If you have visited a museum or gallery lately, you probably noticed the hordes of young people snapping photos. And I don’t mean the crowds peering at the Mona Lisa at the Lourve. My instagram feed is filled with pictures of girls wearing leather, staring pensively at paintings by Rothko and LeWitt. I am guilty of posting similar photos, but at times it seems that these photos are as carefully constructed as paintings themselves. How did museum and gallery-hopping become a hobby of the “cool” kids again?
Art is relatively accessible. One can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pay a *recommended* price and see thousands of years worth of art. But easy access does not equate to understanding. I first learned about art from my Grandmother, who showed me that taking a step back from an impressionist painting turns tiny specks into a picture. But what if you don’t have a Pissarro-obsessed Grandmother to explain what you’re seeing? Art becomes a distant, confusing concept—something that requires a set of skills to comprehend. A schism forms between those who are in the know, and those who are not.
The ranks of the elite have long validated the institution of art. Once an artist has been deemed “acceptable”—whether to hang works in the 19th-century Salon or one of today’s prestigious art fairs—they can sell artwork for millions. With that tradition, art has naturally been considered highbrow in western culture for several centuries.
So why has art become cool again? Because social media makes it easier for us to present ourselves as sophisticated. By instagramming a photo at an exhibit, an individual associates himself with wealth, taste, and intellect, and implies that he has the emotional depth to find meaning in art. Social media sites have become platforms for self-promotion. Your online presence is a testament to your personality. When you post a picture at an exhibit, it signifies that, in addition to your brunch habit and penchant for sunsets, you are cultured.
But this is only one piece of the puzzle. The way we present our identities has changed in the last ten years, but we must also examine how art has caught up with youth culture. It was close in the days of Studio 54, when Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, superstars of the 20th-century, made appearances amongst the glitter-soaked masses. Today, art and youth culture are so intertwined that you don’t have to be someone to be in the know.
When I think about today’s youth culture, I think about social justice. Not a day goes by that I don’t read and think about rape culture, the discourse between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups on campus, and the poetry of my black classmates, who use spoken word to get the world’s attention. Art has finally recognized that social justice is the concern of our generation.
Museums and galleries are displaying more art by people of color, trans artists, and women. Last winter, one of my favorite exhibits was the Greer Lankton retrospective, LOVE ME, at Participant Inc. Lankton, an influential trans artist who swept NYC in the 1980s, is famous for her fascination with anatomy and dismembered dolls. Her artwork explored the trans experience in a way that mainstream art never had before. These are the experiences that our generation wants heard. One retrospective is not enough, but it is an important step in the right direction. Art has become cool again because it is finally listening to the demands of our generation, and rewarding diverse artists who speak honestly about what being alive means to them.
In addition to being adamant about social change, today’s youth itches to be involved. No longer are consumers just consumers—they are artists, art critics, and YouTube vloggers, eager to be a part of the artistic experience. Conveniently, art has become increasingly participatory. This past summer’s Give Me Love, Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit at David Zwirner Gallery, invited visitors to cover the interior of a furnished house on tenth-avenue with colorful circular stickers. By the send of the summer, the entire space was a splash of vibrant hues. The work was partially inspired by Kusama’s own mental illness, and was a reflection on how mania affects artistic production.
What made Give Me Love so popular? The exhibit was inclusive. It welcomed visitors into its space without demanding background art history knowledge. It allowed people to put on that air of “artistic intellect.” But it was also a ton of fun. For a moment, it felt like the posh art world put its feet up on the coffee table and relaxed.
Yet it all comes back to the photo op. By posting pictures of contemporary art, today’s young consumers align themselves with art’s intelligent, well-bred associations, and paint themselves as socially active. Sharing an image like Kusama’s Give Me Love, that was a commentary on mental illness, speaks to the sharer’s values and beliefs. It is interesting to see how art has become a means for individuals to say something to the world about themselves.
Is this a good thing? There are two sides to the canvas. On one hand, art has become cool again because it is a useful tool for people to build their public personas: artistic, smart, cultured, well bred, socially aware, and socially active. From this lens, art has flooded the mainstream because society is inherently self-centered. But on the other hand, art has become cool again because social media is making it easier for people to share this new wave of socially and politically charged art, as well as art people have helped create.
Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. I think that art has become cool again because people—inherently a little self-centered, but also deeply caring and creative—want to share important art with the world while showing off their best and most attractive self. I don’t think Warhol would disagree.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe <3