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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

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.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

32 replies on “Why Going Viral Isn’t Always a Good Thing”

  1. Going viral must by necessity only be seen as indicative of popular consumption rather than signaling phenomenons which serve as extremely pertinent to our global society. Believing that the internet nefariously pushes human beings into mindless busywork is a somewhat resonant though ultimately fallacious idea since it is just an empty vessel and an abstraction at that. Art writers more than ever should concentrate on becoming the absolute best purveyors of learned culture possible without falling into that deprecating trap of pandering to those illusionary concepts of modern culture that always and without fail make journalists appear naive, solipsistic, and utterly condescending.

    1. I can’t quite catch the tone of your comment, JD. Is the implication that what I wrote about is an illusionary concept of modern culture and that I come across in this article as naive, solipsistic and utterly condescending? Also, although I’m not quite saying the internet pushes people into mindless busywork (I think, more precisely, it shortens our attention spans), I’m curious why you think that idea is an empty vessel.

      1. The best conception of the internet is that of an empty vessel which users can fill and sap at will yet all of its supposed evil attributes are not granted innate to this system but exist as an individual’s notions and dreams of its complexity none of which have to be necessarily collectively shared.

        1. I think insisting that the internet is “an empty vessel that users can fill and sap at will,” at this point in time, is willfully ignorant. Sure, in theory it’s that, but for most people, in reality, the web is a space filled with websites, a number of which are extremely popular. The design of those sites and how we use and interact with them affects our behavior.

          1. The web strictly operates as a vast and digitized light transportation system for a myriad of interpersonal communication which should never be mistaken for the information relayed. Many individuals, when they upload work to the internet, wantonly attempt to reflect its speed and ubiquity in the content of their transmissions falsely thinking this to be the magic route for maximizing brainwash potential although the bastardization of collective human thought is all that really happens. This of course is in no way symptomatic of the web but of techno-capitalism and its lascivious plans to dupe the entire globe into fearing our very own and newly fabricated crass and paranoid couch potato culture.

          2. There is no such thing as “collective thought”. Humans, at least have not evolved this capability. Capitalism has no plans. it is a system, loosely speaking, and a phenomenon. Capitalists can have plans. What does “wantonly” mean in this context. “lascivious” means something close to “lustful”. Are you expressing some ideology? It is amazing how often ideologies give rise to verbosity and misuse of words.

          3. Collective human thought is forever generated and realized in every existential moment only to be repetitively witnessed in all the spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of the Universe including religion, philosophy, and of course our great and thriving metropolises for who alone amongst man has the unique power to self-generate articulate thought noting that the very units of structure upon which ideas are built i.e. words are what else but systemic and relative?

  2. Continuing on a similar comment I made on my post, thinking about successful social activist like Martin Luther King Jr, they often were doing projects on a grassroots level, but to really leverage your aims for change, the media must be engaged.

    I appreciate your fears around artists changing their work, and possibly in a negative way, for more attention, and I think that is a real concern for traditional artist practices. Yet, Social Practice artists, who are working for real changes whether community, environment, policy or whatever, they are placing their ‘aesthetics’ partially on functionality, on real outcome. If you want to enrich a community or create changes, you must reach an audience.

    I hope I did not say that Social Practice artists must completely change their work to fit the global media, but rather that coverage is a potential metric for many social practice artworks that often feels neglected. Why don’t more of these artists use Twitter or Facebook? Why don’t they hire an awesome photographer for a day to make some viral-able pictures for Tumblr, if they want to broaden a dialogue, there are ways to do that without jeopardizing the core work.

    Either way this article has made me think more about what I said, and I really appreciate your thoughtful reflections.

    1. Yes, you’re definitely right, and I didn’t really mean or want to totally attack what you said, because I definitely think there’s value in it. I agree with you that there must be a middle ground, where people can hire a photographer or use Twitter or Facebook, and that’s not the crux of the art or the project but simply a way to promote it. Your piece just really got me thinking, which is great, and then I ended up ranting a bit.

  3. “Some people may tell me I’m being naive in resisting the pressure to brand and market oneself on the web.”

    Branding is the red-hot iron of capitalism burned into your ass. The brand is proof that one has accepted corporate ownership and domination. Of course the livestock think there is no life outside the corral. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in the corral in the first place.

  4. Perhaps yet another reason to avoid going viral with Social Practice would be to avoid arms of the state that might interfere. L’insurrection qui vient

    It also seems, despite the allure of “broadening the dialogue,” there is danger inherent in adopting the tools of marketing and publicity, danger that the acts will be co-opted, or the actors think themselves powerless without sponsorship and commodification. Real changes will not be easily allowed by the powers that be. Ignorance to this is the true naivete. (and my FB link is true irony)

  5. It seems to me the tension you describe fits into a larger narrative about the ways artists have recently adjusted what they do in the name of self-promotion/self-preservation:

    1) Artist now cultivate their own mythology (i.e. artist statements), a process they were always a part of, but that in the last several decades has become a formal expectation before one even puts brush to canvas. Increasingly the artist plays creator, critic, and public relations representative. Today, where does one end and the other begin?

    2) Similarly, contemporary grant cycles have existed for, what, maybe three generations? They require artists seeking funding to invent the meaning of a work before it exists, turning practitioners from all media into primarily conceptual artists, as they propose work to fit the expectations, models, and agendas of their funders. (Whereas, arguably, the next closest model – the patron model – created a different sort of relationship that favored longevity rather than project-by-project attention.)
    Certainly both of those examples have changed how artists think about and approach creating new work, foregrounding ideas and concepts that are easily transmitted via a particular method of communication. Which is what an artist does when they make something go viral, right? All of these changes are simply how artists are adapting to the new ways society participates in – and eventually funds – culture.

    Frankly, I lament the way the two examples I gave have changed cultural output more than the “whizbangery” that comes out of attempting to go viral. Though, to leave this on a positive note, it appears to me (someone have stats on this?) that these changes have resulted in, per capita, more people participating in culture production than ever before, and this is unequivocally a good thing.

    1. These are both really good points. I think what you’re pointing to is the larger cultural trend, not just in art, of all creative people increasingly needing to have some type of branding/marketing/easily packaged take to sell. Until you achieve a high level of creative success, there’s not a lot of room to break the rules or create outside the system. Then again, maybe there is, but the condition for doing so if recognizing that you probably won’t get recognized or become famous.

      But how have these changes resulted in more people making culture? I’m not sure I see the connection there.

      1. To amend my last thought, I think my two examples (and the trend you address) are actually a result of more people making culture: more artists are entering the conversation, and these are new, efficient methods for sorting, understanding, and judging what they’re doing. Artist statements and grant language are both responses to increased opportunity: larger art markets (or at least more art school graduates) and more institutional funding opportunities that didn’t exist half a century ago.

        Or maybe I’m being utopian? Again, I’d want to see statistics before putting any money on this.

        1. I thus far have stalwartly refrained from attempting to brand myself as an artist or poet since truly the whole paranoid venture is but a wicked byproduct of preemptive techno-capitalism and its materialistic culture of speed and war. Everyone desires so urgently and so much to be recognized in the contemporary art world yet nearly all are completely afraid to face the stark reality of their own sad artistic ineptitude and unworthiness as bearers of culture which to me at least is highly disturbing and no doubt ironic.

        2. I think artist statements can be absolutely terrible measures for sorting, understanding, or judging what artists are doing … aside as a measure for how well they are learning to write artist statements. It actually seems crazy to me that they have become formal expectations at all, unless the focus is to find better artist statement writers. It makes sense for some art more than other art. Makes PERFECT sense for writers … and it makes art writers’ jobs easier too. Instructors’ jobs too, I’m sure. Convenient!

          Maybe that’s the point — but why, exactly? How much should be sacrificed for ‘efficiency’, and what use is this efficiency in the long run? Has anyone really benefited all that much? Is there an accurate measuring tool out there to track the microscopic fluctuations in general interest among the general public in contemporary gallery art (lasers, maybe)? I wouldn’t be surprised if artist statements and such have an effect of discouraging artists — especially some formally-trained/art-schooled artists — from chasing curiosities and unpredictable creative urges down holes and avenues that they can’t precisely articulate, predict, defend, or fully understand in the form of a few punchy paragraphs of attractive artspeak or a grant proposal or keep under deadline or whatever is required of it in such a closed institutional atmosphere. If they don’t know how to make it sound good persuasively enough, they may not bother digging deeper into it –whatever ‘it’ is — which sounds a bit like what you suggested in your first comment, Jason (“foregrounding ideas and concepts that are easily transmitted via a particular method of communication”).

          Art school is a risky and pricey enough endeavor when it’s just plain vanilla. I wonder if those statements go past being a supplementary material to clarify work and become more like something in the water. Whether someone finds that whole deal sinister probably depends on how much they’ve grown to enjoy, or at least accept, that taste in their water. Interesting to think about. To me it’s a bummer.

          “Artist statements and grant language are both responses to increased opportunity: larger art markets (or at least more art school graduates)….”

          I would stop, rewind, and freeze on that ‘more art school graduates’ part.
          I think its a big part of how such things have taken hold. It gets passed down very efficiently. And after all, few of those funding opportunities are likely to be trickling down past the class who paid for their art educations formally. That leaves out a great number of artists, I believe — it always has. All in all, it doesn’t feel like boom times in increased institutional funding opportunities on the other side of that fence.
          Throwing CV’s into the mix is another barrier too. That’s a lot of layers of paper for a field that can’t be defined with universal agreement and whose requirements are total fabrications.

          I agree with Jillian that not doing these marketing/packaging things runs the realistic risk of sacrificing recognition. Of course, that is already the case for the vast majority of artists anyway.

          1. that last part, chrism. getting recognized, much less becoming famous, is quite the long shot for whatever high percentage of artists you want to name [80%? 93%? 99.9%?] so why not follow your own predilections anyway? whatever the outdcome, you’ll be more engaged and satisfied.

          2. @JosephYoung:disqus Definitely, I agree. Of course, I don’t wanna give the impression that I haven’t held my nose and written my fair share of lousy artist statements when they were required. Filthy, filthy hands. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of 🙂

    2. I think these are pertinent observations on how the context affects practice, and reveals how funding particular public artists and not funding critical discourse furthers funders ‘goals.

  6. Hey Jillian, You should be careful or this post about the pressure and pitfalls (maybe that’s not the right word) of going viral might just go viral. How ironic would that be?

  7. I would like to make two observations not touched on here. One is that an important consequence of the NEA ‘s demise over the past thirty years has been the disappearance of art critics’ voices in journals once funded by the agency. These journals and others were vital to understanding the kind of social practice work made during the (mostly) 1970 and early 1980 decades. I think we hoped the internet approaches would provide substitute documentation and critical discussion, but marketing seems the dominant operative here. And the demise of public funding during the so called culture wars during the Reagan/Bush I era did have self-censoring reverberation still affecting our practice.

    Some artists seem to use the recent platforms effectively (Yoko Ono comes to mind ), but gossip and rumor seem to dominate media approaches more than either links to discussions or media for art practices themselves. I wonder about the cult of celebrity and its substitute for critical discourse given this history.

    Our strength as artists creating socially responsible work is to invite viewers to experience our imaginations at work, and I hope, their own. In a society where the dominant art forms include narratives which control viewer reactions frame by frame, creating space for the life of the imagination becomes a radical act.

    1. I love this and couldn’t agree more: “Our strength as artists creating socially responsible work is to invite viewers to experience our imaginations at work, and I hope, their own. In a society where the dominant art forms include narratives which control viewer reactions frame by frame, creating space for the life of the imagination becomes a radical act.”

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