The Year the Art World Went Online

Kyle Chayka explains how contemporary artists and art dealers are finally embracing the internet in strange and exciting ways.

By Nicolas Sassoon

By Nicolas Sassoon

The contemporary art world, for all its cultural daring, is pretty conservative. An entrenched crew of aging tastemakers, artists, curators, and dealers hold on until they fade completely out of relevancy (watch as New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl marvels in bemused incomprehension at Ryan Trecartin in a review from this year). There’s a strict hierarchy of which collector is allowed to buy which painting from which gallery, clear from art-fair deal-making and buyer waiting lists even for young guns like Jacob Kassay. Galleries often lack strong online presences, preferring secrecy to transparency. Artworks are shipped in giant crates to be installed by hand. Art is a resolutely physical business in an increasingly paperless world — which is why it’s surprising that in 2011 the art world finally began to openly embrace the possibilities of the internet.

It’s long been a semi-shameful public admission for galleries that collectors often buy works without seeing them in person, making their decisions only on a jpeg attached to an email. But last February, the VIP Art Fair, helmed by the highly regarded New York City James Cohan Gallery, made buying via jpeg the norm. As in a physical commercial fair, galleries bought “booths” in the VIP Art Fair, paying a premium for a pristinely designed web-based selling spaces and access to attendees. Technological flaws made the first VIP fair a failure in the eyes of participating galleries, but some sales were made, and the fair will relaunch February 2012.

This year, Art.sy, a New York-based startup backed by such art-world heavy hitters as dealer Larry Gagosian and patron Dasha Zhukova that claims to be the “Pandora of the art world,” will analyze users’ taste in art and show them other works and artists that they might like — a tempting prospect for buyers and sellers alike. A series of parties and demonstrations turned the not-yet-public technology into a word-of-mouth sensation.

It’s not just commercial operations getting in on the game, either — 2011 is also the year that the term “social media art” went viral. Artists like Man Bartlett, who uses social networks like Twitter and Facebook to create performances, and An Xiao, who has turned her online presence into a kind of communication-based total artwork, hit the mainstream with countless blog posts, tweets, and a major feature in ARTnews magazine. Bartlett also participated in Creative Time Tweets, an ongoing series of Twitter-based performances commissioned by the venerable New York City art non-profit Creative Time.

Social media art’s success builds on the earlier presence of internet art, which sees artists engaging with online culture to make work that plays with the internet as a platform, remixes memes, and plumbs the depths of web design aesthetics. Internet art also had a good year. The international presence of internet art collectives F.A.T. Labs and Computers Club grew, while museums, galleries, and online media took notice.

Some added bullet points in the Year of Art Online: The Metropolitan showed off the knowledge and tastes of its world-class staff in a series of curated online videos called “Connections.” The Museum of Modern Art launched a comprehensive site redesign while the Walker Art Center’s own redesign was heralded as a huge step forward for art institutions, turning the museum website into something more blog than brochure. Internet artists Ole Fach and Kim Asendorf’s GIF Market got buyers to pay for ownership of animations publicly hosted on the internet, free for anyone to download. Tumblr became huge as a venue for artists to publish and share their work. Facebook even banned users for posting 19th-century painter Gustave Courbet’s titillating Origin of the World on their profiles — the admittedly explicit image constituted pornography, the company determined. On the other side of the spectrum, Tumblr has become the go-to platform for visual art blogging with its emphasis on big pictures and allowance of nudity, from Courbet to your favorite black-and-white hipster erotica blogger.

This year, conquering the internet, next year, actually making a living at it? The chief problem art online still faces after 2011 is how to get people to actually pay for it on a sustainable scale, something physical galleries are still far and away the best at.