The Attention Artist: Instagram and the Flattening of Art Production
By Elizabeth Herring
Due to the pandemic and rapidly shifting standards of online art markets, artists continue to be pushed to function as fully autonomous social media brands and unpaid managers, resulting in increased sameness in the production of new art that strives to hit correct algorithmic targets.
Image credit @freeze_magazine
In the post-pandemic fallout of 2021, viewing art in person is still difficult. Many museums and galleries have made it necessary to reserve tickets far in advance to see exhibitions, the purchasing of tickets now takes place mostly online, and city centers have become less and less accessible for those managing Covid safety protocols and work-life balance. As the general population is further encouraged to engage with artwork online, the art establishment has been pushed to face issues it has been willfully ignoring since the emergence of Tumblr. Last year's events such as the closing of Gavin Brown's enterprise, Metro Pictures, and the notable layoffs sweeping major institutions, followed by the NFT boom have made the existing precarity of what was The Art World very clear. As we enter into the next paradigm of communication, creative expression, and censorship, both established and young artists alike need to reevaluate their relationship to the platforms that exert major influence over the marketable art world, namely Instagram and its attendant attention economy. In this new paradigm, the roles of the artist and the social media manager are blending into one, forcing artists to work double time to participate in an industry that prioritizes sensational trends over long-lasting impact. The result of this is increased mimetic patterns of creativity, lost wages for artists, and the loss of criticality in favor of aesthetic gloss.
The idea that platforms like Instagram are democratizing art is one that should warrant skepticism among artists. In reality, the flattening of trends and aesthetics that Instagram enables is only democratizing taste by increasing accessible sameness. Instagram is not a free application. It monetizes on our time, attention, labor, and data collection to stay viable. The narrative that having access to a "free" networking platform will grant artists the audience and potential to realize a commercial career is an idea that sounds much simpler than reality suggests. Instagram is pitting artists against each other on its platform to compete for the attention from other users and drives a majority of that attention back into supporting the platform. The rhetoric that validates this activity as productive is that artists have become more accessible to curators and vice versa, that artists are shaping popular trends in the industry without institutional intervention, and that artists are able to earn a larger percentage of sales incomes without participating in gallery commission (if they decide to sell their work online). While there are some truths to this rhetoric, the other side of the coin is that by integrating into the attention economy as a freelance entity, the gap between the artist and the social media manager becomes smaller, placing new unseen demands on the artist.
The familiar narrative that upholds communal belief in Instagram as a platform for artists is the "rise and grind" narrative of the mythic, archetypal innovative American entrepreneur destined to wealth and success, after they hack the system and watch their business grow out of sheer genius, not from ruthless self-promotion and marketing with a deep sense of self-knowledge or cynicism. That promoting one's work on Instagram and other social networking platforms will grant artists the audience and potential for commercial actualization needed to support one's passion, is an idea that sounds simpler than reality suggests. That anyone can become a self-marketing creative entity with Instagram/social media savvy belies the reality of what happens outside the app. It's a fabricated story to keep the creative freelancer busy. Instagram has rebranded this narrative by obstructing our view of the labor, time, and energy that goes into each and every account, thus, warping the entrepreneurial narrative through the magic of image making, and marketing the superficial aspects of entrepreneurial know-how. The current entrepreneurial narrative focuses on the user generated editorial spread of images that promotes the end products of labor without any backstory or sense of historical time, encouraging the individual to "be your own boss," while diverting attention away from the lack of safety nets and support. As it frees companies from social liability while atomizing the labor force, this narrative places the responsibility of success and failure upon the individual. Embracing the idea that a platform like Instagram can only be beneficial to the creative individual, and the artist, points toward our collective fatigue and inability to break away from a system that produces immediate and familiar gratification.
The will to ignore the technological advances that harm rather than support the creative process simultaneously placates and undermines the artists who believe they can still access the art market of the late '90s and '00s. Instead, the artist has become the personal brand, the late capitalist extension of the recognition and validation-seeking individual within the global community. When the personal brand is at work, collective organization is further delegitimized and difficult to achieve. Why seek communal reward and empowerment when individual self-fulfillment is only a couple posts away?
In his 1997/98 essay Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red, sci-fi writer and theorist Samuel Delaney writes about the differences between "networking" and "contact" and modes of social interaction. Through his interpretation of social networking, he provides us with another way to see how Instagram promotes a false sense of potential individual success for the artist-turned-entrepreneur. He describes a hypothetical conference setting to describe how social networking can produce an event that feels ripe with opportunity for the individual attempting to build a career of their work via interaction with the upper echelon of their respective industry. Delaney points out, that "The professed structure of the writers' conference is that of an epistemological dispensary. But the structure of desire beneath it that actually holds it stable and facilitates whatever dispersion of knowledge that takes place is that of a lottery with a very small chance of winning." If Instagram is the conference (and art fair, or gallery opening) and its users are the attendees, we see how Instagram has become the epistemological dispensary for what is happening in the visual arts, reinforced by the mimetic desire of its attendees (users) in its metaphorical lottery. The users fall into the 'lottery' mindset by exchanging their participation for knowledge, and the potential to become 'chosen'. The reality is that Instagram users are playing a game of hollow virtue signaling in exchange for their personal data and attention.
Understanding how Instagram works is imperative for the artists who use it as a business tool, especially since the platform is by no means specific to the arts. For many artists, self-promotion and marketing are debilitating practices, considering the time, effort, money and personal vulnerability it takes to do so successfully. The artist as personal brand no longer leans on a gallery to represent or market them, they do so on their own by producing a coherent aesthetic that slots their identity into a larger market which circulates images of a particular likeness. The skill-set of aesthetic production through imagery, taking place on Instagram, is also a large facet of the role the social media manger maintains. Like a creative director, the social media manager uses aesthetic trends and techniques to produce a coherent brand strategy, generally with an understanding of platform specificity. In this line of work, a full-time social media manager makes somewhere between $40 - 80k a year doing the exact same work a typical artist does for free.
Instagram’s effect on labor is one of flattening and ‘burying.’ It is flattening because the labor of the social media manager is made equal to the artist, and burying because the artist does not reap the benefits of the professional experience, reputation, or income that the manager has access to. Denying this recognition is detrimental in the sense that a huge amount of an artist's labor is ignored. Instagram's 'burying' of labor also denies the legitimacy of the social media manager who could make more than a living wage for a large company. In the art-world context (gallery, artist assistant, or museum for example), it is still thought of as a job given to the collector's 17 year-old kid who needs more work to do in their unpaid internship. The end result is that arts organizations are left behind big tech trends, and employees are inadequately compensated for their work. Artists who could otherwise benefit from the perks of the social media manager's title must learn to work extra hours at essentially two different career paths to produce the same result.
In addition to the merging of social media manager and artist roles, the artist faces the challenge of displaying work on a platform that rewards mimicry. The user/consumer's success on Instagram lies in the hands of literally every single other user, in that the user’s success depends on the reactions and engagement they can produce from their audience. The problem in misunderstanding how content creation for the platform works, is two-fold. First, the average user may not know about the amount of work that goes into creating a successful image for Instagram (which includes installation views and work documentation), and that there exists a strategic, yet ever shifting recipe for producing successful images that cater to Instagram's algorithm. Second lies in the way images exert influence over trends, desires, and visual culture. Also important to consider is how Facebook has made ad building and buying accessible to users with disposable incomes, giving those with the most cash the ability to influence trends and taste with the click of a button.
Robert Harrison, scholar and professor of literature at Stanford University, discusses the mimetic theorist René Girard in the context of social media on his Entitled Opinions podcast. He reviews the essential functions of social media and the interplay it has with the human psyche through the lens of mimetics. Girard makes the claim that our desires are not our own, although we interpret our desires to be the truest form of our inner self. This idea fits neatly into the most basic function of Instagram; to produce images in order to conform to the most "successful" ideal of our true selves, in the model of others who are perceived to be doing better than we are. Harrison uses the very simple example of posting beautiful vacation photos of Greece to explain this mimetic envy – if I go to Greece and post an amazing photo of a beach vacation, it's very likely that you will want to do the same. Harrison asks what social media has done to human agency in choice making, and more importantly what it means to have each choice we make mediated by these platforms.
Logically, the artists whose work (images of work) perform best, as dictated by Instagram's algorithm, and the artists who are good at content production, strategy, and marketing (natural born self-promoters, influencers) are perceived as worthy of emulation based on their ability to garner likes, follows, and shares. This also includes artists who are capable of creating aesthetically pleasing Instagram grids and feeds that are enticing for targeted audiences. Of course, this critique is not intended to condemn talent in artistry or marketing (or both), but to illustrate Instagram’s capability of shaping artistic trends and methods of production by inflating the user's desire to copy the platform's definition of success (the entire point of Instagram's existence in a nutshell).
The insidious nature of Instagram in this context is that it is not openly embraced as a professional marketing tool by artists in the same way that a website is seen as a long term solution to viewing work online, nor is it taught as a tool to that end by major institutions. To put it bluntly, doing so would be tacky, something artists and art professionals have been dancing around silently since the introduction of social media into our daily lives. Imagine having a critical dialogue about how much is too much to display of oneself while still remaining serious? Or can there be a way to accrue followers without becoming a feed-clogger? While these conversations probably should happen, at the moment Instagram remains a "social networking" platform, which obscures the true reality that we're all basically using a slightly more personal Pinterest as a way to interact with each other and "show our work." This balance is difficult to strike as easily seen on the Uffizi Gallery's official TikTok , an example of how a serious institution's high performing content becomes controversially silly as it plays to best practices of TikTok content production. In addition, the phenomenon of turning a blind eye to the reality of social media's algorithmic categorizing and social ranking in favor of using it to meet (and stalk) people perpetuates the fraught relationship between it and creativity. Without acknowledging how Instagram, as a place to discover art, has changed the way art is produced in the first place, artists, curators, organizers, critics, and art-world professionals become complicit in the reduction of art into ‘content.’ Instagram is to contemporary art what Netflix has become to filmmaking.
Theorist and Instagram researcher Lev Manovich has written extensively about how Instagram has produced an entire subculture of users who use specific photographic styles to build their aesthetic identities in order to participate in their own digital cultural realm. He writes "We live in an aesthetic society (i.e., the society of aesthetically sophisticated consumer goods and services). In such a society, the production of beautiful images, interfaces, objects and experiences, are central to economic and social functioning. Rather than being a property of art, sophisticated aesthetics become the key property of commercial goods and services." As aesthetics and beauty become commercialized, art becomes less important as a feature of taste dissemination, and the potential byproduct of this is the ultimate reduction of art to a hobby or a financial asset. This radical reevaluation of how art functions leaves unprepared artists in the lurch of a major cultural shift where criticality and aesthetics are mutually exclusive. The NFT boom represents an aspect of this shift, and as Spike Magazine's New York editor Dean Kissick put it succinctly "With NFTs, we’ve made another leap from art that’s easy to post, to art that simply is the post."
The belief that social media like Instagram are helping to democratize the creative industries also points towards a lack of understanding about who the platforms benefits, and why. Instagram is a marketing and sales platform that encourages the user/consumer to believe in the authenticity of online social interactions, including business and commercial transactions. So much content is staged and bought and paid for without being stated outright, that determining who on an individual and/or corporate level is spending the most time and resources seeking attention becomes a game of parsing through authentic interactions, constantly reshaping our understanding of the very notion of authenticity.
Michael Sanchez wrote in his 2011 essay Contemporary Art, Daily, "Paintings and sculptures are social networking devices, programmed to connect with the right actors, to get into the right shows, to convey the right profile, to such an extent that their users might turn out to be simply the by-product of this activity". Have artists finally become separated from the meaning of their work or have images taken control of the art market? And what does it mean for the medium of photography to place the importance of the work on the photograph instead of the object?
While reality is ever increasingly mediated, the moment of hyperstition in which we have found ourselves is unprecedented, furthered by the socially isolated consumption of content curated to heighten our sense of inadequacy. Anyone can believe in an installation view of a work of art in a white cube. The viewer is able to project their meaning onto the assumed legitimacy of the scenario in which the image was produced, and it seems that the art world itself can't really keep up with this phenomenon. Why afford an entire gallery when all one needs is a photo studio? The mimetic impulse to reproduce what we consume is natural, and it only makes sense that consistently consuming trends and images of artworks will only exacerbate this phenomenon. This leads to the reduction of critical analysis in the arts, and thus the support for critical works, resulting in the demise of galleries and institutions which haven't maintained professional social media savvy.
Elizabeth Herring is an artist and organizer working in Ojai, California with a background in social media management and production. While her artwork is rooted in photography, she often makes work in modes of assemblage and installation. Elizabeth is currently finishing her master's degree in the photo and media department at the California Institute of the Arts.