Why Going Viral Isn’t Always a Good Thing

I love the internet. It’s jumbled and weird and mind-numbingly vast. It’s also the source of my employment. (Thanks, internet!) But I’m also worried about the internet — specifically the internet and art.

In Ben Valentine’s post yesterday, he talked about the failure of social practice art to represent itself and get noticed online and in the media. He argued that social practice artists “could do well to embrace the idea of spectacle into their practice or their work will fall to obscurity,” and went on to list, as a shortcoming, the fact that “[s]ome of the most famous Social Practice works barely conjure up any specific or powerful image to remember.” The reason for this is that “the internet is a global space that emphasises quick interaction and digestion of information.” People want things that they can read or scan and understand in seconds.

This last part is, of course, completely true. Sure, you can point to the resurgence of long-form journalism as a point for the other side, but mostly, the internet and its main driver, social media sharing, are designed for quick consumption. As Ben astutely points out, complicated, process-based and often local social practice projects are not.

“Artists don’t need more pressure to make things louder, bigger, more viral, more marketable, more sensationalistic.”

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if that conflict really matters. Ben’s argument is that having a greater online presence will help these projects get noticed more by the media, which in term could help them grow and possibly also aid in achieving their political demands. I suppose these things aren’t necessarily not true … but in addition to questioning that level of faith in the power of media, I find myself asking: should we be encouraging artists to mold their non-internet projects to a form they’re not meant for, a medium that we’ve all agreed often bypasses complexity in favor of simplicity? In other words — and channeling Jaron Lanier a bit — should we encourage artists to reduce their art?

I realize that marketing and image building are not necessarily the same as art itself. And some people may tell me I’m being naive in resisting the pressure to brand and market oneself on the web. (I have a bad track record on this: I joined Twitter very late, and I don’t yet have a personal website.) But I maintain that telling social practice artists they need to “embrace the idea of spectacle” or conjure up a “powerful image” is a dangerous road to go down.

Not long ago, one of our writers speculated on the art-fair-ification of the art world and its effect on the actual work being produced: “No one really knows for sure how it is effecting what art gets made and shown and consumed, but I’d bet the art fair climate favors louder, more sensational forms of expression.” Peter Schjeldahl, in a recent piece for The New Yorker, made a similar observation:

Whereas artists once ruminated between solo shows, typically held every two years, they may now toil to provide fresh material for several fairs a year. The effect on their creative process is hard to gauge, but it can’t be salubrious. If there’s an art-fair style, it’s a gift-store spin: cute, colorful, bright, and shiny, with attitude. It says, “Buy now!”

And then we have Kyle Chayka’s piece at the Creator’s Project discussing how going viral has changed art. When I read Chayka — “Should work be designed to go viral, in the same way that the Old Spice Guy campaign was crafted to be a YouTube sensation? Has a work failed if it fails to go viral?” — I wanted to yell, quite loudly but to no one (or everyone) in particular, “No!”

Artists don’t need more pressure to make things louder, bigger, more viral, more marketable, more sensationalistic. They already face plenty of that. Just because the internet, or the art fairs, or what have you, encourages this type of work doesn’t mean we — art critics, art writers, art populi — need to agree. Just because the internet hasn’t naturally created a space for long, in-depth contemplation doesn’t mean we can’t try to carve out and create one.

I do, in fact, think part of this is on us. If we want the media to cover social practice, then we, the media, should write about social practice. If we want to learn about and promote interesting, meaningful projects, we must seek them out. And to do that, we may have to dig. We may not find them on the internet but rather through meeting actual people.

Vito Acconci hung out at Pier 17 every night for a month, and all we have to show for it is this composite of papers and photographs. (image via leslielohman.org)

In a funny way, the internet is bringing us back to an incredibly old-fashioned definition of art — art as image, as aesthetic object (although with less object-hood and aura this time around), as something you can see and easily judge. That’s by and large what art was until the 1960s or 1970s, when process and action became part of, if not the whole of, the work. Standing in an abandoned pier every night and telling visitors your secrets, as Vito Acconci did in 1971, doesn’t make for a great image. Even when you do get good documentary photos, it requires a lot more explanation and text to tell the whole story (see: Pace’s Happenings show earlier this year). This doesn’t mean these aren’t great art projects. It’s just that process doesn’t go viral.

comments (0)