[This is the first in a two-part series on Art Everywhere. The first focuses on the posters themselves, the second on social media]

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This month, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), in partnership with five major American museums, have put together what they refer to as “a very very big art show.” Art Everywhere, currently in its first inception in the US and second iteration across the pond in the UK, features a selection of significant works of art from the American canon (the British canon in the UK) plastered across billboards, bus stops, posters, digital signs, and all other manner of out-of-home (OOH) advertising. The selection of works was narrowed down from a larger museum-selected list via public poll earlier in the year. Each poster features a reproduction of the work of art, a number and caption, and the ability to unlock mobile content via the augmented reality app Blippar.

New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl critiqued the initiative as part of what he sees as the dangerous hyper-popularity of high art and a lowest-common-denominator brand of taste. His piece, to my thinking, perpetuates a troubling divide between “art world” and “the public” that has fueled the fire for numerous ill-fated public debates on art and censorship, and he obliquely argues that art cannot and should not be enjoyed by everyone. Aside from the fairly obvious issues with this argument, it also ignores some of the more specific aspects of Art Everywhere worth pondering beyond a rather pat analysis of “popularity” and “high culture.”

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In many ways, the project succeeds in bringing significant works of art to a larger audience. It brings art into the public realm and unexpected places–something the OAAA has actually been touting since its inception over 100 years ago. In a promotional book from 1928 cited in Michele Bogart’s study of art and advertising, the organization responds to proposed restrictions and regulations from community boards concerned about advertising’s encroachment on public space by calling outdoor advertising media a way to bring art to a broader public: “while the posters and bulletins cannot rightly be called an art gallery, they do provide a means of bringing art to the people.” It seems in 2014 this relationship between art gallery and adspace has become increasingly blurred.

The works of art selected for Art Everywhere contain relatively few surprises, and are restricted (by virtue of the exhibition venue) to two-dimensional works, primarily painting with some photography and graphic work. While this certainly is not a representation of significant American art (which includes sculpture, film, installation, and performance work), it brings a medium usually relegated to the confines of the museum or gallery into a new venue. Furthermore, the works are also experienced in a state of distraction, not the absorbed, deep contemplation ideally attributed to painting (which Schjeldahl idealizes). I don’t make an argument against sustained attention to a work of art (it can often lead to very illuminating findings), however, it’s interesting to throw these paintings into the mix outdoors, into a new mode of perception–just as it was radical for artists of the twentieth century to take the detritus of popular culture into the gallery for sustained formal attention. Sculpture is quite familiar with this mode of distracted reception in public space, as it has littered public squares for centuries. Easel painting, on the other hand, is not. One wonders, however, if its reproductions can hold their own in the of competing stimuli.

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As an art historian, I naturally noticed and stopped in my tracks when I saw a Sheeler on a screen at JFK, a Lichtenstein on my way out of the subway, and a Demuth at a phone booth. I wonder, however, about the visual power of a lot of these works–if they would really stand out amidst competing advertisements for average passersby. The visual elements that make for good advertising (advertising that catches “eyeballs,” in industry speak) can overlap with, but does not always correspond with the visual elements than make for good painting. Charles Demuth’s My Egypt might seem comparatively dull next to a poster of Neil Patrick Harris for Hedwig on Broadway or a Bud Light advertisement. Additionally, for an organization as replete with knowledge for catching eyeballs as OAAA, I wonder about the choice of the bland white ground on which they’ve placed the reproductions from the American canon. These are especially less eye-catching against the subway’s dirty tile walls. In this light, what should upset Schjeldahl is not the increased number of eyeballs looking at the American masters, but rather the amount of people ignoring them. For an image to enter public space, it simultaneously is seen by more people and ignored by more people. Pictures in public space are just as (if not more) frequently ignored, unnoticed, cast aside, or otherwise treated as insignificant as they are beheld in rapt attention.

Despite its shortcomings, I find Art Everywhere a very positive project that brings images normally encountered in a certain context into public space, to attract attention, provoke curiosity, or be ignored, just like every other poster. This leveling between advertising and works of art does not, to my thinking, lower the status of art, but rather brings its manners of contemplation into attention. The project’s scale–which covers only a mere fraction of a percentage of available out-of-home (OOH) advertising space–speaks to the potential reach for large, syndicated projects in public space, something fans of public art can only hope is explored more fully.

In the next post, I explore the relationship between the dispersive nature of Art Everywhere’s location and networked social media. The creators of Art Everywhere suggest fans play a Pokemon-like game where viewers can “collect ’em all.” Blippar’s app creates potential for increased involvement with works of art through augmented reality, reinstating some of the museum experience through audio guides and informative text.

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