There’s been a fair bit of talk lately about how the recession is affecting artists, the art market, and art institutions. And with good reason, pocket books are tight everywhere, and most art, no matter its intended relation to market forces, can’t exist without some kind of capital. It’s not a coincidence that this is also the era of the rise of social media. Facebook, Twitter, and the like are facilitating massive realtime networks that are free (as long as you’re connected). These networks become a conduit of exchange for new kinds of goods, and value is now being measured in new ways. Stock prices still matter, but Google rankings are starting to matter, too. Content is aggregated by algorithms that calculate value from the unconscious input of millions of users.
How does this new method of exchange and valuation affect the art world? If social networks naturally become markets, placing value on instantly exchanged bits of info, what would happen if we gave that value a monetary correlation, apart from a traditional marketplace? I’ve been working to help develop an new art event that seeks to do exactly that. ArtPrize is a radically open art competition. The annual event will run September 23 to October 10 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hundreds of artists from around the world have created online profiles, which are a cross between an artist bio and an open-ended proposal. Hundreds of property owners, institutions, and public spaces in downtown Grand Rapids have volunteered to open their space to artists. We’ve built ArtPrize.org to enable these artists and venues to connect to one another, without a central curator or jury. If that weren’t unorthodox enough, the winner of the cash prize (currently the world’s largest, at $250,000, with additional prizes for the rest of the top ten) will be decided by public vote. Anyone can come to Grand Rapids, register to vote for free, and rank each entry with either an up or a down vote, online or by text message.
ArtPrize is an experiment that seeks to utilize the connectivity that social networking allows to build an art event from the ground up. We could have made an online art contest, where everyone uploads a .jpg and users click to vote while in their pajamas. We did not want to do that. We believe that the true value of most works of art are experienced during a physical or social encounter. Incentivizing these encounters in the city of Grand Rapids has tremendous civic value. Artists are tuning in to the possibilities inherent with this level of direct engagement with the city and audience. There are exciting projects coming that push the boundaries of how art interacts with social structures, architecture, and an overall sense of place.
For those who can’t make it to Grand Rapids this fall, there will still be plenty of ways to track the event online. During the first round of voting, which takes place in the first week, visitors to ArtPrize.org will be able to track which artists are taking the lead. On October first, the top ten from the general vote will be announced, and final the winners will be announced October 8, after the second round of voting. To keep up during the event, be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and our blog. It’s important to us that the event is grounded in a physical location, but we’re also eager to see how the discussion spurred by ArtPrize spreads across the web.
The idea of an incentive is central to ArtPrize. The prize and the vote primarily do one thing: they deliver an engaged audience. To many, this is a scary prospect. Who are all these people, and what do they know about art? Who are they to say what’s good and what isn’t? The voting audience will certainly be diverse, ranging from experts to complete novices. The event will likely create a vacuum of critical art knowledge, people may not have the language, or the art-historical context, to process what they’re seeing. The great thing is that this vacuum can be perfectly filled by educators, artists, and critics. Experts work tirelessly to supply cultural capital, we’re looking to create a demand. We’re working to produce educational programming and resources, but we’re really excited to see what pops up on its own. How will artists advocate for their own works? How will critics make an argument for what should get votes and what shouldn’t? What happens when friends go to the bar after looking at art and argue about what they voted for and why?
ArtPrize has been the target of some criticism, and that’s not surprising. Some assume that putting on an art contest without a jury is a referendum against traditional art world practices, or even an affront to the very idea of curation. This is not the intent. Curators, juries, galleries, and other art institutions are playing a large role the formation of the event, each presenting a collection of entries that reflect their own sensibilities and expertise.
There are two interrelated questions that drive much of the thinking behind ArtPrize. One, how do works of art create and maintain value given the current state technological and cultural progress? This is a question Walter Benjamin began to ask with his 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. We’re way beyond the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but new versions of the same question keep coming up. And the second question, who decides what that value is? What, or who, is the art world, if such a thing can be concretely defined? And who is the public? How do social media technologies, with their ability to level all users to a single node in a network, affect these distinctions? ArtPrize doesn’t claim to know the answers to these questions, but we are doing everything we can to energize the debate.