#aestheticaf – Is Instagram damaging art?

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Recently Sean Tucker, a professional photographer and YouTuber, posed a video entitled ‘My Social Media Philosophy’. In it, he stated:

‘We make social media way too important. Yes, it’s an amazing tool […] but to me, it’s about the work I put online, not its success as measured by social media. In the same way, my camera is a tool for me to do my work, social media is just a tool for me to get my work out there.’

This got me thinking about social media culture within the art world, and the effect it’s had in recent years. For artists, social media gives a free-of-charge platform and a level of worldwide connectivity never seen before. But, at the same time, does this mean that we are cultivating a form of artistic validation determined by algorithms and hashtags? By this, I mean that there is a danger for artists to create crowd-pleasing pieces, making it more essential for artwork to look good on Instagram than for the art itself to own its meaning. So, are we creating hashtag based art? Are we becoming dependent on unknown algorithms to determine artistic worth? Or are we all merely utilising a new tool in the modern world that allows artists to carry out their visions?

From photographers to dancers, to a
rtists and writers, there is a wealth of creative and artistic material on the internet. For YouTube alone, there currently 5+ billion videos shared to date (as surveyed by Omnicore), and for dancers and bloggers alike this is a massive platform for sharing work. Victoria Meadows, member of LuDans for the past five years and this year’s president commented:

‘Every dance or theatre company is basically expected to be on at least Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and it’s almost looked upon as being strange if not. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, from our dance society’s perspective I think it’s very beneficial – it allows us to not only be in contact with our members but also showcase what we do to the wider community both within and outside of the university. […] I do think that getting the balance right is usually one of the biggest challenges though as you don’t want to overload people with posts but at the same time you don’t want to be vacant on there.’

In light of this then, social media platforms have been beneficial, not just in sharing dance but also in connecting dancers from different places and backgrounds onto one platform. However, there is still some underlying stress to this idea, that it is ‘expected’ of dance companies and that it’s ‘challenging’ to get it right. We invest a lot of time on social media, we rely on it in many ways, but maybe it’s this sense of balance that we’re missing?

Let’s look at this from a slightly different angle. Statistics from Hiscox online art trade report in 2018 revealed that Instagram had become the art worlds preferred social media platform, with 63% citing it as their platform of choice. It now has nearly 1 billion active users, and 62% of galleries now declare it the most effective platform for raising awareness and promotion in their businesses. It is clear from these latest figures that platforms like Instagram are playing a part in boosting online art sale and growing the industry. And similar surveys demonstrate that the same is accurate for dance companies and photographers investing time in YouTube to build their profiles. Surely this is a positive thing then, as platforms like Instagram are bringing art to the masses and thereby making it more accessible on a global scale. Not only this, but businesslike galleries and museums can reach new audiences and increase their yearly visitors, giving them more substantial funds to continue to cultural and historical heritage work that they do. Although, I still feel there is another side to this.

When we visit a gallery or an exhibition, what is the first thing the majority of people do? Typically, the artwork is uploaded straight to Snapchat stories, Instagram profiles or Facebook posts. The picture above is one I took at the Tate Portrait Gallery in London, but I couldn’t tell you who the sculptor is. But of course, I took a picture of it because I thought it would look good on my Instagram feed. And we are all guilty of this, of looking through lenses before looking at the art, and of making our experiences “Instagram worthy” to gain a sort of online approval stamp to showcase how cultural we are. I am aware I sound slightly begrudging and grumbly here, and by no means am I suggesting that we abolish social media and go live in the woods for fun. But this phenomenon of “Instagrammable Art” is equally reflected in the work of currently successful artists like Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons, who make art on shiny, reflective surfaces. It’s almost as though the very material of the art asking people to take selfies. It concerns me that the central objective of artists is to make their work #aestheticaf, a hashtag that has over 46,000 posts on Instagram alone to date.

In the case of both online art sale and gallery visitors then, social media is becoming a method for mass art consumption, giving artists and galleries free advertisement on the one hand, but on the other arguably detracting from the beauty and importance of art itself. And if art is a method of communication about the world we live in, then it must adapt to our latest means of communication. This is the newest step in arts evolution. Social media art, in every form, is taking us towards a new age of shareable, accessible art. And maybe the fact that we consume it through our phones is supposed to give us this slightly uneasy feeling that we should be looking at the art itself. Or maybe this isn’t the point at all; perhaps it’s just too early to say. Like with every evolution or revolution, it’s navigating it which is the tricky part. We can’t look into the future, so we analyse the present in the hopes it that will give us some sense of direction.

Overall, I think the only conclusion I can reach is that all of this is dependent on the artist, and on the viewer. Photographers, Dancers, Illustrators, and Writers alike use social media for a variety of reasons, and it is this that determines how dangerous social media can be to the art world. If you have a sense of artistic vision, a sense of integrity in your own art that means you produce the work you want to create regardless of the number of likes it gets, then great. Hopefully, this means that you rely on social media only as a tool, and not as a way of measuring your own artistic talent or quality of opinions. The danger then lies with those who use social media as a method of measuring their success, in that this ultimately teaches that other people and their opinions determine the value of the art we create.

Likewise, if we as consumers let unknown algorithms determine which art is fit for us to see, without going and exploring new works for ourselves, then what would be the point in upcoming artists being innovative? They could merely model other people’s profiles as a map to success. As Tucker said at the start of this article, social media is a tool we can utilise, but we, ourselves, are more than tools for social media companies. At the very least, we need to think about the processes we engage in, whether that the creation or consumption of online art. Because hopefully, by reflecting on them, we can improve them for the future.

Ruth-Anne Walbank

My name is Ruth, and I'm the Editor of SCAN for 2019-20. I have been the Arts and Culture Editor in 2018-19, and the Deputy Arts and Culture Editor before that. I've written over 80 articles for SCAN across a variety of sections.
If you have any questions about the newspaper, feel free to message me!

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