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The Way We Experience Art Is Changing–And Brands Can Capitalize On The Disruption

We talked to some of the most forward-thinking influencers we know to find out why art is changing, and how brands should change with it.

A conversation about the future is inseparable from a conversation about technology. The increasing role of and dependence on smart devices and the quickening march toward an absolute Internet of Things that simultaneously maps where we are and where we’re going–the world of tomorrow has never seemed so close to today.

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But where is art’s place in the future? This is not only an important question for artists, but for brands and marketers.

The division between art and technology has dissolved into a permeable membrane where concepts from each discipline inform new innovations. It’s an idea best expressed by Steve Jobs during the launch of the iPad 2 in March 2011: “…technology alone is not enough–it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

As instrumental as art has been for technology influencers like Jobs, the same can be said in reverse. Technology has triggered a sea change across the arts, transforming how we experience everything from fashion to advertising.

“[Art] is not as pure anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s been spoiled,” says David Droga, creative chairman and founder of Droga5. “Nothing is prepackaged and linear.”

Those capitalizing on that disruption now are shaping the role of art in the future. Leaders in the creative space like Droga are utilizing technology in ways that are changing how they connect with consumers, and, in turn, how consumers are connecting with art.

The Expert is “Dead”–Long Live The Creator And The Curator

Before the firehose of content that is the Internet, consumers were expected to take for gospel what was handed to them in museums or on the radio–that type of curation happened behind closed doors. But the interconnectedness of the Internet brought a deluge information that shifted the dynamic–audiences aren’t limited to programmed TV or limited-page magazines, but can find new content on endless Internet and app pages.

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“You no longer have the role of the expert that finds art somewhere and shows a limited amount to the public,” says Bob Pittman, chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia. “Rather the public can take a look at all that raw art for themselves and develop their own opinions. So these people that were gatekeepers to the art lover are being marginalized.”

Marginalized but not altogether forgotten.

Mass amounts of content have never been more readily accessible and the public is deluged with viewing and listening options, which has elevated the need for someone to sift through the static and curate what’s relevant to a particular audience. “The grand expert is diminished and the curator is heightened in terms of importance,” says Pittman.

The music world serves as a great example. “There’s constant music and sound available at all times through digital means and that has, in some way, devalued a lot of music and sound,” says Joel Beckerman, founder of Man Made Music. “But [it’s] also dramatically increased the value of people who are curators of music and sound in our lives, whether those curators are packagers of the larger multi-sensory experience or they’re your friends on social media.”

So the question from a brand perspective becomes how to effectively curate content. Pulling what matters to your audience starts with knowing what your audience wants–and for that, you have to go straight to the source. One way to do this, of course, is to study website or social media analytics to determine how popular different pieces of content are with your target audience.

“I think anytime you cut out ‘experts’ who are passing subjective judgments and allow the consumer to decide for themselves, that’s always better,” Pittman says. “What it does is it also inspires new people. We see an acceleration of innovation, creativity, new ideas, new directions.”

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Another way to figure out what your audience wants is to give them the tools to make what they want themselves. For the 2015 Video Music Awards, MTV launched an unusual marketing campaign: Host Miley Cyrus was filmed in a variety of green-screened scenarios and it was up to the MTV community to fill in the blanks however their imagination saw fit. All the submissions were displayed on MTV’s website.

MTV then used the best clips submitted by the public as official promos, attributing the artist responsible. If a focus group had voted that giving Miley Cyrus dolphin boobs on an island of day-glow colors was the best way to promote the VMAs, MTV wouldn’t have been able to create a sense of ownership within its audience by displaying at a national level something viewers created–and it wouldn’t have known that its audience wanted Miley Cyrus dolphin boobs with the same level of certainty as it would if the audience itself decided to create and submit Miley Cyrus dolphin boobs to the site.

But MTV’s history of tearing down the wall between artists and conventional marketers dates back to practically its birth.

In the ’80s, Pittman (a cofounder of MTV) orchestrated “Art Breaks,” short segments that aired on the network that featured contemporary artists such as Richard Prince, Jonathan Borofsky, and Jean-Michel Basquiat and “blurred the lines between logos and graphics and art.” Though novel at the time, Pittman admits it wasn’t the most scalable idea because of cost and team resources. Technology now, however, has dramatically lowered the cost of such projects, and given creators the power to publish their work on their own. This has created a potential well of content brands can pull from.

“Today [artists] do it on their own–they don’t have to put it on MTV. They can put it anywhere and it’s accessible by everybody,” Pittman says, referring to platforms like YouTube and Tumblr. “It’s matching the art to the consumer of the art, even if it’s only a one-to-one relationship. There may be only one fan of whatever is put up but that art can find its fan. We’ve destroyed the herds and we’ve made it much more individualized.”

Handing over the keys to consumers and creators is also part of chief digital officer Sree Sreenivasan’s plan to bring new audiences to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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“One of the things we really pushed hard is to continue to have our best scholarship and expertise, but give access to more people,” Sreenivasan says. “You’re going to see more and more museums allowing people to [digitally] take art from the museum and do anything with it, to play with it. Opening up your collection and making it visible to the world I think is going to be more and more important as we go along.”

Social Media: Your Bullshit-Free, Cluttered Future

Perhaps one of the most valuable tools in laying the groundwork for art’s future is social media. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Vine have altered how art is consumed and created–and have engendered a complicated relationship with social for brands. On the one hand, social media allows brands to bring their audiences closer to the artistic experiences those brands are creating. On the other hand, social media is forcing brands to be more transparent about what they really are.

“Technology suddenly changed the game because it’s the great equalizer,” says Droga. “Before brands could say whatever they wanted from the comfort of their boardroom and weren’t held accountable. Now, consumers call you out on bullshit. So transparency is the biggest game changer.”

And it seems bullshit is on every influencer’s mind.

“It used to be in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, you could just tell somebody an appealing story about a brand and they’d probably buy into it,” says Beckerman. “But I think people can really smell bullshit a mile away now. We’re doing these soul-centered branding exercises with our clients to make sure we’re very clear about what their authentic story is, about what their personality is, what their customers expect from them–that’s the strategy part of it.”

James Townsend, managing director of 72andSunny, New York, adds, “Back in the day, it was enough to explain to somebody what something was and what it did and why that’s cool and if you did that in a clever way, that was a great ad campaign. It was how it was from the birth of [advertising] up until the explosion of information [on the Internet]. The biggest thing that’s changed is that you can’t just tell people what you’ve got and what it does anymore because people have the information to call bullshit on that if you’re saying the same thing everybody else is.”

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But social media isn’t just helpful in sniffing out bullshit–it also gives audiences unprecedented access to traditionally walled-up worlds.

Take the world of fashion and designers, for example. “What use to be an elusive and mysterious industry has become readily more accessible and interchangeable with the Internet–not being invited to a fashion show is no longer an issue, because with a computer you are guaranteed a front row seat no matter where you are,” says Joe Zee, editor-in-chief of Yahoo Style. “And, of course, social media has been a huge influence on the industry as well, giving persona to brands that were previously thought of as stodgy or old, or highlighting the voices and individuals behind those brands. Fashion became human, three-dimensional and diverse, though the lens of social media.”

On the flip side of the transparency and access social media provides is an abject clutter of content, which has caused brands battling for attention to elevate their game.

“Generally people are so bombarded with people trying to get their attention, whether it be their friends or advertisers,” Droga says. So much so that “now people are inventing technology to avoid what we create. That’s good for the industry because it puts the onus on us to be better and more creative and earn their attention, but there’s a lot of noise out there,” he says.

“There’s an analogy with art,” Townsend adds, “that 200 years ago an incredible painting would get queues and queues of people for months and months because that was the only place you could go to see something that was so specific. These days, we don’t have a captive audience, we have a distracted audience.”

But, as Townsend points out, trying to make the loudest noise to get attention is hardly effective.

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“The only way to stand out in today’s world in a powerful way is to build your story or idea and build it around an existing cultural tension or situation,” he says. “It’s not about hiding within a conversation. It’s about building ideas that are going to either create or benefit from a cultural conversation that’s going on.”

New Forms Of Storytelling

Tapping into cultural conversations rides adjacent to storytelling, which is at the heart of the arts: What makes you think? What makes you feel? The core principles of the arts haven’t changed, nor will they in the future. What’s in flux is not just how art is experienced, but also how it’s expressed.

“People are really thirsting for these multi-sensory stories,” Beckerman says. “When people are talking about experiences that are compelling and immersive, generally those are where all senses are really captivated in a storytelling mode. So this is in a lot of ways what’s driving this [virtual reality] and [augmented reality] storytelling experiences.”

Townsend cautions, however, that as useful as technology can be to provide a deeper experience, it should never surpass what’s really important.

“We are striving as a company, while we stay modern and change, to not lose the things that are good about creative communications, which is that it is based on storytelling: how you tell stories to each other and how you tell stories to the world,” Townsend says. “That’s the kind of thing people talk about a lot in meetings but you can imagine once you get into the grind of mobile and VR technology, you can easily get away from the light and romantic touch of proper storytelling.”

It’s a balance: embracing what’s next–and not forgetting where we’ve been.

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Hear more from many of the interviewees in this article at our upcoming Fast Company Innovation Festival.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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