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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2020 |  9 minutes (2,261 words)

The image that struck me most was the empty piazza. That Italian square — I believe it was in Venice — with no one in it. Maybe a bird or two. It looked inviting but also wholly unnatural. A city square is made for people, lots of people, people from everywhere. If people aren’t there, does it cease to be a square? I wondered the same thing about the Louvre and its tens of thousands of objects with no one to look at them — is it still a museum, or is it just a warehouse? I wondered about all those Berlin concert halls with no one to hear their music, all those Indian cinemas with no one to watch their films, all those crumbling ruins everywhere, standing there with no tourists to behold them or to record that beholding for everyone else. At this particular point in history, does art exist if we aren’t sharing it? 

By sharing I mean not only sharing a moment with the art itself, but also sharing the space with other people, and more literally, sharing all of that online — posting updates on Facebook, photos on Twitter, videos on TikTok, stories on Instagram. This kind of “sharing” is constriction rather than expansion, regressing back to the word’s etymological root of “cutting apart.” This contortion of a selfless act into a selfish one is symptomatic of a society that expects everyone to fend for themselves: Sharing online is not so much about enlightening others as it is about spotlighting yourself. It’s impossible to disconnect the images of those now-empty spots from the continuous splash of reports about the coronavirus pandemic gouging the global economy. In America, the economy is the culture is the people. Americans are not citizens; they are, as the president recently put it, “consumers.” And on the web, consuming means sharing that consumption with everyone else. That the images suddenly being shared are empty exposes the big con — that in reality, no one has really been sharing anything. That social distancing is nothing new.

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Even before Hollywood started postponing all of its blockbusters and talk shows started filming without audiences and festivals started to dismantle and bands canceled their tours and sports seasons suspended indefinitely, the public was turning on cultural institutions run by a subset of morally dubious elites. In December 2018, protesters at the Whitney Museum of American Art burned sage (“smoke that chokes the powerful but smells sweet to us”) and forced the departure of the board’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders, the CEO of the company that manufactures tear gas that has reportedly been used at the border. Two months later, artist Nan Goldin, who had a three-year opioid addiction, led a “die-in” at the Guggenheim over the museum’s financial ties to the Sackler family, the Purdue Pharma founders who many hold responsible for the opioid crisis. In the U.K., the Tate Modern and Tate Britain also dropped the Sacklers, while climate activists pulled a Trojan Horse into the courtyard of the British Museum to protest the sponsorship of an exhibition by oil and gas company BP. As performance artist Andrea Fraser, known for her institutional critiques, wrote in 2012, “It is clear that the contemporary art world has been a direct beneficiary of the inequality of which the outsized rewards of Wall Street are only the most visible example.” 

If that recent exhibition of impressionist paintings seemed oddly familiar, or that ballet you just saw appears to keep coming back around, or that one classical musician looks like he’s hired nonstop, it’s not your imagination. It’s a function of that exclusive control, of the same artists, the same works, the same ideas being circulated (“shared”?) by the same gatekeepers over and over and over again. “Far from becoming less elitist, ever-more-popular museums have become vehicles for the mass-marketing of elite tastes and practices,” wrote Fraser in Artforum in 2005. Which is why certain names you wouldn’t think would cross over — from contemporary artist Jeff Koons to art-house filmmaker Terrence Malick — are more widely known than others. According to The New York Times in 2018, only two of the top 10 all-white art museum chairs in the country are women. And almost half of the 500-plus people on the boards of the 10 most popular American museums have become rich off the finance industry, while many others owe their wealth to oil and gas; the small group that is responsible for exploiting the world is the same group that is responsible for its enlightenment. They determine which pieces of art are bought, how they are curated, and how they are disseminated — theirs are the tastes and practices we are sharing.

With this “increasingly monopolized market and increasing parochialism,” German artist Hito Steyerl explained last year, “a sense of international perspective gets lost, which is a wider sign of rampant isolationism.” And this doesn’t just apply to high arts, but “low” arts as well; movies, music, television, theater, books have all been corporatized to the extreme, with huge amounts of money going to a few while the majority lose out. This is how you get a never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Leslie Harris — the first African American woman to win a Dramatic Feature Competition special jury prize at Sundance for writing, directing, and producing her 1993 film Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. — still can’t get a second feature off the ground. 

While public funding for the arts has plummeted since the ’80s, however, the web has increasingly encouraged public sharing of its consumption on social media. Online, we look more traveled, more cultured, more inclusive than ever before. And it’s difficult to argue that wider access to art, that our increasing proximity to foreign cultures, could be wrong. But if you look closer, you notice that all this connectivity is largely superficial — it is heavily prescribed and strongly overlaps. The latter-day bourgeoisie all travel to Portugal at the same time, all visit the same Marina Abramovic exhibit, all watch the same Agnes Varda films, attend the same Phoenix tour. They clamor less to immerse themselves than to record and reproduce everything they have experienced, their distraction expressed by the ever-growing collection of imagery memorializing all the different experiences they’ve had — the same kind of different as everyone else’s.

“An idea of progressive internationalism,” Steyerl told Ocula magazine, “is progressively abandoned or gets snowed under constant waves of affect and outrage manipulated by monopolist platforms, and solidarity is swapped for identity.” In other words, all of this supposed sharing is really a tech-sanctioned performance of capitalism to showcase one’s value in a toxic din of competing consumers. The more photogenic the better, which means the less nuance, the better; think the Museum of Ice Cream, which costs almost 40 bucks for access to photo-friendly adult playgrounds — “environments that foster IRL interaction and URL connections” — like a “Sprinkle Pool” of multi-colored biodegradable bits you can’t actually eat. And the more recognizable the look (see: the retro aesthetic of any teen Netflix show), the more heady words like “nostalgia” become a proxy for depth that isn’t actually there. As we speed online through Steyerl’s distracted fragmentary so-called “junktime,” we quickly compound what she dubs “circulationism,” propagating images with the most power, giving them even more power. Standing next to the Mona Lisa, for instance, offers greater token currency among a wider set than standing next to anything by Kara Walker, who speaks to a more immersed but smaller audience. Either way, online, currency is king.

Culture has, above all, become a mark of personal wealth. When Americans share their experiences on social media, they are sharing their cultural capital with a neoliberal society that defines them by it. This is a result of the culture war Fraser recognized several years ago, which “has effectively identified class privilege and hierarchy with cultural and educational rather than economic capital.” But, again, economics ultimately rules. While the poor may be allowed to briefly occupy the space of cultural capital, it is the rich who own it, who offer it up for limited consumption.

Yet the desperation to share, to express one’s value in a world that is so intent on devaluing us all, is deeply human. Which is why you get people Photoshopping themselves onto famous backdrops, which, from a cultural capital perspective, is no different from being there — on social media a photograph is a photograph, and the real Sistine Chapel looks the same as the Etsy wallpaper reproduction. People have always consumed art partly for the cultural capital rather than just the personal enrichment, but now the goal is to broadcast the enrichment itself to the public: sharing one’s consumption of the aura has priority over one’s actual consumption of the aura. Though a hierarchy persists even here. The authentic art consumer, the one who actually experiences the work in person, looks down upon the forger. As Walter Benjamin wrote, the aura of a piece of art is tied to its presence, which can’t be replicated. Which is to say the essence of art can only be experienced through the art itself — a picture can’t recreate it, but it does make its shared image more valuable. 

It’s apt that right now, in the midst of a pandemic, the popularity of a cultural site can kill and that virtual tours are being encouraged over actual ones. What better way to illustrate that our increasingly insular art world has not in fact connected us at all, but has done the opposite? As Steyerl noted in e-flux magazine in 2015, the Louvre, that model of national culture, was a “feudal collection of spoils” before revolutionaries turned it into a public museum, “the cultural flagship of a colonial empire that tried to authoritatively seed that culture elsewhere, before more recently going into the business of trying to create franchises in feudal states, dictatorships, and combinations thereof.” Those with the means flock to symbols of elitism like this, not to widen their perspective in solidarity with the world, not to connect with a community of strangers, but to bolster their own value locally by sharing the encounter online. This is not globalism; this is the neoliberal stand-in for it.

All of that foot traffic, all of that online diffusion, is an expression of how we have commodified the individual consumption of art to the point that it looks like we are sharing it with others. We aren’t. We are instead dutifully promoting ourselves as valuable consumers in the capitalist community we are complicit in perpetuating. “It’s not a question of inside or outside, or the number and scale of various organized sites for the production, presentation, and distribution of art,” wrote Fraser in Artforum. “It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution.”

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One of the last movies I saw in the cinema before they started closing down was The Invisible Man. It was a perfect example of how a public screening can tell you what streaming cannot — in real time, you can gauge by the reactions around you whether or not it will be a hit. As with certain art installations, you are experiencing not only the art, but also simultaneously others’ experience with it. In that theater, we screamed and laughed and sat agog together. It was a spark of community that extinguished the moment the lights lifted. A few weeks later, these same strangers who shared that moment of emotion together, headed to supermarkets to empty out toilet roll aisles, buy up all the disinfectant, and clear out the fresh meat despite a collective need for it. These same strangers who in concert cheered on an oppressed heroine, went on to unashamedly side-eye the Asians in their community. Individuals in North American society can occasionally partake in a cultural experience with their neighbors, but in the end it’s to exhibit their own counterfeit edification. It’s telling that the big tech these individuals ultimately share their consumption on — Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr, Instagram — rarely funds the arts.

Which brings us back to those empty images from the start of this essay. Proliferating photographs of abandoned culture, of objects ignored, confront the hollowness of online sharing. Social media implies connection, but the context of its shares is as important as the context of art’s production and neither can be divorced from the hierarchies in which they reside. No wonder our meagre individual expressions of value dictated by capitalist enterprise fit perfectly within a capitalist enterprise that profits off our inability to ever sate ourselves. The only way to really share — with art, with each other — is to remove sharing from this construct. The only way to really connect — to support a collective of artists, to support a collective of human beings — is to distance ourselves from the misguided values we have internalized.

“At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture,” writes Claire Bishop in Artforum. Under a worldwide pandemic, we see a move toward this — individuals freely leaking their cultural subscriptions, artists offering performances for nothing, even institutions waiving fees for access to their virtual collections. While the vulnerability spreading across America right now is ordinarily framed as weakness in the landscape of capitalist bravado, it is central to real sharing and offers a rare chance to dismantle the virulent elitism that has landed us here. It’s unfortunate that it takes a dystopia, a global interruption of the systems in place, to see what a utopia can be — one in which sharing is about the creation and cultivation of community, a reality that only exists outside the one we have built.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.