Ever since I started making art ‘seriously’ - i.e. in a studio, I have wrestled with how to share it on social media, a process that has at times been more fraught and stressful than the production of the art itself. There is a certain loss of control once an artwork is unleashed onto the technological network. In ways I will unpack later, it becomes cannibalistic. As a painter, moving into a studio roughly a year ago at the start of the COVID pandemic, I have come to realise only many months later that my internal struggle with posting work in Instagram has been underlined by the thought that for the great majority of people, my paintings do not exist as paintings - but as photographs. That is a fundamental distinction. This is further complicated because the majority of my viewership interacts with my work - now a photograph - not through my website, which though digital provides its own platform relatively devoid of other distractions, but through Instagram, inseparable from the slew of posts (be they outfit pics, selfies, cat videos, or 2005 emo redevivus memes) that come before or after it. Therefore, my work is viewed in a transient space. I state the banal, but I feel an in-depth discussion of this effect needs to happen from a critical and academic perspective.
In a 2018 article on Vulture, Drew Zeiba discussed why some artists have decided to quit social media, citing its negative effects on the artist in terms of production. In the age of COVID, this decision which was already a tender one three years ago can easily feel suicidal for non-established artists. Jerry Saltz, who has been the senior art critic and columnist for New York magazine since 2006, heralds its uses as a platform for ‘discovery’. He claims he is looking for artists, (“I am looking for art by someone who identifies as an artist and calls what they make “art.” Not a hobby or a sideline activity.”) And yet, he simultaneously claims that the art he is looking for is “painting or sculpture that might simply work in a gallery as-is, without explanation, backstory, or tale.” This strikes me as entirely contextless art. The question must be raised - is Saltz looking for artists, or is he looking for manufacturers to produce ‘content’ for our increasingly ‘curated feed’ version of reality? Does this cheapen the role of the artist? Of course, the role of art has historically been to aestheticise reality, but on social media platforms, this is happening on a psychic scale in a way even the most fervent of individualists in the field of art philosophy in the late 19th century could not have imagined. It is now the case that art is entirely disconnected from reality and the collective and contextual experience- not just in what it references - but in its own genuine physical format. Saltz has no need to see the art he finds on this platform in the flesh - for him “perhaps seeing it on Instagram is enough”.
Is this the birth of a whole new category of art? What does it mean for work created without the intention of slotting into this system? Is social media art a new genre in the visual creative world - that way photography and film were to a world that knew only of live theatre and painting? Is it what the hologram could do to sculpture? I realise I sound like a 70-year-old critic heralding ‘new technology’ as sinful in weeding out the old ‘virtuous’ things. It may very well be the case that this new format is especially conducive to textual art - particularly for politically charged pieces where repeated exposure and repetition may be embedded in the necessary function of the piece itself, the physical format being circumstantial and dispensable. However, when this is not the case (i.e - for paintings) I am immensely preoccupied: we have not yet unpacked what this new form of production might mean not for artists themselves, but for the consumers of their work.
An artist is often a preener - or they are a recluse who claims their work is not for public consumption - but still yearns that it might somehow radiate through them. It is a myth that we only make art for ourselves What does the individualist artist of the 21st century perceive their practice to be? The need to be ‘understood’, relegated to minimal importance in art since the advent of Dada, has completely broken out of the old and now seemingly simple format of bending conventions and emerged onto the fresh plain of the entirely futile. As an artistic choice this is valid, but the movement onto social media platforms has made it so artists who do not have this desire, whose work is in some way intended to be communicative (and I may add here that even the most absurd artists still have the desire to communicate something, even if that something is nothing) do not have the luxury of establishing this communication properly any longer. The artist must fight for his viewed attention - bolden his palates or hyper elevate some aspect of his work, or else veer it to whatever the ‘current’ aesthete searches for. Again, in certain ways, this is not new, but at least the artist of the past knew that when he had his viewer engaged, the viewer was really engaged, dedicating his full - real - attention to the piece (The intention with which this attention was directed, be it genuine, financial, etc. is secondary). The attention was real. This is no longer the case.
The truth is an artist has always had the expectation that when they present their work it will be received with a sort of quasi-religious raptness. Whether this practice, for it is a practice to view artwork, leads to appraisal, criticism, or indifference is once again, a secondary effect. In the past, the platform for the intake of a profound experience was there, and the viewer knew it too - relying on art to take them out of their ordinary reality. By moving art to social media platforms we deny the viewer of this ritualistic space, and we thrust them into what I’m going to coin as an ‘apotopic’ space. This meaning a place lacking a sort of skin to suggest placement, lacking physicality. The ‘apotopic’ gallery, the ‘apotopic’ feed gallery in particular, on Instagram, is not only devoid of touch or place, but of time. (Beyond the ‘posted on’ stamp.) The experience of viewing the work is not able to attach itself to a period of ‘marked time’ in one’s consciousness, and therefore becomes unfixable - and unable to be integrated into a sort of neural thinking system. The particular aura around the touchscreen mobile phone, its qualities as an object itself, small, transportable, always-on, have seamlessly integrated its usage into the daily stream of life. I state something acknowledged by anyone living in a modern technological system. What is key to my argument is how these banalities of integration, the placelessness and timelessness of tech, fundamentally change the way art is intended to be interacted with. The psyche is unable to process the artistic experience on social media. This is ultimately reductive of the value of fine art, due it being stripped of its context, context being understood in a layered way from artist to viewer.
In certain ways, Instagram increases exposure, widens a creator’s audience, and bypasses institutionalisation. But - this is at the cost of the work itself. I will stand firmly on the idea that art - to be viewed properly - requires its temple. Pre-pandemic, this temple was the gallery. Now it is the online exhibition, but the online exhibition in its current form is often completely reliant on Instagram for its advertisement. What I see as necessary moving forward, and what I will be pursuing on a personal basis as a painter, is a conscious acknowledgement and reflection upon the shallow and removed spectacle that is content interaction on social media. We’ve been aware for a long time, and discussed to death the effects of social apps on beauty standards and norms of bodily physicality - and we need to do the same when we consider the effect of transforming physical artworks into products for digital consumption.
In the summer of 2020, I conducted an experimental artistic project that played with putting images of natural materials back and forth through physical and digital states to observe their transformation in not only form, but atmosphere and connotation. Removed from the natural flow of time, these pictures became bastardisations of the subjects they represented, and their content became alienated from their form. It is not a difficult step to imagine how this same process could unconsciously distort an artwork in which this effect is not desired. Of course, art can be produced with this in mind, engineered specifically as a commentary on digitisation and fast-moving platforms, but for all the art that doesn't carry this goal, its dissemination must be rethought.
In addition to this bastardisation, Instagram also allows for what we have been doing across all other sectors the life in the Western world since the 80s - cheap, fast-paced, mass consumption. It costs nothing to follow hundreds of artists on Instagram, and to be exposed to a constant scrolling feed of unrelated and uncurated artwork. Of course, there exist beautiful accounts that curate content, like Robyn Graham’s Warbling Collective, or Jack Chauncy and Georg Wilson’s All Mouth Gallery, which has also recognised the problem I’m discussing and is trying its hand at a solution to solve it by creating an account focused on ‘slow’ art, which only showcases one artwork per day by one artist per week. These accounts extremely valuable in their attempts to carve out micro cyberspaces to step in for galleries, but they are also complicit and cannot escape the integration of artwork into the social media ‘feed’, the word which itself indicates a kind of gluttonous, spoon-fed consumption. Zeiba quotes Bordal in his Vulture article titling Instagram an ‘unctuous platform”. This ease is sustained by algorithms designed to supply your intake with more of what you already enjoy. To quote Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation “If you liked that, you’ll love this”. Nothing on social media can escape the displaced temporality of the platform it lives on, and this surreal quality makes endless consumption all the easier. If you saw five or six galleries in one day in person, chances are you’d end up with a massive headache. We should ask why is this not the case online.
Two pathways must be outlined which I will discuss in an essay following up from this one. The first describes how to consciously exploit the absurdity of the social media timeline to direct viewers to platforms like websites and interactive virtual spaces which may be more conducive to a ‘holistic’ experience (as much as something can be holistic in a digital plane), while always retaining a distance from becoming complicit in cheapening the work itself, or at least making the viewer of the content conscious that this is a deliberate effort to do so as a commentary on his own actions and habits. This goes hand in hand with also developing the interface of those removed digital spaces, an effort that is well underway and being explored by artists and designers like Paula Strunden in VR. The second must discuss how to move art into a physical space in a safe way once COVID restrictions are lifted. How do we go about inventing radically new settings for art to be viewed in? By pursuing these two avenues we may begin to create a system for sharing and interacting with art that is able to bypass hierarchical and established institutions and move art more definitely into the public sphere, without conceding to a reduced quality of experience that the digital produces. Jerry Saltz’ claim that “art is for anyone, it’s just not for everyone” seems to me like a platitude reinforced and kept alive by outdated institutions and critics. By developing elaborate new ways to participate in the artistic experience, art can be made accessible and immediate in ways non-detrimental to its integrity.
In my next essay as part of this series I will further explore the two concepts I outlined above. I also hope to discuss the “echo chamber” of Instagram, as mentioned by Ruth Millington, and particularly what it means for art criticism.
NB: I must be fully transparent in that this essay piece arose out of a confrontation with my own complicity in this conventional way of creating art and promoting it on social media. I could not escape the niggle of discomfort, of unfulfilling exhaustion, that accompanied it.
Zeiba, Drew. https://www.vulture.com/2018/12/why-these-artists-are-quitting-instagram.html Zeiba, Drew. https://www.vulture.com/2018/12/why-these-artists-are-quitting-instagram.html (All of Saltz’ quotes from this paragraph are taken from this article)