Culture Vulture

When art is collateral damage

Instagram is altering the way we look at and think about art, but there is still a place for pieces that are less 'Instagrammable'

I admit, I am guilty.

When in the presence of pretty art, I think, "How Instagrammable," and whip out my phone before I have a chance to truly appreciate it.

When I caught the Singapore Biennale 2016, An Atlas Of Mirrors, I did just that. When I visited the newly reopened Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, last year, I committed the same crime.

So when I heard about the Yayoi Kusama blockbuster exhibition opening at the National Gallery Singapore next week, my thoughts jumped to the polka dots that would soon flood my Instagram feed.

There is no doubt, when immersed in art that is easy on the eye, I become an Instagram fiend, hungry for that perfect shot.

Social media - in particular, Instagram - is altering the way we look at and think about art, whether we like it or not.

The question, though, is whether art and Instagram can co-exist.

People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them.

DR LINDA HENKEL, a cognitive psychologist from Fairfield University in the United States

Is this social-media platform the vehicle through which art will be marketed and introduced to a new, tech-savvy generation? Or will it trivialise art and, worse still, detract from the merit of artists who are not producing works of an Instagrammable bent?

Of late, Instagram has become the chosen medium of the visual- arts world.

Insurance company Hiscox's Online Art Trade Report 2017, released last month, showed that 57 per cent of art buyers use the platform most frequently.

In contrast, Facebook was favoured by 54 per cent of the 758 art buyers surveyed.

A week and a half ago, Instagram was abuzz with news of e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa's purchase of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for US$110.5 million (S$152.9 million) - a record price for an American artist.

He announced his purchase on Instagram (@yusaku2020), together with five photos of himself with the 1982 painting, Untitled. The post has garnered more than 19,000 likes.

His English post on Twitter had slightly more than 1,000 likes.

There is chatter, excitement and even dissent pertaining to his purchase on Instagram and, while it is not the most engaging discussion, the fact that there is some interest from the young selfie set is encouraging.

While Mr Maezawa poses with his Basquiat, the rest of us, who don't have US$100 million to spare, are not left out of the #artselfie trend.

Anybody can visit a museum and start snapping shots of art to bolster his cultural capital on Instagram.

At the same time, museums get much-needed publicity and their exhibitions become "Instagram- famous".

Wonder, the inaugural show at the reopened Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, attracted droves of visitors, who could not get enough of the giant rainbow constructed out of thread or the floor-to-ceiling stalagmites made of stacks of index cards.

In fact, the numerous photos that were making their rounds on social media and the countless reports on the popularity of the exhibition were what prompted me to attend.

Besides selecting art pieces that were photogenic - they were immersive, colourful and of considerable scale - the curators were also savvy social-media marketers who put up signs that said "Photography Encouraged", and people - myself included - even took photos of the signs.

Within six weeks of the exhibition's opening, The Washington Post reported that 176,000 people had visited. This was more than the average yearly visitor count of about 150,000 between 2011 and 2013.

The #artselfie trend is not something to be scoffed at if you want to get bodies through the door.

But Instagram can be more than just a publicity machine, it can be a medium for art in the digital era.

In 2014, artist Amalia Ulman uploaded images on her Instagram account (@amaliaulman) of her transformation from art student to LA "it girl" - even posting a photo of her bandaged chest after she had gone for breast-enhancement surgery.

But at the end of about five months, she revealed that the whole thing had been a hoax, a carefully crafted art project meant to question femininity as a social construct.

Some labelled it the first Instagram masterpiece and later, some of Ulman's 175 photographs were on display at the Tate Modern.

She may have pulled off the performative piece, but art and Instagram are not always so elegantly intertwined. More often than not, art is collateral damage in the age of Instagram.

One study showed that people who took photos of a work of art may not connect as deeply with it and are not likely to remember it, compared with someone who simply observed or appreciated the art.

The study, released in 2013, was done by cognitive psychologist Linda Henkel from Fairfield University in the United States, who set up an experiment in an art museum.

Individuals were led on a tour around the museum and asked to take note of certain objects and to photograph other objects.

When their memory of the objects was tested the next day, the results showed that the participants were less able to remember visual details of the objects they had photographed, compared with the objects they had observed.

Dr Henkel calls this the "photo-taking impairment effect".

"When people rely on technology to remember for them - counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves - it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences," she said. Her findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them," said Dr Henkel on the journal's website.


Perhaps that's why I tend to emerge feeling empty and largely unmoved by the art when I visit crowd-pleasing exhibitions.

I often shrug it off as one of those blockbusters curators favour when they want to bump up attendance figures.

But maybe I'm the one to blame.

I certainly have been to art exhibitions where I don't instinctively reach for my phone. At these relatively low-key exhibitions, I tend to scan the room, stop when a piece of art calls out to me, walk towards it to find out more before stepping back to look at it again.

So, maybe it's time to keep my mobile phone at home when I head for the Yayoi Kusama exhibition next week. Maybe that would help me circumvent the "photo-taking impairment effect".

That said, it would be a real shame if Instagrammability was a major criterion by which museums and art galleries decided which artists to feature.

Not all art photographs well, but these pieces also have value.

There is, no doubt, a need to use pretty art to lure young, new audiences, but they too must have the opportunity to be exposed to and challenged by different pieces, themes and aesthetics.

A diet of one type of food never worked for anyone - the same goes for art.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'When art is collateral damage'. Print Edition | Subscribe