Placing priority on the reproduction and distribution of the contemporary artwork means allowing it to enter the social realm. As Benjamin predicted, “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character.” It has. The way technology enables sharing and interconnectedness pushes the artist and his (inevitably digital) artwork to become not merely viewed, but instead absorbed by the masses. “Art after the Internet deals not with the nature of the art object but the nature of its reception and social presence.” The reaction of the audience, in essence, becomes the art piece. Prior to the digital age, it was the role of art to mediate and create discussion. Now, it is the audience that mediates the work of art; assigning it new traits and ideas as it passes from person to person, screen to screen.
The Museum of Feelings, a temporary art installation opened in 2015 in New York City, stands as a model for the extent of the social impact on art. As stated on its website, “the Museum of Feelings actually feels things. Its unique exterior reacts to social media and real-time data to reflect New York’s ever-changing mood in vivid colour.” Essentially, the piece existed as nothing more than a reflection of its audience. The exhibit was accompanied by mocking commentary such as Katie Rogers’ from the New York Times: “visitors spent more time looking at their own images reflected on their phone screens because the Museum of Feelings is actually the perfect place to take a really good selfie.” This was probably due to the fact that the “museum” lacked much depth beyond its colourful reflection of New York’s social media interactions. However, despite negative reviews, on its Saturday opening, “3,000 people stood in a four-hour line to attend, and the line was growing by the minute on Tuesday.” If art is becoming defined by the reactions of its audience, the reaction to The Museum of Feelings speaks for itself. The popularity of the installation proves, essentially, that people are interested in themselves. The appeal of The Museum of Feelings lies in its ability to not only embrace but become the audience; creating an interesting dynamic based on mutual absorption of art into the masses and vice versa.
This example marks an enormous shift in art production. Presently, it seems like “artists on the internet need an audience to create art, as opposed to the traditional recipe that artists make art to have an audience.” The stream of art production no longer flows from the source but instead begins with the recipient. Some might argue that this system is perverse; a twisted form of anti self-expression. In the case of a frivolous exhibit such as The Museum of Feelings, such an assumption might be correct. However, this reverse flow of production does not have to lead to the masses gaining control over the artist. Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures, for example, create a successful balance between audience participation and artistic dominance. Wurm’s sculptures are often described as “‘social sculptures’ [acting as a] series of short performance pieces, inviting audience participation and interaction.” Wurm places absurdly abstract instructions next to ordinary objects, allowing the audience to determine the final outcome of the performance while simultaneously retaining his status as the work’s creator. Embracing the ever-increasing role of the audience in the digital age allows an artist to corral this complicated relationship to his advantage. Ideally, artists will adjust to the socially saturated digital era by allowing the audience to both absorb their labor but also remain relevant as the author of the work of art.