became famous through celebrity association. His caution is understandable, as his newfound fame yields a twofold possibility of either creating or reducing opportunity.
Consider an artist like Basquiat. He was highly admired and regarded as subversive during his early years, until he merged too deeply into the celebrity world, becoming a somewhat unpalatable art-world mascot. Critics became disillusioned with his work, and when Basquiat debuted his collaborative exhibition with Andy Warhol at Gagosian New York in 1985, not one painting sold. (After Basquiat’s death, a few years later, the market value of his work steadily climbed, with one piece selling last year at $110.5 million, the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction.)
Still other artists seem to embrace the celebrity world with open arms, strategizing new avenues for financial gain in a digital era. Petra Collins, the famed artist and curator, was actually discovered via Rookie magazine. She convinced American Apparel to sponsor a show she curated with Alice Lancaster in 2013, realizing that commercial retail brands will always garner more attention than art shows. She has since shot music videos for Selena Gomez and photographed everyone from Frank Ocean and Rihanna to Bella Hadid and Cardi B. Collins has managed to evolve her practice into impressive gigs beyond art and fashion and is essentially a self-starter following a path built through online fame. Although she comes from an art background, Collins’ acceptance of the commercial and celebrity world seems to categorize her as influencer, rather than a fine artist. This affects her sources of revenue, as she tends to sell her brand, rather than her art.
As the lens for viewing art changes rapidly, so does the general public’s attention span and interest. The audience and technology seem to be developing concurrently, and artists will have to adapt. An ability to accommodate a public need for spectacle and Instagrammability without letting it undermine your work may be the only way to survive. Life’s full of compromises.