Memento Mori: Mortality, Value + the Art Exhibition
Like many of you, every time I’ve opened a social media app or a magazine the past couple weeks, another end of year “best” list has leapt onto my face like the beginning of a chest-bursting Alien nightmare. Books, movies, music, TV shows, podcasts–the onslaught seems never-ending. And I have no doubt that retailers and e-tailers across the world are thankful for it.
However, there is one special case among the hoard: the “best exhibitions” list. The crucial difference between this art industry roundup and its mass culture brethren is mortality. Unlike readers looking to capture the year’s alleged top books or movie junkies hoping to backtrack to 2014’s supposedly grade-A cinema before the calendar flips, art lovers no longer have an opportunity to experience the shows being lauded by critics in their rear-view analyses. It’s too late. They either went or they didn’t–and if they didn’t, well, better luck anticipating next year’s post-mortem.
Eventually, there will come a day when virtual reality destroys this fact of art viewing life. I expect that totally immersive simulations of museum and gallery shows will someday be available for rent or purchase for home viewing, just like digital movies or videogames are today. Heard raves about that Robert Heinecken retrospective but couldn’t set aside an afternoon to peep it before it faded to black? What if months later, instead of trying to atone with a boring old exhibition catalogue, you could cop a VR walkthrough loaded up with curators’ commentary tracks and other interactive features? Kiss FOMO goodbye, baby.
But based on my experience so far, I’m still hesitant to say this evolution will happen in my lifetime. Until it does, art exhibitions will continue to be event experiences. And in an era (and an economy) in which more and more of our lives can be lived vicariously or experienced on demand through tech, I think the need to physically show up to an exhibition increases art’s value to casual fans, sellers, and collectors alike.* That makes them both special events for viewers and intriguing opportunities for sellers–definitely ideas I will be thinking more about, in both dimensions, as we round the corner into 2015.
(*Note: Yes, the market may be able to transform the single artwork into a commodity through the witches’ brew of competition and dumb money. And gallerists can hock plenty of relatively low-priced flat works strictly off JPEGs. But good luck getting even a well-resourced buyer to commit to a monumental sculpture or experiential light installation through images alone. Personally, that task would land just a few spots above “swim open-mouthed across a ravine of raw sewage” on my to-do list–but hey, to each his own…)