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Fine art goes mainstream again

During my internship in one of the better-known museums in Munich, I was told that the most important thing nowadays is to find a magical way to somehow get as many visitors as possible. The museum apparently suffers from low visiting quotas, especially when it comes to young visitors. The goal of the institution is to broaden the horizons of the new generation (because it is the youth that will create our future), and of course to earn money. The thing is, I do not know if mere presence inside those four walls filled with art is the key to solving these problems. 

I had the pleasure of guiding the younger generations around the museum exhibitions. The tour was structured as a game based on Monopoly, because what is the way to interest someone (completely uninterested) in a canvas on which one can only see a stripe or a black square? Money! I guess. Not really, because after a half-hour Q&A and statements like “How much is this black square worth?! I could’ve done it better!”, the spark of interest disappeared. The meaning of contemporary art is, for the Ordinary Joe, unclear, even if he tries hard to understand it. And even for me, an art historian, a piece of butter sculpted by Robert Gober and sold for USD 2,285,000 at a Christie’s auction in New York in 2016, is an example of grotesque rather than contemporary art. The lack of understanding is often not a result of a low IQ, but rather of the non-practical function that art serves in day-to-day life. 


Robert Gober, Untitled, Executed in 1993-1994

Art from bygone eras works like a sleeping pill for the young visitors, partly due to the depicted scenes and figures from history and mythology – as we know, “the past is the past.” Alternatively, art can become a good comedy – for example, the art from the Middle Ages can become the source material for memes for web pages such as Classical Art Memes. The question that we have to ask ourselves is the following: what can we do to make art amateurs want to come to this almost holy place? I asked the group I was guiding why they did not like visiting museums. The answer, however unsatisfying, was true: “I don’t like to come here because the things here don’t interest me, I don’t look at them daily.” (Well… Me neither – I thought – That’s the point of the visit.) The solution for their lack of interest is someone like Kim Kardashian. The youngsters’ dream visit would look a bit like this: Kim K’s Instagram posts on the walls and glass shelves exhibiting a Yeezy collection. My ears heard an agreeing choir, my eyes rolled so far back they could see my brain. But as much as I wanted to take that Gerhard Richter off that wall and put it over their heads, now I know that they were right. Bang. It was Kim K who, among others, started the trend of taking pictures with artworks. To do that, you have to step your foot into a museum. Until now, the captured artworks have been contemporary, because they are Instagram-worthy – like Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama. A room filled with lights reflecting in the installed mirrors, so that it appears to be an enclosed galaxy within a room.

In the same spirit of the Instagram-worthy artworks is Rain Room by the art collective RANDOM INTERNATIONAL, which, as the title already unveils, is a room in which it rains. What is special about this room is that the rain stops when the visitor steps into it, enabling the visitor to snap a picture. The multitude of people wanting to take a walk in the rain without getting wet led to selling the exhibitions out, people standing in hour long queues and posting thousands of Instagram posts using the hashtag #RainRoom. Poland does not lack photos of such exhibitions either. Almost every other person has a picture taken in the installation “Między” by Stanisław Dróżdż, which is currently being exhibited at Mocak in Cracow. So, it can be said that the near “obligatoriness” of a visit to such an exhibition, influences the growing number of visitors, a bit due to FOMO (“the fear of missing out”), and partly due to the need to feel like a celebrity for one second. But all that glitters is not gold. I have the impression that artists are now pressured to create artworks which will fit into the Instagram aesthetics, and by doing so, to create a superficial “interest,” which is not what art is made for. 

2017 was a year when classical art became more apparent in mainstream culture – thanks to the music of Polish groups like Taconafide, who were rapping about Frida Kahlo and Leonardo Da Vinci, and also because of Taco Hemingway, who used the names such as Amedeo Modigliani and Stanley Kubrick on his new solo album Café Belga. Using those artists by a famous trend-setter could lead young listeners to google those famous creators, and maybe the search results could even spark a deeper interest in fine art. The Carters added another piece to the puzzle with the music video to their song “APES*IT,” which was shot at the Louvre by director Ricky Saiz from ICONOCLAST. In this music video, Beyoncé dances in front of Jacques-Louis David’s painting entitled Coronation, in which Napoleon Bonaparte crowns Josephine, making her his Queen – in the same way that Jay-Z made Beyoncé the Queen of his music empire. In one line, Jay-Z raps “We made it” while standing in front of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Some art historians specializing in postcolonial studies say that Géricault was supporting people of color during the debates about slavery in the early 19th century, which can be noticed in the imagery of the slave being on top of the compositional pyramid. The creative director knows about this symbolism, and so do the Carters. Unfortunately, having published a comment explaining the content of the video, I must conclude that our Ordinary Joe does not see its meaning. So, what is the result of this rising fake interest in art? I predict that the Louvre will have to fight off those “art lovers” coming dangerously close to the paintings, wanting to snap a selfie with a David or a Géricault, while still maintaining a lack of real interest in the subject matter. 

The popularisation of fine art by celebrities like Kim K through social media in general not only leads to masses visiting exhibitions of lesser known artists (at least in the mainstream), like Yayoi Kusama, but it also transforms the artist himself into a celebrity whose art is being bought by renowned galleries and museums, and whose art is produced just to be worthy of an Instagram shot. This leads me to the question whether this is pure interest or a form of extortion. If we treat museums as businesses, then the answer is yes, it is pure interest. But if we see them for what they are – temples of art and knowledge – then the instagrammability and superficial popularity demean the calling that these institutions have. Or had. Maybe we are not witnessing the democratization of art after all, but its capitalist exploitation instead?

Author: Karmelina Kulpa

Proofreading by:

Laura Maliszewska, Wiktoria Rybicka