I want to kick off Digital Arts Week on The Creators Project by telling you a story about the struggle of a group of new media artists for acceptance by mainstream institutions. You’ll likely hear similar stories all week but this one is different. This one took place 150 years ago in Paris.
The 1860s was a time before the art market really got started. The sale of paintings in private galleries had existed since the 1830s, but it played a minor role in the art world. The chief support system for painters and sculptors was the state, in the form of the national academies. And, for the previous 140 years, the centerpiece of that system had been the annual Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Salon was a state-run juried art exhibition. It was like the Whitney or Venice biennials, but with the pop culture import of a blockbuster movie premiere and the national politicking of a war memorial design call for proposals.
In 1863 a number of hot shot young painters had their work rejected from the Salon. These controversial upstarts included Édouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler, forefathers of Impressionism, both of whom submitted works that are now considered major masterpieces. More than 3,000 works were rejected in total and so an uproar began.
In response, the officials opened a separate venue for this new generation called the Salon des Refusés. This “reject’s salon” was immediately swarmed over by the owners of the burgeoning art galleries. They gave this new work the basis of economic support that it had been denied by the national system. The private art market and modern painting were born together.
Today’s digital artists are like the proto-Impressionists of the 1860s. Their work is not just stylistically distinct from their peers in traditional galleries, but the economic model behind it is different as well. Their work is based on a disruptive open source ethic that values sharing and collaboration over sale prices and collectors.
Golan Levin and Kyle McDonald, Rectified Flowers.
“Today’s digital artists are like the proto-Impressionists of the 1860s. Their work is not just stylistically distinct from their peers in traditional galleries, but the economic model behind it is different as well.”
This week, The Creators Project will host a series of essays considering what happens when this new work collides with the existing gallery model. How will it become profitable? How will it integrate into the art historical canon currently associated with galleries and museums? I would like to preface that discussion with a word of warning and a call for radicalism.
It’s easy to think of the institutions that supported art throughout the 20th Century as natural or permanent. However, as the story of their birth shows, they are anything but. It wasn’t that long ago that the private sale of oil paintings was a shaky business model barely supporting a new medium. Throughout history, transformations in the economic support system for art have been associated with major changes in its format, meaning, and constituents. Rather than trying to imagine ways that this new digital art can harmlessly integrate into the existing system, we should try to anticipate and prepare for the inevitable disruptions.
In our preparations we should keep two things in mind. The first one is obvious and is already happening. Rather than just trying to integrate digital art into the existing gallery system, we should explore methods of support that are native to the new digital environment in which this art arises, whether that be Kickstarter, the App Store, decentralized open source collaboration, or anything else that comes along. We shouldn’t just think of these venues as a farm system for the “real” gallery world either, but try to make them into equal, first class institutions for art.
“Throughout history, transformations in the economic support system for art have been associated with major changes in its format, meaning, and constituents. Rather than trying to imagine ways that this new digital art can harmlessly integrate into the existing system, we should try to anticipate and prepare for the inevitable disruptions.”
Finally, though, as we celebrate and shape this disruption we shouldn’t await the destruction of existing institutions with unalloyed glee. Galleries and museums link us to the deep traditions of art, thousands of years of accumulated ideas about everything from perspective to power relations to god. Unless they establish a relationship to these traditions (even a relationship of opposition and resistance), digital artists’ work will be stunted and their disruption of the existing art world will impoverish the wider culture.
One hundred and fifty years after the Salon des Refusés another generation of artists finds itself perched between two support systems, one which doesn’t understand it and one which doesn’t quite exist yet. Let’s hope this times turns out as well as last time.
Greg Borenstein is an artist and technologist in New York. He’s currently a Resident Researcher at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and recently the author of Making Things See: 3D Vision with Kinect, Processing, Arduino and Makerbot from O’Reilly. You can also find him on Twitter.