When two hundred and thirty of the world’s leading art dealers convened for Art Basel Hong Kong last week, they took one major precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead of showing up in person, they set up their booths online. Clients were also physically absent, viewing major works by blue chip artists ranging from Jeff Koons to Lisa Yuskavage on computers and smartphones. For several days, artworks with price tags as high as several million dollars were available for purchase: the apotheosis of retail distancing, and a model for commerce that will likely be followed by major art fairs for the foreseeable future.
Individual galleries are also opening coronavirus-proof online viewing rooms, swiftly developing a parallel universe for art sales that rivals the quality of the virtual wings launched by the world’s leading museums. Even with the closure of physical exhibition spaces, Jeff Koons is not likely to file for bankruptcy anytime soon, nor will his gallerist, Larry Gagosian. For other artists, however, the situation is far more precarious. Many thousands will graduate this year without the BFA and MFA exhibitions that have customarily launched careers.
Why not give them the Art Basel treatment? That’s essentially the solution put forward by an Art Academy of Cincinnati adjunct professor named Benjamin Cook. Lacking the resources to build a dedicated website, Cook has improvised, adapting the online viewing room of choice for many struggling artists: Instagram.
Launched on March 13th, Cook’s Social Distance Gallery hosts BFA and MFA exhibitions that were supposed to take place in the physical galleries of schools where the students will soon graduate. The online gallery has already posted dozens of artists exhibitions featuring the work of emerging from institutions ranging from Duke University to Converse College. Several are added each day.
The genius of Cook’s project lies in its scale. Like Art Basel, it leverages overlapping audiences. Social Distance Gallery already boasts more than 17,000 followers, most likely reflecting the social networks of the participating artists, as well as the enticement of people broadly interested in emerging artists who have been given the opportunity to see many they would likely never encounter in person. (The gallery’s regional representation is especially impressive. There are artists attending schools in Arkansas and Wisconsin and Kansas, appearing next to people living in artistic epicenters such as California and New York. Although place may matter for these artists creatively, the geographic isolation that limits viewership is annihilated by erasing geography.)
As in the physical world, quality varies. Unlike the real world, Instagram makes quality difficult to assess because the experience of physical artifacts is mediated, and unlike a Lisa Yuskavage painting that bears some resemblance to those in museums, few but the artist’s own family are likely to have any physical point of reference .
Cook tacitly acknowledges this challenge in his own artwork. A recent series called Some Walls Are Made Of Bricks is designed specifically for Instagram. High-resolution scans of his paintings can be purchased to “hang” (or post) on a personal Instagram page, decorating it in a manner equivalent to how physical artwork has traditionally decorated people’s homes. Each work is limited to an edition of ten, and priced at three dollars (a fraction of the price of a Koons or Yuskavage). Cook sees his project as a way to binary binary distinctions between the physical and online worlds. “Rather than using catch-all ideas as scapegoats,” he writes on his website, “we should begin to look at how specific protocols, policies, ideas of data ownership, and threats that manifest online, can be approached with the same level of seriousness that we already offer problems of a physical nature.”
Although Cook certainly doesn’t solve the problem of making a living as an artist without access to a physical market, Some Walls Are Made Of Bricks does nominally show that conventional economic models can be adapted to unconventional circumstances provided that the unconventional gambit is internally coherent. There’s no reason why prices for Instagram art can’t be increased. (Matthew Barney’s limited-edition videos are worth a pretty penny.) The question is whether the legacy systems of the art market deserve to be preserved even if appropriately repackaged. Might the online-only mandate of life under COVID-19 instead be seen as a challenge to reconsider all parameters and even to reset the boundary conditions of artistic production?
There is a long and impressive history of art made specifically for the internet. In fact, for all of the admirable that major museums have put into going virtual, the most successful online exhibition right now is Rhizome’s retrospective of net art. Much of this work is interactive, using the tools of the period in which it was created, including browsers that must now be digitally emulated. This work satisfies one desiderium, namely that it is native to its online context. However another desirable quality is also suggested by the circumstances of social distancing, which are not likely to be limited to this given the likelihood of more pandemics in the future: the desiderium that the experience of online art also have an offline dimension, some sort of presence in our flesh-and-blood world. Ideally this will take place through interaction, counteracting isolation by facilitating connection with one another in relation to the planet we all share.
A website called the Concept Bank curated by the artist Frans van Lent, shows one way in which this can be achieved. The Concept Bank is essentially an online clearinghouse of instructions for performance artworks that can be carried out by one or more people, where the performers may be the only audience. In some cases, the works for multiple performers do not require physical proximity. Collective performance at a distance creates and reinforces liminal connection. And because the Concept Bank is online, it’s equally accessible to everyone.
Of course the Concept Bank isn’t making a living for any of the contributing artists or performers. (I’ve contributed work myself, and can vouch from personal experience.) That’s why systemic change must go deeper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just endorsed a proposal from the American Alliance of Museums for Congress to allot $4 billion to support nonprofit arts organizations as part of the anticipated $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, promoted on social media with the hashtag #CongressSaveCulture. The money is desperately needed. The Met expects to lose $100 million during its closure, and AAM predicts that 30 percent of museums may not have the resources to reopen.
Congress should provide the cash. (Culture is not a luxury but a necessity, a humanizing force all the more crucial in times of crises.) The funding should however also serve as a precedent for permanent large-scale governmental support of artistic creation and dissemination as part of a larger political shift toward greater support of public services. (Culture is especially necessary in a democratic society as a basis for collective decision-making and protection of minority interests. If the government pays politicians and spends money on elections, it needs equally to pay for the operating system that brings about consensus. Artists are at least as indispensable as governors and senators, and arguably more so as society emerges from the trauma of a global pandemic.)
There is nothing wrong with Art Basel per se, nor with the high-concept commodities manufactured by Jeff Koons. And artists such as those on the Social Distance Gallery Instagram page should certainly have access to the market, as Benjamin Cook is generously providing them, in order to sell their paintings and photographs. Tangible art will always have a place in our world, as will physical galleries and museums.
But at this moment there is a convergence of opportunity and necessity that can be met by approaches to art that have heretofore been marginal. The virtue of net art is in the network, and the most valuable concept presented by the Concept Bank is the concept of a concept bank, an electronic commons for conceptual connection with the potential for physical manifestation. The radical reappraisal of government spending and public needs under COVID-19 can bankroll these art forms. The future health of our republic depends on it.
Read Part I, Part II. and Part IV in this special coronavirus series on art in the age of COVID-19.