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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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This Paper attempts to acknowledge a very current trend in the nature of consumption and patronisation of contemporary art in India Today. Focusing on the potential influence of social media in the consumption of art and drawing upon parallels between the art market's behaviour locally in the past and more prevailing global trends.

In today's day & age go inescapability from a social media footprint, It's of little doubt that art has been vastly transformed as well. As Jennifer Sokolowsky writes for the Seattle times[1], In recent years social media has had a profound impact on art Institutions and visitors alike - in Seattle and elsewhere - influencing not just the marketing but also the creation and curation of art.

She presents Yayoi Kusama's ”Infinity Mirrors” as an example which when opened at Seattle art museum in early 2017, images of the artist's avant grade, eye catching installations began marking  presence on social media feeds all around town. As Kusama's selfie-friendly works populated Instagram and Facebook feeds all over the city, the exhibit quickly became the ultimate FOMO (”fear of missing out”) visual arts event of the summer, selling out the 130,000 odd available tickets.

Kusama's works which combines dramatic, extremely photographable imagery, immersive experiences and perfect selfie opportunities, are seemingly made bespoke for this Instagram age, even if the were largely created much before social media was created. Exhibitions of her work have received record footfall [2] around the world in recent years.

Catharina Manchanda, the Seattle Art Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art acknowledges the role social media played in the popularity of the Kusama exhibit[1], “Social media can be an incredible tool for generating excitement about an exhibition if it captivates people's imagination” Manchanda said, in a way that advertising or other museum-led communications may not be able to do.

“If a friend is saying, ‘You have to go see this exhibition, it's amazing,' that's more compelling to me than a billboard,” said Ingrid Langston, communications manager at Seattle's Frye Art Museum[1].

Beyond only raising attendance and awareness, social media is also being used to more directly curate and create art. In 2014, The Frye hosted an entire exhibition called #SocialMedium which displayed the most 'liked' of the museum's collection from across various different social media sites along with names and comments from the nearly 4,500 that voted. This Strategy payed its dividends when the Frye's Instagram followers increased by 349%, Facebook page like increased by 86% and twitter followers increased by 25% over the previous year. A significant social media presence helps the museum in its mission said Langston.

The popularity of sharing on social media has affected the modern experience of visiting a gallery, traditionally art institutions frowned upon the idea of visitors photographing the exhibit, largely due to copyright concerns, today it is the exception rather than the norm to not click a few pictures when attending a show[1].

Brad Troemel writing for the The New Inquiry explores artist's adaption to this new social scenario[3], ”Visual artists, poets, and musicians are releasing free content online faster than ever before” he says. ”There is an athleticism to these aesthetic outpourings, with artists taking on the creative act as a way of exercising other muscle groups, bodybuilding a personal brand or self-mythology, a concept or a formal vocabulary. Images, music, and words become drips in a pool of art sweat, puddling online for all to view.” These aesthetic Athletics he says are a result of art's new mediated environment where creators compete for attention online amidst staggering quantities of information. Artists using social media have altered the idea of a 'work' from a series of individual projects to one extended broadcast of one's artistic brand as a recognisable identity in a process of ongoing self-commodification.

As Marshall McLuhan claimed in his The Medium Is the Massage[4]:

Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience coexist in a state of active interplay.

Media theorist and founding director of the Institute of Network Cultures Geert Lovink discusses in his book 'Organisation after Social Media' [5]

Today psychopathology reveals itself ever more clearly as a social epidemic and, more precisely, to be a socio-communicational one. If you want to survive you have to be competitive, and if you want to be competitive you must be connected, receive and process continuously an immense and growing amount of data. This provokes a constant attentive stress, a reduction of the time available for affectivity

In this new attention economy, there is more value in being often seen than remaining in the shadows, particularly when the publicity is free & there is essentially an infinite availability of a copy of the digital good for everyone.

Instead, the artist's personality becomes the malleable good, social media attention can be easily translated into other sources of income from goods and service like books, prints or lectures. If the value of a masterpiece was in its timelessness & artifice specificity, the Aesthelete' aim is to exist as largely as they can in the finite space and time they can lay claim.

An example of Indian artists exercising this aesthetic athleticism to transcend the virtual and gallery space is young Indian artist Sarah Naqvi, an extremely popular figure online, with websites after blogs very eager to associate and provide a platform for her to voice her approach toward tackling the issue of body image, especially that of women. Her work consists of sewn body parts installed in a butcher shops setting and embroidered depictions off the female nipple or bleeding vagina blatantly inspired by artist Sally Hewett. Shilo Shiv Suleman is another fitting example and a guiding beacon in the discussions surrounding body image and self love. The ever popular 'Inktober' that encourages volunteering participants to sketch every day, for a month, off a common prompt is another instance of widespread 'aesthetic athleticism'.

While the current and growing affect of new media social activity on contemporary art may not be blatantly obvious to the passing eye, one can easily make a case for what seems to be an inevitable cycle upon drawing parallels with the 'liminal boom period' of the Mumbai art market in 2005-2008, where the ill-effects were realised with remorse in retrospect[6].

Author Olga Kanzaki Souudi in his paper[6] dwells into the intricately explicit nature of the art market in India a decade ago focusing on cause and aftermath of the often referenced boom period of 2005-08, when a growing group of wealthy individuals began investing In art for the profits driving prices unrealistically high until they crashed with the global stock market.

Of attending gallery openings and similar events for a research project, Souudi says many people told him, only half-jokingly, that they see the same people nightly at such events, indicating a circuit that allows for ongoing, overlapping conversation, underlining this world's limited contours. The same group of people meeting repeatedly at parties in galleries and art fairs overseen by private security and accessed by invitation only. These gatherings were where the players in Mumbai's art world enact their public persona. It was a performance space where one displayed one's pedigree, patronage, dress & comportment. Such fine distinctions regarding behaviour, membership and trends constitute 'status defining institutions' like the art worlds[6]. These events foster a class of elite tastemakers bound in social and ideological cohesion.

The Author goes on to ask Mumbai's artists, critics and dealers why Indians buy art, he was met with responses in disappointment. While serious long term collectors and genuine appreciators of good art were locally scarce, a large portion of the consumers were simply not. For most, it was a matter of purchasing immediate status. This 'average' Indian buyer is paradigmatically exampled by the 'businessman' who while possessing sufficient financial capital lacks cultural capital. The works of art themselves are symbolic capital, through the possession and accumulation of which material evidence of personal taste and distinction can be displayed. Accordingly taste can enable belonging to an imagined community, where the dichotomy of taste articulates who does and doesn't belong to a particular group, is this case the art world.

The 'uncultured art buyers' desire to mingle with the exclusivity of the art world is made easier by social media's underlying promise of the 'rate/comment/subscribe!' culture[3] is that consumers can engage in a more direct form of interaction with and acknowledgment by the artist, eventually becoming an element in the Artis's process itself, thereby solidifying a belief of co-creation and a closer sense of identity with the work that may not have been possible earlier otherwise.

Nitin, an art critic from mumbai is quoted in Souudi's paper as saying ”People (artists) with no historical validation were selling for the same money as ancient chola sculptures. People (buyers) had no idea what they were doing. It's a lot like nineteenth-century Indian collectors, maharajas, the stuff you can find in palaces today - paintings, statues - the stuff they bought was mostly junk, they had no taste. None of it has retained its value, because it has no historical significance. You have to ask,'does this have a place in history?'- because that is the ultimate arbiter of value in the long run.”

But these buyers cared little of timelessness and ultimately unquantifiable values. The goal was to see return on investments. While the value of artwork generally appreciates with the artist's age and experience, this was not the case during the 'boom', numerous articles reflect Nitin's description, of youngsters taking cues from other new artists, barely their senior who had just made it big in the market and expecting lakhs of rupees for their work. ”Ostentation and greed thus infected artists as well, implying total complicity in profit making.” American & European art worlds by contrast are largely distrustful of art auctions, due to their fiscal volatility and also a prevailing sense that selling art to the highest bidder is 'immoral'[6].

Given the art world's evidenced eagerness to partake in the exercise of making money, it's the fair to say that notion of aesthetic athletes will also be warmly welcomed without precautionary skepticism. The filtered, customised and selective nature of social media data we receive however, is the basis of the most significant information epidemic of this generation, fronting significant hurdles in any attempt at an unbiased discourse of socio political issues  as Jay Van Bavel from New York University explores in his research, focusing on the political scenario in the United States, on how allegiances can interfere with analytical thinking [7].

When Counsellor to the president of the United States, Kellyanne Conway coined the term ”alternative fact” to defend Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false claim that Trump's Inauguration drew record attendance was easily disproven with photographs. Yet, Conway and other Trump supporters at large cling to this altered reality ?

Political opponents have long held opposing views, but that was a  difference in analysis of the same fact, critics argued [7]. But, if now, the two sides couldn't even agree on facts, what hope is left for productive debate ? The neural networks that make us feel good to belong to an ”in group”and cause pain or fright when new facts that contradict our core believes come up, may be as old as humanity itself, Van Bavel says [8]. It seems that we've always maintained an impulse to accept evidence verifying one's own world views while shunning that which differs.

About a decade ago in Mumbai during the peak of the art market boom, the tasteless 'buyer' was blamed for the collapse of art world norms, specifically in terms of how art was to be patronised and appreciated. His/her ”uninitiated eye lacks familiarity and knowledge of the object of contemplation and its context, and thus its enjoyment is 'aesthetic perception reduced to simple aisthesis,' as opposed to the 'delight procured by scholarly savouring'”.

This oncoming shift in the art world will not only propagate difficulty in meaningful, productive, informed and empathetic socio-cultural debate, It may very well lead to an unintentional dilution of 'truly good' art only to be regretted in retrospect.

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