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Art for the Digital Age


Andy Warhol, Flowers (1964) Picture Credit: Peggy Guggenheim Collection


The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice has only one Andy Warhol. It is just over half a metre square, a simplistic screen print of white flowers on a black and green background. It is no Marilyn Monroe, no gently smiling Mao, no obsessive repetition of Campbell’s tomato soup. Yet I am convinced it is one of the most documented artworks in the museum.

As an intern (aka glorified gallery invigilator) I spent a lot of time with this painting. I became accustomed to its wanting one-dimensional surface, its dull colours, it’s inherently un-Warhol-like being. I watched as the glazed exhaustion on the faces of the gallery visitors transformed on seeing the label. One quick glance, a snap on the phone and then off to the next attraction. The perfect crime (against the gift of sight).

In real life, the print’s colours hardly stand out. But doesn’t the work look lovely on screen? I wouldn’t mind it as my desktop image. In fact, Warhol could have designed his screen prints to stick on the tile setting of any laptop.

By using imagery recognised out of a gallery setting, Warhol made art that would speak to the masses. This element of the ‘every day’ in his work means each finished piece sits well both in the gallery and out of it. And once out of the gallery, it ends up on the screen.

I don’t believe a Warhol changes that drastically whether it’s looked at in real life or on a smartphone. In fact, Instagram’s square format could have been made for the artist’s Monroe screen prints, the luminosity of the digital interface making the colours pop as well as any clever gallery lighting rig.

Warhol died on the cusp of the digital age as we know it. Yet his art continues to live within it. (The worst interpretation I’ve seen was the Tories’ Warhol pastiche of Boris Johnson, an unexpected and unwanted freebie in my 2006 sixth form freshers fair).

I recently spent some time working at a contemporary London art fair. The stall opposite mine was occupied by this cool Belgium gallery, all bird-like women in black and poker-faced bearded men. The art they sold made me feel obtuse. It was mainly ugly. It was all expensive. So why was their stand almost continuously filled with the iPhone waving masses? Because every piece in that gallery transformed onto the digital screen. Relatively ugly painting of a Chinese meat market? Bit of moss in the shape of a gun? Circular piece of pine wood stuck to the wall? What does it mean? Is any of it art? Who cares!

We are image magpies, with our visual memories less in our actual brains and more in the Cloud, the collective digital subconscious that even Carl Jung never saw coming. This new way of collecting means we have no need of large permanent homes or a disposable income. On we march into the future, blindly documenting as we go.

Insta-friendly pieces have cleverly allowed commercial galleries to outsource all digital marketing to the viewer themselves. Images are shared at the tap of a screen, hurtling across continents all within the cost of a monthly data package.

Viewing art in the digital age renders curatorship irrelevant. Instagram gives every artwork the space previously reserved only for masterpieces. Gone is the need for sympathetic pairings or cleverly sought out frames. It ups the colours and makes disappointing works glow. And what’s more, it allows us to be in the artwork! (something by the looks of it, we seem to feel every piece is missing). Digital walls are now more important than physical ones. Is art in danger of becoming the next thing to take the digital leap?

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