American Paintings as a Refuge from the Digital Age

Questroyal Fine Art
Jan 18, 2017 4:05PM

by Chloe Heins, Director

What does a landscape represent? How can it persist, when the

forces of Modernism seem to make nature vanish? 1

Sunflowers at Late Dusk, 1916
Questroyal Fine Art

I admit it — I’ve never been a natural when it comes to social media. I

love photography — taking pictures, looking at pictures — but I’ve

never felt comfortable with the inherently self-centered and somewhat

disruptive impulse to document everything as it’s happening.

There is something far less obtrusive about “shooting from the hip”

(in the tradition of twentieth-century street photographers) than holding

up a glossy iPhone. On a recent visit to the Diane Arbus exhibition

at the Met Breuer, I felt a surge of relief when I noticed the crossed-out

camera sign … no photography allowed — phew! I welcome moments

like this — unencumbered by pressure to capture my experience

(beyond memory) and show my friends/followers that I just saw the

exhibition we’ve all been reading about — moments that undoubtedly

result in a better viewing experience. The occasional freedom to purely

look and observe and not feel compelled to document or discernibly

brag about what you did or saw can be comforting, uplifting, and


Diane Arbus (1923-1971). Taxicab driver at the wheel with two passengers, N.Y.C. 1956 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved  

In musing about my own relationship to social media, I end up

considering its relationship to art. When you are struggling to parse

through commentary in the daily deluge of articles, newsletters, social

media posts, etc. and get caught up, for example, trying to grasp the

concept of “post-internet-art,” works created pre-social media suddenly

seem innovative and refreshing. Although American paintings

exhibitions rarely make the “most-Instragrammable” top-ten lists and

can’t compete with contemporary “social-media-bait” installations,

I’ve come to realize that this is a huge advantage. We represent a part

of the art world that can still offer an unadulterated viewing experience.

Sure, we can’t escape the entrenched reality of selfie-sticks and

hash-tags, regardless of our age and interest level. As resistant as I am

to Snapchat, Pokémon GO, and whatever else is flooding the internet

that I haven’t even acknowledged yet, I am not saying we need to do

away with any of it. Rather, I’ve come to appreciate the world of social

media as a sort of foil for the world of nineteenth- and twentiethcentury

American art. I think of American paintings as a refuge from

our countless devices and the drone of digital information. While there

are myriad reasons why social media has been a positive force in art,

it is has also permanently changed it. As the Los Angeles Times reports,

The rise of social media has likewise seen the rise of the “Instagrammable”

art object or installation: Works that look great in a box on

a phone but which may be thin when it comes to concept or ideas

in the gallery. Random International’s “Rain Room” at LACMA is

one such installation — a work that serves more as an ideal set for

picture-making than it does as a place where viewers can tease out

complex ideas about nature. 2

Consider art that was not made for this reason.

1. Priscilla Paton, Abandoned New England: Landscape in the Works of Homer, Frost, Hopper, Wyeth, and Bishop (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003), 9.

2. Carolina A. Miranda, “Social Media Have Become a Vital Tool for Artists — But Are They Good for Art?” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2016,

Questroyal Fine Art