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Feb. 13, 2016

#aesthetic vs. art (Video)

by Ellie Struewing, Online Features Editor
A sprawling rainbow made out of thread. Huge stacks of index cards that look like a small mountain range. A bright pink room covered in bugs and skulls. Sound familiar?



Chances are, you have seen one or more of these art pieces somewhere on the Internet, whether it be on Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. Or maybe you've seen them in person. The newly reopened Renwick Gallery, located a short walk from the Farragut North metro stop, has exploded in popularity over the last few months. Its growing number of visitors has been largely due to the photogenic nature of its newest exhibit, appropriately named "Wonder". Since opening in November, pictures of the large-scale art pieces have taken over social media.

Unlike many other art museums near it, the Renwick not only allows, but actually encourages, photography. "Photography Encouraged" signs are placed strategically around the gallery, and people are taking advantage of the opportunity to document their visit. Every day, the hashtag "RenwickGallery" on Instagram racks up 20,000 posts as people stroll through the gallery, interact with the pieces, take pictures, and share them with the world. Some argue that this new way of viewing art undermines its value and that going to museums in order to take pictures and post them on social media makes it more about the aesthetic than the actual art. But rather than being another manifestation of the effect of the "self-absorbed millennial" who is obsessed with social media and maintaining an image, the Renwick craze just goes to show the power of social media to spread awareness, and start positive trends.

Art museums are not always the most appealing places. Big, quiet, serious. The more famous museums down on the mall are more often a field trip destination or a place to take out of town guests rather than a place to visit frequently on one's own time. When there are so many other things going on, it's hard for lots of people (especially teenagers) to make time to enjoy art. But in the past few months, pictures of the Renwick have appeared on Instagram and Snapchat or Tumblr nearly every day, and to see so many enjoying art isn't discouraging, it's exciting.

Not only is the new culture around viewing art causing more young people to decide to go out and enjoy art, but the Renwick gallery itself is benefitting too. As of Sunday, Jan. 3, 176,000 people had visited the Renwick. That number is unheard of, considering the average yearly visitor count between 2011 and 2013 was approximately 150,000. These numbers alone prove that social media is more than just a tool for procrastination. It's also a tool for publicity, awareness and action.

Some argue that in taking of pictures of an exhibit, people are less likely to actually connect to the art or see it for what it is. But there is not one right way to find value in art. For some people, that value comes from observing it for minutes or even hours at a time and noting the small details, and for others it means exploring the different angles at which it can be viewed and taking pictures in order to remember and reflect on what they have seen. While it's true that some people are more concerned with taking pictures to show off their visit, that doesnít mean that everybody is.

Stigmatizing taking pictures of art to post on social media is outdated and silly. When people are excited about something, especially now in the information age, it's natural to want to share that excitement. Taking that one step further, when people see art that they find exciting, they should be able to take pictures of it and share that experience. Taking pictures of art in galleries is a way to make that particular piece of art last forever, long after the exhibit is gone. It is also a testament to the artists and their ability to create something that inspires wonder and makes people want to capture and share what they've seen. Gabriel Dawe's piece at the Renwick entitled "Plexus A1", a 48-foot rainbow made out of thread, is especially popular for photos. Dawes is pleased with the reception his piece has received. "In the exhibition, youíre immersed in the work, and thereís no way of not being immersed in the work. I donít think trying to capture that moment with your phone takes away from the experience," he says. That's what all of the pieces at the Renwick do. They immerse the viewer, making it nearly impossible not to want to capture their beauty and intrigue.

The Wonder exhibit at the Renwick is not the only example of art becoming trendy through social media. The Beach exhibit (a 10,000 square foot "ocean" of nearly one million recyclable translucent plastic balls) at the Building Museum attracted over 180,000 visitors last summer as pictures of people "swimming" in the ball pit swept through Instagram. There's something to be said about large-scale art like the Beach and Wonder exhibits. They practically beg the viewer to get involved. They are exciting, they are fun to look at and they are something different. That's what "Wonder" at the Renwick is all about. Being surrounded by art that inspires wonder and creativity, and not being ashamed to snap a picture to capture that feeling.

Art is art. People will never stop creating it and it will always have a place in our world. But the world around the art we create is ever evolving, and we can't let outdated attitudes discredit the way that art is viewed.



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