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Hot Art vs Cold Art

Let’s start off with a simple experiment. Look at both this pictures and note, which one do you spend more time looking at?

I’m going to guess and say it’s the more pixelated Chuck Close picture. But what exactly makes them so different? For starters, they are both pictures of babies. Is it because one is a painting and one is a photograph? Or is it because one uses more colors or is more abstract?

Well you may have guessed it from the title, but my reasoning is that one piece is hot art and the other is cold art. To understand what I mean by hot art and cold art, first we have to understand the conceptual inspiration, hot media and cool media.

Hot Media/Cool Media is a theory devised by Marshall “The media is the message” McLuhan in the 1960s. McLuhan was trying to answer the question “what makes one medium different from another?” His answer to this boils down to the implicit amount of audience interaction required by the particular media.

To summarize the theory

“Hot media is that which engages one sense completely. It demands little interaction from the user because it 'spoon-feeds' the content. Typically the content of hot media is restricted to what the source offers at that specific time. Examples of hot media include radio and film because they engage one sense of the user to an extent that although the user's attention is focused on the content, their participation is minimal.
Cool media generally uses low-definition media that engages several senses less completely in that it demands a great deal of interaction on the part of the audience. Audiences then participate more because they are required to perceive the gaps in the content themselves. The user must be familiar with genre conventions in order to fully understand the medium. Examples: TV, phone conversations, comic books.” Source

Now when McLuhan is using the terms hot/cold media he is referring more to the fidelity of the medium as a whole. From what I gather he thinks about fidelity in two ways - the physical fidelity, and the conceptual fidelity. So McLuhan thinks TV is colder than movies because it is grainier, has worse quality audio, etc (ie has a lower physical fidelity. Keep in mind he was writing this in the 60s where there was a much more noticeable difference between the two). On the other hand McLuhan would say that on a whole phone conversations are cooler than radio broadcasts because a phone conversation requires more reading between the lines to figure out what is going on vs a radio broadcast which is more intentionally spelled out for easier accessibility (ie conceptual fidelity).

While you could apply this idea directly to artistic mediums, I’d argue this makes less sense because lots of art tries to blur the boundaries of medium representation - take hyperrealistic paintings for example. So instead of taking a monolithic approach, for art it seems to make more sense to compare two pieces directly. So for art the hot/cold distinction ends up being hot art is very spoon-fed to the viewer and the viewer can subconsciously make sense of and judge the art rapidly. Cold art is art that forces your brain to slow down to process it. It's important to keep in mind that your brain processes visual information very fast, so cold art is processed relatively slower than hot art, but can still be processed quickly. If you're trying to feel for the difference between hot and cold art you should look to see if there is a pause before you "get it" or if you "get it" immediately.

So going back to our original example - the Chuck Close painting is much colder than the photograph because the pixelated representation forces the view to take an additional step to decode that artwork, which is literally forcing your brain to spend more time on it.

Where this concept goes from interesting to potent is when you factor in the attention economy. In short, the attention economy is the economy around how people use their phones, apps, websites, social media, etc. The basic idea is that most of the services make money through ads, and become more competitive by harvesting your data. Since the longer you are on the service the more ads they can show you and the more data they can harvest, these services are heavily incentivized to try to get/keep you on the service as much as possible. Notifications, email reminders, and banner ads are their top line tool to get you back into the app, and then the apps are structured to be as engaging (read:addicting) as possible.

Where these two ideas come together is that cold art is more engaging than hot art, so you’d expect to see cold art do better on social media platforms. After about a year or so off doing the artist Instagram grind, this has largely been my experience.


-My best “content” by a large margin has been time-lapse videos of my plotter drawings

-Paintings tend to do much better than drawings

-Geometric minimalist work does pretty poorly

-Artwork with weird/complex patterns tends to do extremely well

I’d theorize the time lapses do the best because it creates a cold process where during the duration viewers are continuously trying to decode what the final artwork will be. To explain the other observations I’d say that the more textures and complicated patterns, the more work goes into decoding a piece.

As an example of that phenomena, take a white background on a drawing vs a white background on one of my textured paintings. The white background on a piece of paper is just white negative space, and your brain quickly figures it out. On the other hand, the white textured background has patterns in it, lines, shapes, etc and now your brain has to study to see if there is something else going on that it’s missing.

To get a better understanding of this concept, I'm giving a homework assignment

For Non-Artists: Next time you're on social media, in the back of your mind try to keep track of the attention you're giving an image/video.

-What kind's of things make you momentarily pause?

-What do you scroll right past?

-How does something being a video vs image affect your attention?

For Artists: Look through your work and try to figure out how hot and cold each piece is. Try some of the following

-Close your eyes momentarily before looking at a piece and see how long it takes your eye to move around the whole image as well as the path it traces

- How visually ambiguous is the work?

- How subtle are the details? Are there some too subtle or too obvious?

- What's the size of the elements? How variable is this?

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