The Role of the Art Gallery in the Digital Age

How has social media changed the way we see and interact with art?

“It isn’t so much the paintings themselves which I want to consider, as the way we now see them […] because we see these paintings as no one ever saw them before. […] If we understand why this is so, we’ll understand something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing

In 1972, John Berger made the argument that “the machine” (read: the camera) has changed the way we “see” art. Classical artists created works of art in a time period in history before the invention of reproductive technologies such as the camera. Now that images are readily captured and disseminated, technology has been able to decontextualize art, removing it from galleries and museums and repositioning it in places where it was never intended to be seen: “The camera reproduces [the painting on the wall], making it available in any size, anywhere, for any purpose” (Ways of Seeing 3:40).
Take the Mona Lisa for example, which is very likely the most looked at or widely recognized painting from the high Renaissance period. Even if you haven’t seen the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, you’ve seen a Mona Lisa replica. If you have seen the Mona Lisa in person, it’s likely that you saw the reproduction first, in a textbook, on the internet, or even on a kitschy fridge magnet or keychain. Your experience of the image or replica predates your experience with the original painting because ocular technology like the camera and the internet have made this image easily accessible and available.
Berger’s argument was about how technology displaces – or at least changes – art. He reminds us that the art gallery used to be the place where art was hung and admired. In today’s world of flicker, Facebook, and instant photo sharing technology, Berger’s insights are more apt than forty years ago; Images today are more easily accessible and reproducible than ever before. If the art gallery used to be the place where art was contained and contextualized, then what is the role of the art gallery today?
Though art galleries still exist, they’re becoming more museum-like than before; the art gallery is becoming a space where original artworks are reliced, but it’s no longer the only space where art can be enjoyed . Surfing the internet, one can look through thousands of photographs and paintings instantly via google images or photo sharing. Art has spilled over onto the digital world, begging the question, is the internet the new free and democratic art gallery?
Artists use social media image-sharing sites to create their own online spaces where art can be enjoyed. What’s more, artists are beginning to create their art for the purpose of digital and online contexts (graphic design and computer illustration being the best examples). These images are produced on “the machine” for “the machine.” Today, artists create images for the purpose of reproduction à la Andy Warhol. So while technology has shaped and changed the way we see art (as Burger suggested) it’s also shaped the way we create it. Today, artists produce and disseminate their art in exactly the form and context that was intended, returning to a time period not unlike the Renaissance.
What’s different about artists today, however, is that social media and information sharing have equipped them with the authority to curate their own galleries. No longer do artists rely on galleries to commission and display their works. Social media has cheapened the authority of the art gallery, robbing it of it’s ability to deem what is art and what isn’t – a move that has both broadened our definition of art and perhaps allowed for a more inclusive definition of artistry.