Updated: Dec 5, 2020
by Shujaat Mirza
With the bold new age of online platform having received an unanticipated boost owing to Covid, art has metamorphosed into a more vibrantly responsive and dynamic ‘shape-shifting’ activity. The online platform offers art nascent yet mature wings as it dispenses with the hitherto spatial limitations embodied in the structures and ethos of an assumed full-bodied, physical space as a repository of its permanence. It also frees it from the limitations of adhering to certain notions about the aesthetic aspects of art as also the limitations of artworks having to placate certain market conditions. It is indeed unfortunate that market forces have dictated the world of art owing to a limited focus on what works in the commercial spectrum and a lopsided understanding of what constitutes the purpose of art. Here, the narrow criterion of saleability gets privilege over the freedom of explorations that go beyond the pale of pragmatic considerations.
However, the online space now allows artists and viewers alike to become active participants in the real market of ideas that can fashion a discourse around the concerns and imperatives of the prevailing times.
In this the most major role reversal has been that of the viewer or the collective audience. Belonging to a far more diverse and wide-ranging demographic pool than ever before, the viewer is now far more eclectic and engaged. The ability to navigate through what the art world has to offer at the click of a button or a press on the screen is a revolution in itself – it now gives you, as the engaged viewer, the agency to shape the quality of the enterprise. It disrupts the usual chain of how art is brought to you traditionally via exhibitions, private viewings, and in a particularity of habitat to a far more open-ended virtual space – a space where you can enter and exit on your own terms and convenience.
Of course, here as well, the curatorial remit does remain important and isn't subordinate to the wishes of a viewership. However, what differentiates this moment in time from other past reckonings is the way in which footfalls are now replaced by clicks, which trackers on the sites can trace but cannot control, coerce or pin down viewers to a particular work. The choice of selection and order of viewing the artworks virtually boils down to the individual preference of the enlightened viewer. And this is revolutionary precisely because it seizes the mandate from those who wish to shape the narrative to the likes and choices of the audience.
Art viewers have thus now become more active catalytic agents in determining the future trajectory of the art market. The younger viewers, especially, do come well prepared and aware of what they are getting their hands wet in, as it were. They are more attuned to experimenting with things and will push the envelope and guide art away from the mundane or commercial concerns of interior decoration and housekeeping to a much more robust exploration of themes and processes.
This pragmatism is something that comes naturally to the present generation which adapts to change like fish to water. So, I am certainly hopeful that we are in safe hands as far as fine taste for good art and its constituents go.
To give an analogy, I would like to suggest that if you give children today a choice of things, they will invariably veer towards what's most trendy, useful and relevant, and also be sure of what they wish to have and what they propose to do with it. This sure-footedness is an important marker of how they come to a considered decision: it is not through an educated guess but via sustained, self-determined protocols of dealing with a task at hand. They can easily sift through the dense fog of data and arrive at a clarity that may astound us but is not in the least daunting for them.
When you as a viewer are faced with multiple avenues and choices, you’re in a position of strength since you hold the deciding card. It also opens you to a lot more and with all the attendant corollary and collateral online learning initiatives and webinars. It is like you’ve been suddenly offered a kaleidoscopic view that was once the preserve of a select few. The suspension of unwritten conventions and rules governing the art world will hopefully lead to a cementing of a new order and a dismantling, brick by brick, of the earlier redundancies.
Of course, this isn't a perfect situation because it does take away from the artist a certain comfort level that was addressed by close connections and the weight of promotion falling on the shoulders of the gallery space infrastructure. It might also take away the sheen somewhat from the idea of celebrity artists and marquee names and make it all the more difficult for emerging artists to have a sustainable and regular flow of income. But in the larger scheme of things, those whose works will have a larger crossover appeal and resonance will always find their sweet spot and make the cut. On the other hand, there is also the eventuality that we may return to the usual way of doing things in opaque and transactional terms as earlier, where art was relegated to a secondary position and astronomical figures were thrown around off the hat.
In the final reckoning this online shift is an entirely new proposition and as such needs to be given a chance to gain strength, even if it does unsettle the way things have been usually done.
This of course doesn't mean that we completely take away the idea of seeing and interacting with a work physically; this too is of primary importance and a must-have sensorial association. Without disregarding the primacy of the first-hand experience of art, the proliferation of online spaces opens up new opportunities and throws up possibilities beyond the limitations of gallery space and viewing hours.
The role of a gallery space cannot be discounted in creating a suitable climate for art to be showcased meaningfully. The sustenance of an enabling ecosystem does require a certain expertise in marketing and selling of art, which comes from a credibility acquired and through relationships built with buyers over a long period of time. At the same time, there is an equally urgent need to broaden the horizons to include newer forms of presentation and alternate platforms to reach a wider, untapped segment that could possibly usher in the next wave of collectors who could sustain the art world in the long term.
[Cover image collage of images courtesy of Ben Uri Research Unit]
Shujaat Mirza is an intrepid art aficionado, curator and critic, with a passion for multidisciplinary art. His primary area of interest is art at the intersection of visual aesthetics and verbal semantics. He is also a poet and writer and his work has been published online as well as in literary magazines.