The Perils Of Social Media In The Art World

This article was originally published on Hong Kong art media CoBo Social on 28 May 2021.

In this age of accelerated digital connectivity, galleries, museums and more have found ways to link accessibility and community building with image making, productivity and financial sustainability, akin to the influencer economy. However, there are major repercussions to these developments, specifically in the art world during its ongoing pandemic-induced technological revolution.

Social media, already a predominant part of our lives in the 21st century, seemed like an inevitable answer to the art world’s need to connect with one another during the ongoing global pandemic, as everyone muddled through varying stages of lockdowns, travel and social restrictions.

According to the Artsy Gallery Insights 2021 Report, carried out in October 2020 across 1,753 gallery professions, social media replaced art fairs as the third most successful way for galleries to sell art in 2020 due to COVID-19, moving up from sixth place in 2019.

Art advisors used the platform to help better connect with interested buyers during this time. London’s Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair recently launched an art advisory campaign inviting people to post photos on Instagram of their physical spaces in need of artworks, tag the fair and use the hashtag #findartthatfits. Fair organisers would then respond with suggestions of artworks from their portfolio.

Instagram is also becoming a go-to spot for online exhibitions by the likes of Freeze Magazine and Guts Gallery, with works on display using Instagram Stories or the grid.

To be fair, Instagram was a major contender in the art world even before COVID-19, becoming “the world’s new big art dealer” within a decade, often “used to spark interest in sales and helps artists and galleries to grow international brands.”

However, during the first year or so of the pandemic, new social media apps such as TikTok and Clubhouse have gained immense popularity worldwide, with the latter blossoming fivefold in users in the first half of 2021, receiving quite a bit of interest in the art world, and becoming associated heavily with the rise of NFTs.

Launched in April 2020, Clubhouse is intended as a “buttoned-down but professional communication platform” with various online rooms that provide space for discussions. The app stands out mainly because nothing on it can be recorded by users. Also, its audio-only medium attempts to eliminate the need for a polished appearance while allowing for multi-tasking as users can leave and enter rooms without fuss anytime. There is also a sense of exclusivity as it is an invite only app but not tediously so like Raya, the A-list dating app that is now a celebrity news fixture.

Controversial art collector Stefan Simchowitz started his own clubhouse on the app called Simco’s Art Club last year, providing discussions about art, Q&A with the audience and a speakeasy. He is certain that Clubhouse will be the next social media phenomenon.

However, between rooms discussing NFTs and “demystifying the secondary art market,” Clubhouse, like other social media platforms today, only seems to be engendering failings in contemporary public discourse. For one, social media amplifies “potted thinking” which involves the habit of “using words repeated parrot-fashion…when we start talking in slogans that have no thought or consideration behind them at all.”

Social media users are essentially looking through a glass darkly on a daily basis, where image and reality are separate worlds. For example, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is currently facing Strike MoMA protests regarding controversial board members and other longstanding organisational issues. Yet, for the second year running, MoMA is the most-followed museum on social media seemingly thanks to its specific content strategies.

Another major issue of note, uneasiness around privacy, data leaks and data usage are becoming, if not already, one of the key concerns of our time and social media is the unreliable faucet. Clubhouse apparently makes “unencrypted recordings of the conversations that take place in its virtual rooms” which are supposedly deleted if nothing offensive happened in the conversation. This is eerily reminiscent of social media networks such as Facebook which began as an exclusive network and then began to amass users “into its giant data-hoovering machine”, before becoming an entity with influence larger than most governments, even subject to antitrust investigations.

While these social media apps endeavor to foster diversity and a safe space for all, users report otherwise, with such platforms constantly coming under fire for their inability to regulate hate speech or create an authentic sense of inclusivity.

After hundreds of artists spoke up about their ignored appeals to social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram about their works being removed, Don’t Delete Art, an advocacy group from New York, launched a guide to help artists avoid censorship online, providing advice on topics such as “shadowbanning” which is the removal of banned hashtags linked to “borderline content”.

The truth is, in the face of productivity and marketing campaigns, we have forgotten the main reason people flock to these social media apps to begin with—to connect with each other and to create a sense of community.

It is quite clear that our need to connect deeply and genuinely with one another, to fuel a sense of belonging, is timeless and has long been in existence. The pandemic, with its ensuing social and travel restrictions, has only exacerbated this human requisite. The art world, with its usual hectic social calendar of art fairs and biennales curtailed, is no exception, hungering for a sense of community and connectivity.

We think social media is the answer but it has mostly served to further ensconce us in our specific echo chambers while inhibiting the joy of quiet, the means to connect within and with the world around us in an authentic fashion, unmarred by ceaseless myth-making. We need to dig deeper to find better ways to connect with each other and there is no better time than now, as we craft new futures of depth and sustainability.

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