There are people who take pictures of the “Mona Lisa,” and then there are people who stand at the back and mockingly take pictures of people taking pictures of the “Mona Lisa” before quietly wading to the front of the crowd to stare contemplatively into her eyes. As a writer who came up as an art critic, I’m quite familiar with the latter group; in fact, I’ve been one of them. It’s a group defined by a certain smugness—a performed assertion that there are right and wrong ways of interacting with artwork, and they are in the right. Among this special club of art enthusiasts, no one would ever be caught snapping a selfie inside a museum.
In the past five or so years, as Instagram’s influence has skyrocketed, many industries have had to invest in its visual economy, making sure that they have a presence on the platform that will grab people’s increasingly occupied attention. Not least of those is the museum world. Ever since Random International’s dramatically photogenic “Rain Room”—an installation in which faux rain falls everywhere except for on the visitor—drew shockingly large crowds when it debuted in London in 2012 and everywhere it traveled after, it has only become increasingly clear what the people really want: a photo op. And museum administrators have gradually been trying to adapt: Exhibition press previews now no longer only host critics, but Instagram influencers as well; exhibitions are subtly advertised for their photo-friendliness; and museums have started holding Instagram challenges.
But 2017 was the year that, arguably, it all came to a head. Less than a week after “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Rooms” opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington in February, an alleged selfie-taker tripped and smashed a glowing, polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture in the famous mirrored installation, of which there are more than 47,000 hashtagged photos on Instagram. This wasn’t the first time that a museum-goer has broken a piece of art, but considering that Kusama’s dazzlingly surreal installations are notoriously popular backdrops for selfies, the story quickly made headlines—framed, implicitly, as the peak of a photo-sharing-induced frenzy that would clumsily crash the precious art world to the ground if not stopped. (It didn’t help that in July, a video of a woman toppling $200,000 of artwork at LA’s 14th Factory went viral.)
Later this year, New York’s perpetually sold out Museum of Ice Cream—a pink, sprinkles-laden immersive playscape and prime selfie destination—went on tour to Los Angeles and San Francisco. (It’s currently finishing up 2017 at Art Basel in Miami.) And when in the Bay Area, the “museum” popped up not far from a similar multicolored photo-booth and art installation hybrid called The Color Factory. Tickets for both—which cost upwards of $30—sold out almost immediately, and the Color Factory eventually had its dates extended due to popular demand. For many inside the elite club of art purists, the new phenomenon of Instagram-ready art(-like) experiences was cause for opinionated Facebook posts. This was a confetti-covered, perfectly-lit canary in a coal mine, my artsy acquaintances cried online; art appreciation as we know it would soon die out for good.
Or as LA Times art critic Christopher Knight told Wired in a story on the rise of the “made-for-Instagram museum,” “These manufactured entertainments aren’t significant art exhibitions any more than a Chuck E. Cheese arcade or the Block of Fame at Legoland. They're just snobbier.”
In late September, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art began advertising for their current retrospective of seminal photographer Walker Evans. Part of their marketing campaign included a sponsored Facebook post calling Evans the “Father of Instagram”— which appears to have since been deleted. As one might expect, the post drew ire from many familiar with Evans’ work. Two Bay Area art critics posted screen shots of the ad to their Facebooks with exasperated captions calling out the museum for trying to appeal to Museum of Ice Cream patrons. Fellow artists and writers chimed in to agree that the campaign was condescending to SFMOMA's audience. One commenter even wrote that seeing people take selfies in front of art makes him want to punch them.
To be clear: Walker Evans was not the creator of Instagram, and the post was farfetched to the point of being potentially misleading—surely, embarrassing. (The museum appears to have abandoned that messaging in their marketing, although the press campaign around the show still includes an Instagram scavenger hunt and contest.) But there’s a veiled disdain that appears to be lurking under such anti-museum-selfie sentiments, one akin to that which compels people to mock the crowds in front of the “Mona Lisa.” In some ways, both are realized as active resentment towards consumers (and producers) of mass culture.
This reaction may relate to a fear that these consumers will corrupt the sacred museum space and erode the race-, class-, age-, and gender-informed distinctions that invite some people in and keep others feeling unwelcome. This resentment could be operating on a semi-subconscious level, like an implicit bias; the subtle surge of superiority that makes a video of a young, iPhone-toting woman knock over a row of sculptures both cringe-worthy and satisfying for some.
The art world relies on preconceived notions of what it means and looks like to be "cultured," which provide a rubric for determining where various people belong on a social hierarchy, with the most cultured set at the top. Some people have spent most of their lives amassing knowledge in order to climb that ladder. And part of the aggravation towards the normie take over of the museum appears to be an anxiety over that rubric being disregarded and replaced by another social points system: Instagram likes.
That’s not to say that art viewers don’t have an Instagram problem. Kara Walker proved that in 2014, when she exhibited footage if the audience at her hugely popular installation at the former Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn earlier that year, where attendees photographed themselves pretending to play with the nipples and vulva of her 75-foot tall naked anthropomorphic mammy sculpture meant to reflect on black stereotypes. The extent to which attendees are bent on photographing artwork can surely intimate that they’re not actually interested in understanding what it means, or why it was made.
But people not only visit these blockbuster shows to Instagram, they go because of Instagram. As internet icons such as The Met’s social media manager Kimberly Drew and The Jewish Museum of New York’s director of digital JiaJia Fei have both proven, social media—and Instagram in particular— are crucial for engaging contemporary audiences with art, and seeing a shared photo is now one of the top reasons that people become enticed to visit an art exhibit.
It’s also worth noting that The Cosby Show’s inclusion of black artists’ work in their plots and sets in the 70s was a bolster to the Black Arts Movement —if not financially, at least culturally. And Kimberly Drew’s Black Contemporary Art Tumblr has employed similar channels of circulation to expand the emerging dominant canon of contemporary art, one reblog at a time. In other words, contemporary and mass media has long been a tool for people outside the insular art world to take part in curating what’s at its core.
In a 2016 TedX talk, Fei she describes the museum world’s apprehension toward social media as “the fear of reproduction, the fear of copyright, the fear of what’s gonna happen if we allow our information to go online and be disseminated,” which opens up a risk of losing the authority to define the art historical narrative—because despite the years of research undertaken by professional curators, their work becomes eclipsed online by amateur photos of artwork that are often mislabeled or cropped.
Fei’s argument is that by embracing online visibility and making institutions’ research and images widely available, museum curators can actually “reclaim [their] job as the authority and as the expert within this Google world view.”
As far as museums go, we’re experiencing an undeniable shift in that direction. But so many members of art circles—despite issuing frequent complaints that people don’t go to museums enough these days—are launching critiques of increased technology-use and shifting curatorial priorities that (either intentionally or not) also function as arguments against inclusion of the less art-savvy.
Ironically, if no one was feverishly gathering around the “Mona Lisa,” I predict that the art world would be just as aggravated: The powerful myth of the masterpiece, which the industry elite have until relatively recently had the sole privilege of defining, is the foundation of their status. Yet if hoards of museum-goers didn’t buy into it enough to whip out their phones, the “Mona Lisa” today wouldn’t be much more than some paint on a canvas.