There has been a vast development of new technologies in the recent years and particularly the rise of popularity of the internet and social media. I will be focusing on the impact social media has on our tastes and values and the way in which emergence of social media has had an influence on the way we perceive art in the present day. My investigation will be discussing the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo DaVinci and will be addressing the way in which ‘selfie culture’ has led the two-dimensional art piece to develop into a physical experience for viewers. After gaining a great deal of attention with over 387,000 posts on Instagram with the hashtag #monalisaselfie, I will be exploring the audience’s relationship with the painting, including my own experiences of seeing the piece first hand. Furthermore, I will be analysing these ideas in relation to theorists such as John Berger and his ‘Ways of Seeing’ series, Henry Jenkins’ Participatory Culture as well as Walter Benjamin’s Marxist views of art spaces and their general ‘aura’; and looking at the way these theories still relate to the current world.
With a constant crowd of people around the painting consumed by attempts to get the best photograph of themselves in front of it; rather than appreciating and contemplating the piece of art for what it is, behaviours as such suggest that today’s digital generation experiences art in a different way. Previously the traditional purpose of visiting galleries or museums was solely due to curiosity of the subject of art, now it seems it has shifted to viewers visiting just for evidence that they have been there, and in this case, to follow the ‘Mona Lisa selfie’ trend. It seems as though they are seeing it without ‘really’ seeing it. Henry Jenkins wrote about the subject of the emergence of new ‘media-makers and viewers’ could have a potential impact on media in the future:
“The media landscape will be reshaped by the bottom-up energy of media created by amateurs and hobbyists as a matter of course. This bottom-up energy will generate enormous creativity, but it will also tear apart some of the categories that organize the lives and work of media makers.... A new generation of media-makers and viewers are emerging which could lead to a sea change in how media is made and consumed.” - Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century by Henry Jenkins
In Ways of Seeing series, John Berger claimed that people look at a reproduction in a catalogue then go to see the original - nowadays it seems social media platforms and particularly Instagram are reversing these patterns of behavior. Social media has allowed for art to be more transmittable than ever before, with people constantly photographing and posting their lives on Instagram so easily, it can spread across other networks in a matter of seconds. Art galleries and museums have recognized this and are digitising their collections to make them universal to anyone to view wherever they are. Often, with these digitised reproductions we have the option to zoom in and out on our phones, it allows us to see more visual information than if actually going to visit the original. Walter Benjamin talked about his concern for the ways in which the reproducibility of an art work could possibly have an impact on our outlook of it. (The World of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1891-1940).
Using myself as an example, I personally felt underwhelmed when visiting it in Paris in 2013, as prior to my visit I had already seen the painting multiple times online in much thorough detail. I visited not knowing anything about the history of the Mona Lisa painting at the time, and I remember queueing up for a photograph just like everyone else. My only intention was to get the photo of myself in front of it and then carry on walking around the rest of the museum, not having much interest in the famous painting.
“It’s too small, and it’s too crowded to get close to look at the detail,” said the woman, Jeannie Li, 28, a financial analyst in Shanghai, unimpressed by her first sight of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” “I can see it better in a book or on the internet.”- New York times article by Scott Reyburn.
My viewpoint of the painting is representative of the way most art is in today’s digitally mediated society, which shows that most artistic reputation is made through social media these days.
The relationship audiences have with the painting could be due to the way it is portrayed by the museum, with it encouraging a certain point of view we should have on the painting. Meanings of art can be changed depending on the surroundings, such as music played in the background or other pieces of art around it. A work of art can be placed next to another contrasting or complimentary one (depending on the intended depiction of it) and it can change the viewer’s perception of it. Using the Mona Lisa painting as an example, the fact it is located in the Louvre museum and being placed in the centre of the main room of the building is in itself is enough for it to seem authentic to us. John Berger talks about this in his Ways of Seeing series and the way museums and galleries use these techniques to consolidate the meaning of paintings.
“Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning” - John Berger – Ways of Seeing, Episode 1.
Big institutions like the Louvre or National Galleries use these methods to create a certain aura and draw attention to some paintings more than others, almost telling us what to look at without allowing us to make personal judgements for ourselves. The term ‘aura’ was used by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, referring to the uniqueness of a certain ‘presence in time and space’.
'Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin
When art is mediated by a phone or computer screen, the meaning of it can change because of the lack of the aura. The digitized reproductions are manipulated through use of lighting of the photograph or editing in a way that it affects the original work of art. In the hash tagged photos of #monalisaselife on Instagram, each one varies in appearance, things such as the texture, scale and the environment all differentiate and the use of editing tools makes them appear brighter or darker than the original. An article by Andrew Robinson called ‘An A to Z Theory’ on Walter Benjamin’s book ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and his use of terms ‘art, aura and authenticity’ the writer said:
‘The loss of aura seems to have both positive and negative effects for Benjamin. He sees the aura, authenticity, and uniqueness of works of art as fundamentally connected to their insertion in a tradition. The reproduced work of art is completely detached from the sphere of tradition. It loses the continuity of its presentation and appreciation.’
The argument against the above statement could be that the concept of an art gallery in the present day is being challenged, where most contemporary art is only being published online and nowadays some types of art is purely dependent on social media in order for it to be effective. For example, an artist called Amalia Ulman created an Instagram account as a social experiment project called ‘Perfections and Excellences’ in 2014. Ulman spent four months curating a profile that documented her attempts at making it as an ‘It Girl’ in Los Angeles, bragging about her life and plastic surgery and once she hit 90,000 followers she announced it had all been a hoax to test the publics reactions to the profile. Although it lacks the real experience of being able to view it in real life as it is not a physical art work, it shows how Instagram can do art justice and is a tool that can be used in artist’s advantage. Henry Jenkins wrote about the positive and negative aspects of new technologies:
“Some tasks may be easier with some techno-logies than with others and thus, the introduction of a new technology may inspire certain uses. Yet, these activities become widespread only if the culture also supports them, if they represent recurring needs at a particular historical juncture. It matters what tools are available to a culture, but it matters more what that culture chooses to do with those tools.” – Henry Jenkins - Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century (Part One)
In October 2014, the American singer Beyoncé posted a photograph of herself and her husband Jay-Z with the Mona Lisa painting in the background on Instagram. With a great following of her fans, such celebrity endorsement on social media platforms has an influence on her followers and encourages them to do the same.
‘No Picture Matters More Than Beyoncé And Jay Z Posing In Front Of The Mona Lisa. It might very well be the best picture of our generation. Or any generation.’ – Title of an article on Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed is known to have a specific intended audience of people who are active on social media, which also plays a part in spreading online trends further.
In his book Spreadable Media, Jenkins talks about the internet being one of the key factors of participatory culture but especially emphasises that participatory culture is mostly the connections between people rather than new technologies themselves. He compares digital media products to dandelions, ‘if you blow on them, they spread in the air, but not like viruses’ – similarly to the trend of the ‘Mona Lisa Selfie’ hashtag on Instagram.
These theories and ideas have spurred my curiosity of what will happen in the next phase of participatory culture. The impact social media has had on the way we view art and the ‘spreadability’ of digital reproductions could eventually lead to us losing contact with the reality they symbolize. Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ talks about this and the way people are becoming reliant on maps and models that one day we might not be able to differentiate between the representation of the real.
Even if you have seen the Mona Lisa painting in real life you still know what it looks like because you have seen digital copies (photos) of it, and the photos that represent the Mona Lisa stand in for the real experiences. The ‘lower order of simulacra’ Baudrillard talks about is when we can still tell the difference between the representation of the original and the original itself. A ‘higher order of simulacra’ would be reached if it became more difficult for us to distinguish the original Mona Lisa painting from the reproductions we see online; which is what could potentially happen in the future with the progressive impact social media has on us.