Show and Tell: ArtStack’s Social Model for Curatorial Discovery

Gene McHugh

It was inevitable. With the success of Web 2.0 platforms like Pandora, Tumblr, and Pinterest to organize and share cultural media,[1] someone, somewhere, would come up with an online platform specifically designed to share visual fine art. After all, art’s global audience could greatly benefit from a systematic online approach to organizing and sharing its riches.

However, things were inevitably awkward. The existing audience for visual art is relatively elitist in temperament, and largely, it would seem,[2] averse to the barbarians-at-the-gate tinge of the terms online platform and social network. Further, art prides itself, rightly or wrongly, on its thoughtfulness and complexity. The rapid-fire, lowest-common-denominator experience of spending a bunch of time clicking at Internet stuff on a little screen could easily vanquish the meditative, reflective, and phenomenological aspects of the visual art experience.

In the past year, several glossy websites arrived on the scene to put these notions to the test. Here, I’ll speak to one of those new sites—theartstack.com or ArtStack.

ArtStack is a “discovery tool.” It introduces users to new works of art through a social network. Instead of building a complicated algorithm to predict what works a user would appreciate,[3] ArtStack is open to contingency—the quirky, fallible, and sometimes ingenious grassroots efforts of other people to share. Based on the principle that “the best way to discover art is through people,”[4] ArtStack looks to give the would-be art seeker more fruitful artistic discoveries with like-minded people on ArtStack than with the impersonal reasoning of computer software.

The user signs up gratis and is automatically presented with a batch of people to follow. The user can then begin viewing the site’s main feature, the My Feed page, which features works either uploaded (the site’s term is “Added”) or recommended (“Stacked”) by their network. The user can then Add or Stack works into a personal Feed. Users can also view the “Live” feed, which is all activity from the total pool of ArtStack users, not just those within their own network. Perhaps this sounds complicated, and there are, of course, even more variable ways to use the site, but overall, the interface and usability options should come across as familiar to anyone who’s comfortable using the Internet.

As mentioned, the site’s objective is to aid users in discovering new art through social interactions rather than through a computer algorithm (I like X and Y; therefore, it is logically probable that I’d like Z). In order to make this work, the site requires an active group of users to create traffic; it needs to populate itself with enough archived works to lend it some art-historical authority, and to keep the most recent Feed of works engaging; and, most important, it needs to include enough enthusiastic users sharing unique works for it to become a site of daily return. On a subjective level, before I started using the site, I was skeptical that ArtStack would succeed, but after approximately four months of use, I found that the community continually and impressively churns out a lot of new, engaging work—much of which I was not aware of before.

For instance, I recently encountered Cy Twombly sculptures that opened my eyes to his painting practice in a new way. They were fan-like palm leaves painted white and placed in monumental concrete blocks. The tension between the natural forms and the austerity of the minimal blocks struck the perfect balance. Unless I had decided to dig deep into Twombly (which, honestly, I probably would not do; I just wouldn’t think to do it without a good reason), I would not have seen these works. Any general discussion of the late artist would focus on his painting practice and, in the event that the sculptures were exhibited, I doubt that I would have known about them or really even cared. It was only through the gamesmanship of another user on ArtStack saying, “have you ever seen these Twombly sculptures?” in response to a call-and-response thread of “sculptures by artists known primarily for painting” that I ended up viewing these works.

The enthusiasm of the site breeds enthusiasm in new users. Indeed, an effect I didn’t anticipate was how much I would get into “following” other people’s tastes—and having them follow my own. Now, it’s not always as smooth. It can be disheartening to scroll through image after image and have nothing stick out. Also, to be sure, there is no dearth of problems that the site presents to the type of art-theoretical anxieties described above[5]—including the fact that it is relying on unpaid labor to create all of its content. Moreover, ArtStack leaves little room for anything conceptual; painting and photography, or anything that immediately catches the eye, is what works best. Similarly, context of any sort disappears.[6] If there’s a way to qualitatively measure a “good” Stack in ArtStack, it probably has to do with posting a work that’s vertically oriented, colorful, and strikes one in an instantaneous way, a way that cuts through the “noise” of scrolling through hundreds of other works from all the different eras of art history.

So, to summarize, the site succeeds in allowing a user, with a bit of effort and willingness, to participate in a community and to discover new art, even if the methods used may be alienating to many. ArtStack develops its own specificities and its own effects; the more one uses the site, the more one looks out for certain types of ArtStack-specific imagery. As a curator, I’ve been introduced to works that I would love to include in exhibitions. Beyond that (and more important), my curatorial instincts are roused with my ability to work with all art, from across the board, and mix, match, and tailor my Feed to share with other art enthusiasts; and, basically, we are all allowed to geek out.

Gene McHugh is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Rhizome, Aperture, Junk Jet, and multiple exhibitions catalogs. He was the recipient of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for his blog Post Internet, itself published in book form by Link Editions. A graduate of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, McHugh has curated exhibitions for Vogt Gallery, Silvershed, and 319 Scholes. He is currently the Interpretation Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Notes:
  1. Pandora Radio is a “music recommendation service” based on a massive digital “genome” that “genetically” maps connections between musicians and pieces of music; Tumblr is a “microblogging” site and social network that thrives on fast-paced image and animated GIF posting; Pinterest, perhaps the closest match to ArtStack of the three examples listed here, is a social image-sharing site based on grouping images into themes and collections. return to text
  2. See for example Claire Bishop, “Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media,” Artforum 51, no. 1 (September 2012): http://artforum.com/inprint/id=31944. return to text
  3. As does ArtStack’s biggest competitor, the Pandora-like Art.sy, which is building an enormous art-historical genome based on 800 or so art historical traits or “genes.” return to text
  4. Ezra Konvitz quoted in Matthew Caines, “ArtStack: making collectors of us all,” Guardian (April 20, 2012): http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/apr/20/artstack-social-network-art-tool. return to text
  5. But that is a different, much larger conversation. For more, see Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus, “Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: Facebook and Social Networks,” in Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor, eds. Michael A. Peters and Ergin Bulut (New York: Peter Lang, 2011). return to text
  6. Admittedly, lack of context can encourage the history of art to mingle, intersect, and create odd connections, such as the popular image culture on sites like Tumblr. See the effects Claire Barliant describes in her Red Hook Journal article on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new website: “Have We Met?,” Red Hook Journal (August 30, 2011): http://www.bard.edu/ccs/redhook/have-we-met. return to text