Photo by me at SFMOMA.

Instagram: Art’s New Playground

In this era of post-truths and fake news, social media has turned into the place where the art world hides, plays, fights, celebrates and cries. Museums? Galleries? Fancy cocktails? Well, yes, they still exist but what has Instagram done to them? Plagiarism? Pressure? Making a living? Let’s get into these topics.

Instagram, originally was just an app that used filters to add retro aesthetics to photos taken on phones. Now, the photo and video sharing app is both an amazing and horrible tool for artists and curators all over the world. Since its launch in 2010, it has certainly become a double-edged sword. One edge get’s sharper sometimes. For example, when mass media realizes they can steal from independent artists and create their own ad campaigns with their ideas for free. Or the tool can make the “positive” edge sharper when you get to work because of Instagram or when you meet your new drawing mates. It’s tough and still new.

Brecht Vander Broucke was one mass-media theft victim recently. Stephen Petch just ripped off his artwork to create The Economist’s cover.

Solo shows, group shows, networking, art pieces sales, published books and freelance work are some of Instagram joys. None of these major events on an artist’s life is usually generated by an art gallery. Specially when you are still independent or not-famous. The traditional gallery + museums + vernissages art world is becoming obsolete. It’s cramped nowadays with people who already belong to a certain kind of social circle that facilitates their art career or with people who are ready to afford the gallery taking the 50 percent of the money from a sale. This, obviously, makes it really hard for new young artists to get to be a part of Art.

Artistic legitimation is shifting from old traditional institutions to the number of followers, likes, retweets, views and shares on social media.Instagram, being the absolute leader as regards visual apps and the urgent present moment, is now the ultimate art legitimator. It’s more visual than Twitter, more social than Pinterest and cooler than Facebook. Having a prominent presence online is basically the key to get your name and art up and running. Artists no longer need a middle man to make a sell.

Museums and Instagram

With 1 billion users and growing, it was perhaps inevitable that Instagram would shake up the art world. Institutions are desperately seeking to fit in the “digital world”. “Social media is a space where we get to be especially playful. Everyone loves sharing a good Caturday image, so why can’t we?” said Eva Recinos, social media manager at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has more than 670,000 Instagram followers “That post could pique someone’s curiosity about Japanese art or get them to explore our collections page for more artworks.”

Also, made-for-Instagram exhibitions are becoming more and more popular. One examples is Museum of Ice Cream in the US has over 160,000 hashtagged posts. The show included such Insta-friendly displays as giant cherries, suspended bananas, and a rainbow sprinkle pool, inviting the visitor into a colourful space of neatly guided photo opportunities.

Ice Cream Museum.

Also, back in 2015, the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian opened Wonder, an immersive art experience which transformed the entire museum into an immersive artwork featuring nine contemporary artists. Instagram gold. Wonder became famous on social media and brought more visitors to Renwick during the six weeks in which the exhibit was open than the museum had seen in a year. Curator Nicholas Bell told the Washington Post at the time: “We’re all flabbergasted, to be frank. I wonder, what are they even trying to say? ‘I am here Instagramming?’ It’s like this new first-person narrative of the museum experience. I’m fascinated.”

In 2014, the Frye Museum in Seattle created an entire exhibition, #SocialMedium, based on public votes from various social media. The most “liked” paintings from the museum’s Founding Collection were shown in the galleries along with the names and comments of nearly 4,500 people around the world who voted.

Another artist that oughts to be named when talking about Instagram and art is Yayoi Kusama. Especially her Infinity Mirror rooms have drawn record crowds to different museums worldwide. People — thousands of them (check out #Kusama and #InfiniteKusama) — Instagrammed themselves in Kusama’s exhibits. Instagram has helped to drive Kusama’s popularity. People advertise to the world that they are among the precious few who have had the Kusama experience. The visual proof has helped propel Kusama’s work to the forefront of destination art in its latest form.

Yayoi Kusama’s world famous exhibitions.

There are definitely more examples of Instagrammable exhibitions. JiaJia Fei, director of digital at the Jewish Museum of New York, highlights the ascendance these exhibitions since the social media platform launched in 2010. She points out “you think of Yayoi Kusama and her Infinity Mirrored Room and artists like James Turrell or the Rain Room at MoMA and you know these are artists who really have very critical bodies of work, but [created installations] that have taken on new meaning because of social media.”

Many of this artists admit that creating social-media-worthy art was a key goal. What’s relevant nowadays is for art to be photogenic and consist on experiences you can’t get anywhere else. This influences not only art marketing but also art creation and curation.

Even though, it’s important to point out that many exhibitions still place restrictions on photography and most galleries and museums prohibit selfie sticks. Reasons often cited for these restrictions include copyright considerations, concerns over the visitor experience, and potential for damage to works although the “flash damage” is, at least, debatable. This no-photo policy is usually seen as cultural elitism because it expresses that art can only be appreciated in an orthodox manner and ignores completely the potential social media has.

La Gioconda @ Louvre

Unmediated Sales

Easy access to buyers is an obvious benefit but the loss of control over art is a serious issue for artists. Also, social media work as democratizers as they help artists who have no representation from the prestigious galleries or degrees from exclusive art schools to grow their audiences. Those are perks of Instagram art for sure.

In the Venn diagram which represents people who use Instagram and people who are discovering and willing to buy art online, the overlap is increasing. In a 2017 survey by art marketplace Invaluable found that nearly 56% of U.S. consumers ages 18–24 said they would buy art online, and 45% said social media is the main way they discover art.

“That’s a very young group,” said Andrew Gully, a spokesman for Invaluable. Given that most people don’t start collecting art until later in life when they have the resources for it, Gully said if young people are already looking at and buying art online, the trend will only grow.

Mediated Art

The images are turned into screenshots that are then turned into memes and disseminated without any consent. A .jpeg can be printed out and sold by anyone anywhere without the real creator even being notified about it.This is problematic. Artists may not be just “flattered” by these kind of imitation.

On December 7th 2014, a Facebook page for “Pepe the Frog” was created. Thousands and thousands of memes featuring Pepe can be found on social media.
Katy Perry, Donald Trump and Wendy’s are just some popular figures and brands who have shared Pepe the Frog.

Also, Instagram and social media censorship is a real issue that cuts off real artistic freedom. Sexual images are often reported and deleted. Apparently Instagram has made a tiny move towards artistic freedom by allowing users to post images of behinds, but from “a” distance. In the end, none of these rules are really rules and Instagram’s user guidelines that prohibit posting “violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic, or sexually suggestive photos” are not applied correctly causing many pictures to be taken down without violating them and other explicitly pornographic accounts remain up and running.

Unsurprisingly, these policies have been a source of tension and debate for many artists who use the social media platform as a means of self-expression. Molly Soda and Avida Byström even published a book called Pics or It Didn’t Happen featuring photographs that have been banned from Instagram and exploring modern censorship. The editors put out an open call asking avid Instagrammers to submit their own censored images. The result was a collection of pictures from well-known and emerging IG users including Petra Collins, Rupi Kaur, Amalia Ulman, Lina cheynius, Harley Weir, and dozens more.

Pics or It Didn’t Happen by Molly Soda and Avida Byström.

Under Pressure

Instagram is undoubtedly a boom for the art world but, could you handle 25k followers? The access and visibility Instagram gives artists can also discourage people from attending art shows and just limit themselves to enjoy the phone art experience. In addition, artists are not immune to the baggage of social media which can strengthen insecurities and fears.

Artists may get swept comparing likes and follows with other colleagues. Does it really mean something if a certain artist has more followers than another? Do likes really count? Well, you shouldn’t judge art that way but if you are a museum willing to sell tickets or a sneakers brand looking for an artist to intervene some pairs, you’d rather find someone who sells.

Pressure to being engaged on Instagram and feeding your followers is tough and definitely fosters phone obsession. Also, becoming a profile followed by a considerable amount of users comes with certain responsibilities. You’ll get judged and you’ll have to be aware of not offending anybody or get ready to handle harsh comments. Also, people may copy, print out and plagiarize your work. But, as an artist, you don’t want to miss out on opportunities, right?

Post on Instagram by Jaakko Pallasvuo.

It’s probably all about achieving a fine balance. There is the good and the band and you either accept both or neither. Instagram has launched the careers of many great artists, such as, Ricardo Cavolo, Jon Burgerman Philip Kremer, Joan Cornellá and even Banksy. And massive brands and media such as Nike, Adidas, Starbucks, Lenny magazine, the New York Times, Uniqlo, are constantly commissioning Instagram artists.

Understanding Instagram’s use is complex for artists, curators, consumers, brands, institutions and everyone who takes a part in the art world. It helps building new audiences and strengthening connections between these actors. But too stretched connections or huge audiences my be harmful.

Stories by Hallie Bateman.