A Shattering Of Tradition: Art in The Age of the Smartphone

Sophia Dorval


“…that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.” --Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

“The work of art in the age of digital reproduction is physically and formally chameleon.  There is no clear conceptual distinction now between original and reproduction in virtually any medium based in film, electronics, or telecommunications.  As for the fine arts, the distinction is eroding, if not finally collapsed.  The fictions of “master” and “copy” are now so entwined with each other that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends.  In one sense, Walter Benjamin’s proclamation of doom for the aura of originality, authored early in this century, is finally confirmed by these events.  In another sense, the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin’s prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself.”--Douglas Davis, “The Work of Art In The Age of Digital Reproduction”

"Will the digital age kill off art?" No.  Next.”-- Commenter for The Guardian’s July 2nd, 2013 article “Will The Digital Age Kill Off Art?”



Last month, this writer had both the great and terrible misfortune to be in New York during the final week of Jean Paul Gaultier’s traveling retrospective The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk; which was ending its run at the Brooklyn Museum. Sadly, in the end, she had to appease herself with merely viewing images of the show from websites such as Racked, The New York Times, and various YouTube videos.  Being able to view the pieces on a Smartphone didn’t incite a thrill about having to live vicariously through those who were lucky enough to be present.  Viewing iconic pieces worn by Madonna at the peak of her fame on a three-inch screen paled in comparison to seeing them in person, and only heightened the sense of loss on missing a great exhibit.  However, for others in a similar position, that surely would have and did suffice.  In the November 20, 2013 The Creators Project article “Painting The Internet: Jeannette Hayes’ Art For The Digital Age,” Madison Alexander Moore wrote that “People love capturing art on their smartphones, whether it’s allowed or not…the smartphone has become a major character in museums and art galleries around the world.”  

This current state of affairs far surpasses anything either Benjamin or Davis could have predicted.  As Benjamin prophesied, the slow and steady “shattering of tradition” the digital age ushered in has been greatly accelerated by the advent of the Smartphone.  The evidence is everywhere: From ubiquitous iPhone cases showcasing works by contemporary artists like the late Keith Haring and British graffiti activist Banksy and even more profoundly by the popularity of image-driven apps like Tumblr and Instagram, not just with the general art viewing or buying public, but also amongst the creators themselves. 

During her interview with Moore, New York based artist Jeannette Hayes waxed ecstatic about the use of filters on sites like Instagram.  “That’s how the world is and it’s cool because why not?  If you want to fix something or look a certain way you now can do exactly what you want.  When it comes to filters and things, I think there should be hundreds more.  It’s insane that we’re stuck with the eleven or whatever filters they pick.” 


Hayes’ pieces celebrate the current era by gleefully juxtaposing classic works of art alongside the banal realities of modern life.  In her “Botticelli Photobooth” series, she metaphorically copy-pasted the Renaissance painter’s works into modern photo-editing programs.  Her interview with Moore also bore more of the same:  She shamelessly discussed her “Warholian” influences and working on a painting inspired by emoji icons alongside her admiration of TMZ and reality TV stars Tamar Braxton and Nene Leakes.  A few of the icons she compares herself to in her Twitter introduction are Ivanka Trump, Heidi Montag and Jeff Koons.


 In the headline for the January 17, 2014 Paper.com profile about her, she quips that “…Rembrandt would have loved taking selfies.”  When one learns that Hayes transitioned from modeling into her present career, that she provided designs for the fashion designers Proenza Schouler, and that her big break was courtesy of a 2012 group show that also featured work by Girls star Jemima Kirke, it would seem that she represents a new kind of art star, but Ms. Hayes’ cynicism-free embrace of our media-saturated world is no more different than Haring’s Pop Shop or Basquiat collaborating with Warhol in their primes.  It will be fascinating to see how Hayes utilizes all the possibilities of digital art. 

One of the possibilities that await Instagram users who are driven either by curiosity or boredom with their current feed is to take a chance on the “explore” feature.  Within seconds, a user who observed a fellow foodie’s dinner in Los Angeles can now be transported to such far-flung locales as Malaysia or Sao Paolo.  Spain-based artists Jorge Martinez Phil Gonzalez have now taken that feature one step further with the creation of the world’s first Instagram Gallery in Miami.  The new space, situated in the celeb magnet otherwise known as Wynwood is devoted to “…promoting and disseminating the most outstanding and valued photos in the Instagramers Gallery digital platform… There the Instagramers Gallery becomes a real experience exploring the unique worldview of instagramers and providing them with opportunities to attend discussions, forums, events, presentations and, of course, a wide range of expositions.”


What was once thought of as just another vehicle for documenting the lives of millenials has now been elevated to a higher status as a forum that has the potential to showcase art from up-and-coming photographers from places as diverse Brazil, South Africa and Italy, all of which have been featured on the gallery’s website.  In addition to featuring their artists both in their galleries and online, Instagrammers Gallery Miami also awards a daily prize of $1,000 to the best instagram of the day.  There are also plans later this year to open a second European gallery in Madrid. 

Spaces like the aforementioned are yet another reminder that we live in an image-saturated time replete with Internet memes, retweets, and shares.  It’s probably too soon to ask whether a picture still manages to speak a thousand words if it’s been through a litany of Photoshop and Instagram filters.  At the time that Davis wrote his piece, video conferencing was a “phenomenon” and the DAT and QuickTime movies presented new opportunities and challenges for artists. 


Nearly 25 years later, cameras are more commonplace than Starbucks in the country, and MP3 players are a thing of the recent past.  While this author didn’t appreciate experiencing a major retrospective through her Samsung, last December, the International Arts Museum Malaysia recently made over 100 contemporary Islamic works available for the first time through their Smartphone app. Art lovers who are unable to hop on a flight to Kuala Lumpur can now discover artists from China, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia; and as they are countries that have a tendency to get short shrift coverage in Western media, it would be extremely obtuse to ignore the impact of such a move. 


Author Bio:

Sophia Dorval is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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WLAD; Saul Hernangomes Reyes; Flaviz Guerra; Daniel Zanetti (Wikipedia Commons)
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