A Bird in the Hand

In 2018 there seemed to be a glut of huffy articles about the impact of Instagram on the art world. Some curators sniffed at the integrity of the “insta-famous.” With good reason. Others posited that the shrunken proportion of the “square” was something artists were contriving to fill. They did. Many noted that the museum experience was being polluted by the ubiquity of phone cameras. It was. And many, many dealers recognised that the DM (direct message) was the new front door access to back door sales for artists they represented. So naughty.

Illustration by Simon Fieldhouse for Artist Profile, 2021

How quaint these issues seem now, in a tentative post-Covid landscape. Because when the world locked down, the dubious, kitsch, compromised, and highly efficient marketing machine of a social media art world became a matter of necessity rather than choice. Museums could not block-bust. Artists could not show. Dealers could not open stock rooms. Magazines took up the slack of building reputations and story-telling but the bulk of the action moved online. Because it works. And it works on so, so many levels, from the obvious to the covert. 

Instagram is built on its algorithm of systemic marketing principles that are both dark and crass, but it also has this strange sense of potential: like playing in a visual lottery. The myth of “going viral” persists because it is real. Without having to wait for a curator or a dealer to validate your practice, a less patient artist can smash into the art world in the way that “Youthquake” bands smashed through the British class system in 1962. There is an element of “Fuck off Boomers” to art marketing on Instagram but it’s also a machine with very transparent workings. Pretty things look good in the palm of your hand. Telegenic, decorative and graphic looking art sells. Ergo the creatives who look like Jemima Kirk while painting. It’s no longer a guilty pleasure to follow “hot talent.”  The fantasy of the emerging artist sharing their “struggle” in juicy incremental chapters, stroke by stroke, post by post, appeals. The boys have man buns, the light is molten, it’s all so unbearably hygge, that you want to be there in the studio. Up close.

Instagram is full of art stars and you can see the joins. The tabloid quality of online personas is compelling because it is obviously well constructed. People feel relaxed to describe themselves as “public figures” even though that public is virtual. Glamour can be explicit or inverted and low-fi. Artists who appear to let the mask drop have non-filter “realness” as their shtick. All of it, from Patti Smith’s tendrils to Jeff Koons’s teeth . . . is brand. This needs to be said because there is no such thing as a bohemian on Instagram. Anyone who claims to belong to the counter culture shouldn’t be here. But they are. And that mass conformity illustrates a sad but incredible time in Earth’s culture: most people making art of some kind are all found in the same place. No matter what values or sensibilities they espouse, they are making Mark Zuckerberg powerful enough to issue his own currency. 

The idea that Instagram is “ruining, cheapening or simplifying art” is obsolete. Artists need this platform to live in a gig economy. On one level it allows them self-guided representation, on many others it contributes to a deepening credibility gap. Artists want an international audience but to reach it they empower corporate globalisation. It’s enough to make you want to get a gallery.

The other big issue is the challenge to stay relevant within the format of a small square screen shot where people stop or keep scrolling. To succeed you need to stay groovy, or shocking. Maybe a little bit of both.

In the context of cultural shifts, art has become closer to the entertainment industry through social media. It has been glamourised in a way that austere art journals have had to ditch words for pictures. Artforum, so long a po-faced intellectually opaque snore, is quite bouncy online. More like Vogue, much less like October magazine. Absorption of art visually has diluted it conceptually. How would Joseph Beuys have used a medium that would do so little for monochrome and felt? Art with scale or art sensitive to light such as Agnes Martin or Robert Hunter would also tank here. In a way the aesthetic brief  of a compressed square is very limited. It suits landscape artists but flattens the minimal.

It would be really easy at this point in my article to write off the entire project and say that Video Killed the Radio Star and Instagram is leading to an entropy of cultural illiteracy. But I won’t. “Reading” Instagram requires a new set of cognitive skills and a splintered, accelerated power of concentration. The one thing I actually love about art on Instagram, is the velocity. Ideas devour each other so rapidly. After two or three posts, an idea becomes a “thing” and then a trend becomes a cliché. Strangely, some of the most established international artists fail to see this. Confident in his sales, Takashi Murukami maintains a fairly bland feed. Secure in his legend, Sean Scully alludes to his land holdings and museum shows. Damien Hirst loves a full face LinkedIn style portrait.

More generationally linked to the blog than the feed, artists from the ‘80s think it is enough to dispense news and highlights on Instagram rather than stylistic shifts or pervy textural studio shots. One artist who does “get it” is Cindy Sherman. And this makes sense because her work originated the idea of the staged auto-portrait in contemporary art. She is the first “self-ist.” Cleverly, wonderfully, Sherman messes with filters, alter egos, pop star glitter and distortion in a way that is completely self-aware of the medium. If only Madonna could adopt her aesthetic.

When Instagram started just eleven years ago, artists were early adopters. In that time, the currency of the platform has changed and become more respected. Succeeding within this format is a matter of personal perception and ambition. Some need the fame, others just need to make a $400 sale to pay their studio rent. 

One thing that has changed though is that the value in a feed dwells in the quality of those who see your work and not the sheer magnitude of numbers. It’s no longer purely about followers or likes. This is a shift I noticed when the world’s most famous artists lost relevance on the platform that gave them their fame in the first place. Banksy, whose work Love is in the Bin, 2006, sold for 23.1 million dollars and whose Instagram following stands at 11.2 million is like the Tom Hanks of the art world. Like a middle of the road white Hollywood actor, he is faceless, rich and sentimental. I don’t go online to look at Hallmark card red balloons. Banksy embodies the shallow end of culture through social media: as a medium it can be very literal. I’d prefer to have a physical encounter in a gallery or a museum but in the middle of the night I’m roaming the aisles of this endless supermarket. I’m there, like everyone else, to be surprised or seduced. The fact that art can still do that is something.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.

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