Thursday, December 18, 2008

Internet as an Artistic Marketing Tool (With East/West Historical Anecdotes!)

For my final presentation, I wanted to reflect on my own impressions of the Shanghai art scene while integrating it with the art historical scholarship that I’ve practiced so far in my undergraduate career. As this class was highly experiential, drawing on numerous gallery visits and meetings with local artists, I have been forced to come out of my ivory tower to a degree and interact with a contemporary art scene in a way I have not before. In this exposure to contemporary art and media, I feel I have acquired a bit of a snapshot of the art scene developing around us. As it relates to our final project criteria, an exploration of how the Internet has affected our ever-changing contemporary art history, I am choosing to concentrate on one focused aspect of how the Internet has affected art. In my time in Shanghai, I have noticed several things about the art scene that really differentiate it from art I have been exposed to in the States: firstly, there is a distinct pluralism to the art here, there is not one central ethos that resonates across media and artistic disciplines, rather there are several influences cohesively creating a pluralist environment. You may recall I discussed this to some length in my midterm: where, speaking generally, the streets of Shanghai are dominated by a cultural pluralism: while the population itself is still overwhelmingly Han Chinese, the cultures the population embraces stem from many outside influences, most notably contemporary western aesthetics. Secondly, I have noticed the artistic community seems very interested in a populist sentiment, that is to say that it seems to be the aim of artists, galleries, and museums alike to appeal to the common man, to break out of the mold of high art appealing only to the literati. Thus, the Internet age affords the art scene a unique opportunity to propagate itself and to promote these two trends in the Shanghai art scene. The Internet is a medium through which these two sentiments are easily promoted, and, simply based on the globalizing principles of Internet and Internet access, are readily encouraged. Gone are the days when an artist needed the exposure of the Salon or the endorsement of the art critic to be successful: with the globalized internet age, artists, exhibitions, and galleries alike can promote themselves more easily than ever before in history. Today for my final presentation I would like to explore the effect the Internet and Internet age have had on the ability of artists to promote themselves. I will address these ideas from several perspectives: I will briefly touch on the history of how artists were able to display their works historically in the western art world, and how that evolved over time. Then I will examine how the institutions established in China in the years since the end of World War II led up to the Internet trend of self-promotion. Finally, I will look at some concrete examples of artist works on the Internet, through blogs and interactive media.

Throughout much of the history of western art, an artist gained employment and notoriety through patronage. The patron was fundamental in the development of art in Europe, where he served as a consumer and initiator of art. The origins of artistic patronage are inseparable from religious iconography: almost certainly until the Reformation, in which Protestantism led to a rise of iconoclastic art, it was a widely held belief that the purpose of art and art patronage was as a devotional object. Thus, a work was meant not only to glorify God, but also to serve as a form of worship for the artist and the patron. We therefore find, in many of these works dated around the time of the Early Renaissance, religious iconography that depicts patrons’ likeness juxtaposed against religious subject matter. So an artist generally did not have a choice of whom or what to paint; the content and execution of the work was dependant on the specific tastes and wishes of a patron.

In 1648 in France, Cardinal Mazarin established L’Academie des Beaux Arts, a school under government auspices intended to educate the most gifted artists in France, with the most promising graduates receiving royal commissions. To be successful as an artist in 17th century France, one had to attend the Academy and learn the strict academic standards deemed appropriate by royal curriculum. Nearly thirty years after the creation of the Academie, in 1673, the Academie held its first semi-public exhibition, known as the Salon Carré. The Salon from that point forward for the next two hundred years was the ultimate aim for any artist in France. In order to gain importance or recognition, one had to be displayed prominently in the Salon. Thus, artists made themselves known through academic shows, and only through approval from the conservative literati could an artist truly gain prominence in France (which, apart from Italy has been home to many of western art’s most treasured artists). When the Salon became public for the first time in 1737, the Salon became a competitive show in which a jury could award individual works for their merit, and the Salon became a spectacle of high culture that greatly influenced all high society involved. Over time, of course, there began to be a movement of artists who sought to gain recognition outside of the Salon and its standards. In 1863, the so-called Salon des Reufesés, which featured works rejected by the Salon for that year and included such influential artists as Daumier and Manet, marked the beginning of an avant-garde in prominent art. With the rise of Impressionism and their independent exhibitions, the era of modernism was slowly ushered in, whose modus operandi was, more often than not, to refute academic or conservative artistic methods.

With the rise of the avant-garde, artists found that through independent exhibitions or independent publications they were able to create an audience and a following in a world previously monopolized by the Salon. Modernist movements that we retrospectively consider the most important or influential: Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism to name a few, were in direct conflict with academic standards and required independent shows and funding in order to be seen.

My favorite example of how artists marketed themselves with the rise of the avant-garde is actually from the United States, where the focus of the western world shifted after World War II caused almost all important European artists to flee across the Atlantic. The example I wish to cite is when the highly influential Life magazine in 1949 published a four-page spread featuring the emerging artist Jackson Pollock, posing the question, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” The article instantly gave Pollock, who had previously had his only real exposure in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery to varying reception, widespread fame throughout the United States and the world, and has since emerged as the face of Abstract Expressionism, what I would argue is the first truly “American” art form. The Pollock story gives an illustration of how I will argue many contemporary artists are choosing to market themselves: through popular media rather than academic shows.

That is really all just a very brief description of how artists gained recognition in the west in the past few hundred years, and I say that to help contrast it to the Chinese story. In 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the communist party brought influence from the Yenan province, introducing a new element to mainstream Chinese art. In 1942, Mao for the first time articulated what he believed to be the function of art in this new Chinese society: that it should be associated with political movements and agendas, and that artists should understand that art is not for art’s sake, it is for the people’s sake. Mao’s artistic ideals do not allow for individualism, but rather should serve the collective good, to portray the country, factory worker, and peasant in propagandistic positive light.

Shortly after Mao’s ascension to power, the Chinese invited Soviet artists and professors to educate Chinese artists. The 1950s and 60s saw the establishment of the Chinese academic art educational system, which was comprised of three parts. The first was the Artist’s Association, which was under the propaganda bureau and handled all art shows in China and served as censors and police in art circles. To become a member was considered highly prestigious for a Chinese artist. The second was the art publishing house, which looked over all art publications in the nation. The third was the art academy, which was responsible for training and education for Chinese artist. The idea for the academy was to graduate artists who would find employment producing art and media for the society. It was not until 1979 that an exhibition not under the auspices of the Artist’s Association was held in China, and it was not until the late 1980s that this structure began to change.

Artists, partially influenced by the influx of western influence to artistic circles, began to work outside of the art association. The focus of Chinese artists has remained relatively on the same train of thought since the end of the Qing Dynasty: how do we modernize Chinese society and culture? The defeat of the Chinese by western powers in the 19th century sparked this drive for western modernism, and it has played out in both the obvious technological and political spheres, as well as in the aesthetic arts.
So where does the Internet fit in to all of this? As I hinted in my introduction, the real significance of the proliferation of the Internet as it relates to our interest in contemporary art is its ability to draw from a plurality of influence brought about by globalization and also for an artist to market himself or his works. China first connected to the Internet in 1994, when it had 10,000 users, and has since catapulted itself as one of the largest subscribers to the Internet by country. 2007 estimates have the number of Internet users in China as 210 million users, a figure that was up 53% from the previous year, which saw 137 million Internet users in China. So China is connecting to the Internet on a massive scale, and as a result there is a real potential for exposure and communication for Chinese artists to advertise themselves online. In effect, the Internet is the Salon of the 21st century, allowing the public to view works and judge them critically, though on a casual, impersonal way.

Scholar Guobin Yang argues that the proliferation of the Internet in China is a reflection of Chinese civil society’s incipient and dynamic nature. He says “the internet facilitates civil society activities by offering new possibilities for citizen participation. Civil society facilitates the development of the Internet by providing the necessary social basis—citizens and citizen groups—for communication and interaction. The internet and civil society have an interdependent relationship.” He later argues that “diffusion of the internet will…enhance pluralism.” And later that “the internet remains a relatively powerful new medium and space for participation in civil society.”

This is particularly interesting when we examine it through the scope of the contemporary art scene, which can achieve a populist status based on the interrelationship between society and Internet interaction. The Internet is not only a platform for marketing, it is a forum of participation for even the most casual art observer. This, of course, can lead to irresponsibility, as the free, impersonal nature of the Internet allows for less-than-scholarly debate on high art. But in creating a venue for all people to interact and debate ideas, works, and exhibitions presented by contemporary artists allows for a dynamic cultural exchange. The Internet promotes populist access to a sect of society that has, since the days of the Salon, been formerly reserved for members of the elite and educated classes.

Let’s look at a few examples. What I wanted to do, essentially, was play the role of someone who is trying to seek out contemporary art in China and Shanghai, so I explored a few different sites, including artist blogs and art forums specifically geared to China, to explore how the internet has affected the art scene here. There, are of course, a few problems, the most glaring of which is my relative illiteracy in Chinese, so I have to employ Google translating tools to really experience most of these sites. Google translator is far from perfectly accurate, so of course there is a bit of a disconnect between me as a foreigner and the original text, particularly in artist blogs. In a way, it’s really a fascinating experience as I can’t really be sure what’s lost in translation, and so I’m sure that in some ways I get something different out of these blogs than a native speaker just by virtue that I don’t speak Chinese very well.

Let’s start with Ai Weiwei’s blog <>. Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most renowned artists, most notably working with Swiss architects to help design the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing. What has happened, in this case, with the Google translator is that a lot of the text is rendered a little bit incoherent, and it’s difficult to get at what he’s really saying. For example, let’s just look at the first sentence of the post created yesterday, on December 16. The Google translation is “10 days ago went to Miami, Las Vegas from the back.” Which at first I read to be Ai Weiwei attempting a bit of poetic verse, but after looking at the original text and confirming it with a friend who is a native speaker, a more accurate translation would be “10 days ago I went to Miami, today I returned from Las Vegas.” So in this case, we have a really poor translation that really renders foreign readers at a disadvantage, so really all we can take in accurately from this blog are the images he chooses to upload.

For other blogs, such as Xu Bing’s <>, the blog comes with an option for an English translation, which, since it is not done by Google or some other outside site, provides a much more lucid translation from the original text. Xu Bing does a nice job of cataloguing his exhibition history on his website, including with each project information regarding the venue, materials, and a brief description of purpose and background information.

As far as sites other than artist blogs, we have community sites such as Art Ba Ba which allows users to post items in a blog-like fashion that pertains to contemporary Chinese art. So, just leafing through a few of the pages, we see announcements of Michael Lin’s upcoming show, we see information regarding the Guangzhou Triennial, we see a biography of Wang Gongxin, all of it with the option of both Chinese and English as means of expression. Art forum <> works in a similar fashion, although art forum’s English offering is not exclusively focused on Chinese information, that is, they don’t translate their Chinese page, they simply redirect you to the American page.

Finally, we have sites that allow artists to share their own work in a free, anonymous way. <> Hi Pic is a site in which you register and are able to upload your own pictures, while being able to see other people’s photographs anonymously. This site is really just for exposure, it doesn’t allow users to buy images from the site, it is merely using the Internet as a platform for expression and exposure.
In closing, I think it’s clear, even from these very few examples that I’ve shown today, that the internet has really changed the artistic landscape simply by looking at its impact on the artist’s ability to market himself. It’s amazing that an artist today really needs nothing other than a computer to make his work available to the masses, where a generation ago in China an artist was required to go through academic circles to make a career out of art, and that art was dictated exclusively by government and societal demands. Make no mistake, we are not at the point where artists can rely on the Internet exclusively to gain notoriety: the most successful artists in China today still rely on exhibitions to truly make their mark on the art scene. But now an exhibition can be marketed via the Internet, and visitors can respond via blogs or message boards. Because of the Internet, the accessibility of the artistic community has largely increased, and as a result we see a scene that is increasingly pluralist and increasingly populist.

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