The Frye Art museum’s exhibition #SocialMedium received attention in national publications before it opened. This was vital to the project, as it asked social media users to vote for paintings from the Frye’s founding collection by liking and commenting on images of the paintings on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. In arranging all this, it was all hands on deck at the Frye, including the collections, curatorial and communications departments, plus local Seattle firm Civilization and artist Dylan Neuwirth as a social media consultant.
The early coverage helped push the total votes up past the 17000 mark—not bad for a small museum—but the coverage did not generate an informed debate about the project, and many who chimed in will not see the exhibit. That goes for the thousands of “guest curators” around the world who voted on the images. Even those who see the exhibit may not understand some of the inspiration behind it.
Some commentators speciously referred to it as crowdsourcing, when it was really a viewer poll. Others took the mistake a step further and speculated that crowdsourcing might be the future of curation. I saw no one point out that crowdsourcing and online polls pull from a limited audience (them, for instance), and it is not truly democratic—merely demotic. Polling will give an indication of what the crowd wants, but it is only as good as the sample set and the options from which they choose. Crowdsourcing can quickly generate ideas and lists but it requires that someone else with a broader vision be able to synthesize these concepts. And neither polling nor crowdsourcing are curation, nor will they ever be.
This hubbub came from a medium driven by controversy and cheap, easily reproduced entertainment. It is a competition to notice something first, write about it in a catchy way, and also have the luck to go viral—that elusive, capricious willow-the-wisp of the blogosphere bog. It is a bog of constant reiterations verging on plagiarism, and when content varies, it is not in depth of coverage but across partisan lines. It is a world of mass-reproduction, not curation, of polemics, not dialectics.
And this is the turbid pool from which future exhibitions will be decided? Not likely. People are already ill from the glut. It comes in waves throughout history: Civilizations need to binge on their own productivity for a time in order to appreciate the clear voice among the madding crowd. In cultural commentary and documentation, we should desire something properly curated and edited, with a sense for the epoch, not just for the day. This does not need to be a singular, authoritarian view, but it must be both inclusive and critical.
That inclusiveness is what #SocialMedium is really about: For too long, museums have been seen as intimidating and not always rewarding to visitors. If one is going to a blockbuster art exhibition, one will be wedged among many others, often feeling rushed and unable to develop context or have a moment with the art. This assumes one can even get through the door, as many are put off by entrance fees—people who can’t afford to have art in their own home and who are thus most in need of it. Others simply don’t want to walk through the door. Maybe they are suspicious of modern art or bored by the classics. Some see it as elitist and others just question the relevance of art in general.
We see and hear all of those suspicions in Seattle, particularly when the culture has pitted a “philistine” tech world against an “arbitrary” world of the humanities. Both sides deserve far more credit; both sides are known for a certain level of arrogance, and when you add in growing class tensions—especially locally—you have pernicious antagonism that is not creating new legacies or patronage. That is bad for everyone. Everyone.
#SocialMedium doesn’t fix that, but it’s a start. And The Frye is perhaps one of the few institutions that could attempt this sort of experiment. For one, it’s always free, so it can in good conscience “curate” from the crowds, as it welcomes all in its doors. The Frye also has an interesting limitation: A portion of its founding collection must always be on display.
For decades, this was taken in a very literal way, and the space was virtually mothballed. Through the efforts of former deputy curator Robin Held and the continuing work of director Jo-Anne Birnie-Danzker, the museum has become one of Seattle’s most daring contemporary programs. And yet, they must always seek inventive ways of presenting that founding collection. #SocialMedium is the latest approach, so at the very least it can be considered a success on that front.
It has also been cause to spread word about the museum and its programs and hopefully make work more accessible to people—even work that isn’t new. The Frye’s founding collection is an eclectic mix, almost entirely from late 19th and early 20th centuries. They have a few pieces from academic artists—most notably the young shepherdess by Bouguereau, which predictably did well in the voting—but most of the work is from German expressionists, who were an early avant-garde when Charles and Emma Frye were collecting them. Ill will toward Germany during and after the World Wars has kept scholarship and attention to these artists quite minimal, and only in recent years have their contributions started to receive more scrutiny and praise. People who have not visited the Frye will thus see most of these works for the first time (in person or on their devices) so for mere advocacy of the works and art in general, the exhibition was a good idea.
The question then becomes how does one make order of the chaos of the votes? Visitors may not realize the massive amounts of work required to prepare; they may even assume that this was easy, that the people just voted and the museum hung the works and that was that. For those who think that, allow this to be a primer in art handling:
A museum often has more pieces in storage than on display at any given time. Pieces often need restoration before going into a box and after coming out. There is a whole process of cleaning and preparation that must happen even before a painting is carefully hung—which is a process in itself, as many of us know just from hanging a picture frame.
The Frye’s founding collection has 400 paintings, some of which had never been displayed and needed considerable restoration before going public. Hence, the collections department at the Frye worked nonstop during the months of voting to prepare each work as much as possible, in the event that it was chosen. Some of the pieces that required the most care did not receive enough votes to end up in the show. Other unexpected ones did. Most notably, “Stella” by Gustav Majer has never been displayed, and its fragile, extravagantly intricate frame was utterly encrusted with decades of dust. Its need of so much care and preparation was one reason it had not been displayed for years. Another reason is that the name had never been authenticated; it was simply signed Schwabenmajer and the Frye’s staff had to research the artist’s real name. Yet another reason it hasn’t been shown is that, quite frankly, it just isn’t a great painting. Rumor has it that Emma Frye herself despised it and had it placed behind a current at their meat packing plant.
But big, brazen, naked Stella got enough votes to be included, so in she went. It isn’t a bad painting, and it is instructive in helping viewers understand the difference between being naked and being nude. Susanna of Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s “Susanna and the Elders” in the adjacent room is nude. Stella is naked. And loving it. Some people would kill for a naked selfie like this. She’s right for our times, I suppose, and she probably would have done even better in the polls if the Frye had also allowed for voting on Hot or Not.
Without the crowd asking for it, I don’t know that Stella would have ever made it out of her box. An inconspicuous debut is best for the work, but long-time visitors are noticing. During one of my visits, an elder gentleman asked a guard if “Stella” was actually part of the collection. He had been coming to the Frye since the 60s and had never seen it. The guard confirmed that she had not before been shown, but without further commentary. The gentleman—like her 111 voters—seemed to like her all the same, and she may not be the star of the show, but she is…Stella. Big, brazen, naked, hot-mess Stella.
The Frye’s loved femme-fatales, and several of the most popular paintings are of that theme, including Franz von Stuck’s “Die Sünde.” In a funny twist, two nearly identical women received various reactions but enough votes to be in the top 10: “Woman in Costume” and “Here I Am” by Leopold Schmutzler flank the door to one of the larger galleries. In person, “Here I am” version is clearly technically superior, and the figure of the woman is even more elongated and imperious. But on the small screen I might have preferred the moodiness of “Woman in Costume,” as its textiles are more textured and its smoky grey background would look more grounded, versus the lustrous, pearlescent pinks of the former that can only be appreciated in person.
On the topic of color, the walls themselves have been invaded by it: Huge sections are painted vivid yellow, chosen after much deliberation among the staff and their collaborators about “the color of the internet.” They settled on this sunny yellow—which is fair, perhaps because many people have it in lieu of sunlight these days. (I’d love to know what Beauford Delaney would say about it.) As if to further prank the curator, the sections painted yellow were done in advance and independent of the curatorial placement process, which has left some paintings on the divide between yellow and white.
It’s a tad garish and distracting, but in an exhibition that is devoted to new ways of approaching old works, this is indeed a new way of seeing it. Its similarity to color blocking and contemporary design may reduce the artwork to a “design element” in some ways, but that may be what some people need to actually spend time with it. That is, by making it more explicitly part of a whole, rather than floating individually in whitewashed isolation, some audiences may use the dividing lines as a visual cue to stop and rest and really spend time with a work.
The efficacy of these new techniques is all speculative at this point, and I do not think it will be possible to measure the success of the exhibition and all its moving parts. There is more to come, too. I cannot announce it yet, but I am privy to additional, unannounced aspects of the exhibition (coined #SocialMedium 2.0) that do even more to include entire groups of people who have often been excluded by museum shows of this nature. I must say, I am impressed by these efforts and they again affirm that the real philosophy of the show is inclusivity toward the audience, making people happy to visit a museum, not intimidated. It’s a global outreach, and other museums might follow their lead to good effect.
But inclusivity in curation? I reiterate, that sort of inclusivity is the opposite of what we need, and not what a lot of people even want. As if to demonstrate how capricious and arbitrary the nature of going viral is, the grand winner by a wide margin was a lovely, sophisticated but in no way sensational portrait of—a peacock. The work by Julius Scheuerer is painterly and got shared thousands of times on Tumblr, but it is not terribly extraordinary among the other works.
And yet perhaps there is wisdom in the crowd: The peacock is a loaded symbol.
In Abrahamic religions, it has been associated with both Satan and Christ (and this association gets even more complicated in the Yazidi faith). The exhibition is certainly one of ambivalence.
In alchemy, the cauda pavonis (peacock’s tail) is a state of confusion between alchemical stages, arising toward the more purified, golden form, but capable of collapse. (In the metaphorical sense of alchemy, this is a period where one can be lost in illusions.) The exhibition comes from a motley, churning place and is indeed attempting a sort of purity and higher thought, though it is trapped between yellow and white stages—and walls.
But perhaps the most apt association of the peacock is with Hera, who adorned its tail with its many “eyes” when her servant, the hundred-eyed giant Argus was slain. This association with Hera made the peacock the bird of choice during the coronation of the empress in ancient Rome. And in regards to the curation at the Frye—while I do love the Republic—I look forward to the return of the empress.