While the Doors Are Closed: The Art Self(ie) at Home
This is an excerpt from Polly Adams’s larger thesis portfolio titled “Enter Through the Gift Shop: Designed Objects, Images, and Identity in New York City’s Art Museums.” It is a part of the Class of 2020’s graduate thesis presentation “Statements from Isolation.”
A Brave New World
While most of the world has screeched to a halt during the COVID-19 crisis, the human need to be intellectually and emotionally stimulated most certainly has not. The demand for entertainment and education is heightened every day that the doors to the world’s biggest cultural institutions are closed; and art museums are creating, producing, and sharing content like never before. Like most industries that rely on in-person interaction around entertainment and education, “surfing the web” has taken on a whole new meaning for the art museum. A tsunami of Zoom webinars, live streams, 3-D virtual tours, and social media hashtags has been unleashed online with the hope that there is audience interest to ride the wave.
In hot spots like New York City, the global epicenter of the crisis, the sudden shutting down of a vibrant arts and culture scene that relies on tourism has raised some specific questions about what happens next. New York, after all, has long been a different kind of epicenter. The pull of the city has brought a reliably steady stream of devoted visitors from around the globe to come pray at the network of famous art museums and galleries as a cultural Mecca for more than a century. For famous museums and collections that heavily rely on tourism and sense of place as part of their allure, this new online engagement also needs to meet the mark in another way that has long been expected of these institutions but perhaps never demanded so explicitly — the ability to bring the experience home.
Amidst the crisis, art museums are forced to negotiate the boundaries between physical reality and a virtual one, in which the online means of re-creating and representing the world we left behind often leaves something to be desired. The tension between exhibiting fine art in nontraditional ways and the standards put in place by cultural institutions is seen in every output, from lengthy live-streamed events to choppy virtual tours. However, the idea that something might be left to be desired in this scenario has actually been beneficial to museums historically — if there was nothing left to be desired from a supplementary online experience, there may not be a value in going to visit the museum at all.
While museum professionals attempt to engage their audiences remotely through unfamiliar mediums, the ways in which individuals attempt to evidence their relationship to museums is navigating radical change as well. When one visits the museum in person, the notion of taking some evidence away from the experience has simply become part of the ritual — instinct, even. Online, however, the seduction of popping into the museum store or staging a photo op isn’t quite the same. When the standard means of taking the experience home are unavailable, the expectations around evidencing a cultural experience start to change, too.
The Art Selfie, Repositioned
When art museums are open, the images captured within them can take several states, but often have one common purpose — to capture the experience and extend its consumption through time. The last decade in particular has seen the rise of the “art selfie,” or a self-portrait in the presence of art, and its evolution alongside its favorite platform, social media. On a camera roll, these photographs stand to re-create a memory or represent a particular moment for the owner, perhaps even embodying personal meaning as a souvenir of sorts.
The notion of capturing the moment might have pure intentions. But, in the context of social media, photos taken at the art museum and posted online seem to be less about encapsulating a moment for personal consumption and more about making sure others know that it happened at all. Widely encouraged and facilitated by art museums themselves, the phenomenon of art selfies in general reveals that the experience at the art museum has been commodified, and that evidence of a visit alludes to cultural wealth that the museums are quick to advertise online.
The institutional weight and its many followers are highly coveted by the socially savvy.
Whether it’s about status or simply ensuring their profile gets more views, getting an image re-posted is often the goal of many who take photos at the art museum. Proven to be a successful means of audience engagement long before the reality of stay-at-home orders, other museum-instigated social media campaigns built on guest-generated content have all but taken over the grids of New York’s famous art institutions. Hashtags like #MetMoment and features like geotagging locations to posts have been incentivizing guests to capture and share their personal experiences in the galleries long enough for the act to feel fairly natural.
While the most famous museums are busy orchestrating campaigns to instigate audience participation, audiences are still doing what they have been trained to do — play their part — on their own terms. Outside the physical context of the museum, audiences are starting to recover more power as the creators of their own imagery and values juxtaposed to those of the art museum online. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s creation and promotion of the #MetTwinning hashtag has shown an evolution of this pattern — in sharing a curated selection of favorites to live on an institution’s Instagram page, famous museums like the Met have added incentive for users to arrange pieces at home based on a familiar exchange of value that has gone, for lack of a better word, viral.
From Greek statues to pop art and beyond, tens of thousands of images have appeared under the initial hashtag for the phenomena, #betweenartandquarantine. In creating elaborate setups in common living spaces that re-create the composition of a famous work, individuals are no longer placing themselves alongside great art but within it. Some images are made by professionals, who happen to be coincidentally equipped with studio lighting and props. But many of the most humorous and thought-provoking ones are often the skillful works of art-loving laymen.
The museum primarily rewards these efforts through sharing them and, in turn, endows these highly personal images with more value through their institutional stamp of approval. But these images might actually bring more intimate rewards to their makers on their own. The value in taking selfies in the art museum is traditionally in touch with status and societal value based on location, perhaps more than anything. Anyone can find an image of van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (obverse: The Potato Peeler) (1887), but not everyone will take the time to physically travel to be in front of the iconic piece, or take a photo alongside it to prove it. Now, without the possibility of being there in person, anyone can enjoy a high-resolution image online, but not everyone will take the time to re-create one.
Ultimately, what gives these re-creations more meaning is their place at home. Intimate settings and elaborate planning have remade the art selfie deeply meaningful again. Families gather and spend days planning out sets, making costumes from their closets, and composing the perfect re-creation. Those on their own painstakingly arrange backdrops and precariously set their phones and cameras at the right angle. One thing every participant in these challenges does have in common, though, is that they really are looking at the images available online from museum collections in a new way. Rather than for a simple love of art, they pore through masterpieces in an effort to find a piece of themselves that they might be able to capture on camera.
These images have formed a living archive of evidence that some good can come from isolation and the creativity it fuels. The distance put between museum audiences and famous collections might have, in fact, brought them a lot closer. Just as a postcard or personalized item like a notebook or fridge magnet might re-create an image that the owner bonds with over time, these individually made images may create even stronger bonds for their makers. But, unlike selfies taken in the galleries, re-creations made at home stand to memorialize a more intimate connection with the museum that remains without the ability to be there at all. In the end, there’s only one thing more enticing than the pull of an open door in a reality of closed ones — the formal invitation to walk in, take something from inside, and to make it one’s own.
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