The Internet has made the dissemination of art more democratic, since anyone can open a virtual gallery almost for free. And it has made art criticism more democratic, since anyone can post a review or comment without impressing an editor first. Now it is trying to make curating democratic as well, since art museums are putting images of their collections online and allowing users to classify them by adding descriptive tags.
This is a movement known as folksonomy (from "folk taxonomy"), or social tagging. You can see it in action by going to a site such as steve.museum, a project funded by U.S. educational grants. It has created software that permits anybody to look at various museums' online collections and label each image with as many descriptive keywords as they like. Those keywords can then be used as search terms. So a Vermeer painting might be labelled "Dutch," "17th-century," "oil" and all the other conventional terms an art historian might use to categorize it, but then amateur users might also have added descriptors like "tranquillity" or "milk jug," reflecting the interests of non-professional searchers.
One of the goals of this project is to study the tags that are added by the "cloud" - the spread-out mass of viewers - in order to educate professional curators in the real interests and research needs of the non-expert public. The results have so far been interesting: There does seem to be a consensus about the most important tags to put on an image, but all kinds of unusual ones do tend to create unpredictable links among disparate pieces of art. Searching for images tagged "milk jug," for example, will give you a collection unlike any usually put together by a museum.
Or you can compare a site like Collection X, a project of the Art Gallery Of Ontario, which encourages users to make and present their own exhibitions of art from the gallery's virtual collection. It's a way for users to personalize and comment on their own pathway into that museum's huge and varied holdings. And it's a part of a larger project, called the Virtual Museum Of Canada, which offers photos and "virtual exhibits" from a huge variety of public collections.
I love the idea of this in theory, but I'm probably still pretty far away from seeking out amateur curators' efforts over professional ones. It raises an old question: Is democracy actually valuable in art? If so, then television is the most valuable of all art forms.
This question surfaced recently over an initiative of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which operates the great Guggenheim art museums all over the world. The foundation has teamed up with YouTube to run a competition for the creation of amateur art videos. Anyone can enter a short video (go to youtube.com/play); it must be under 10 minutes and not commercial in nature. The thousands of submissions will be weeded and sorted by Guggenheim staff to a short-list of 200 which will then be judged by a panel of nine experts in a variety of disciplines (including graphic design and music - in other words not just the usual experts in critical theory who fill art galleries with text). Of those, 20 winners will be selected to be displayed simultaneously at all the Guggenheim museums. The stated goal of both partners is democracy and access (the unstated goal is huge publicity for both): The idea is to open these prestigious galleries to non-art-world artists.
That was immediately criticized by some art-world insiders, notably by the dean of Yale's art school, Robert Storr, who told the New York Times that such easy access to museums was "the enemy of art and of talent." He believes that art institutions should "give useful shape to the art of the present" and have a defined "viewpoint" - meaning, one presumes, not a populist one.
Bear in mind that the videos on display will in fact have been judged and filtered - but not by what Storr might consider the right sort of people. It's difficult to ignore Storr's vested interest: He's a former senior curator of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, and former organizer of the Venice Biennale. If all art in such institutions were chosen through open competition judged by generalist panels, there would be fewer jobs like his. (And there might also be a little less Foucault-quoting text, one also imagines, but that remains to be seen.)
Digital art is inherently democratic because it is so cheap and easy to make, and because it is so new it has not yet developed any establishment, any academies or hallowed traditions. It seems natural that, in order to find the best of it, one has to look beyond the art schools.
And it will also be exciting to see what new ways of collecting and presenting art will be inspired by huge collective experiments in classification - we may even see old art in new groupings as totally new art.