WORDS: BEN ROMERO ('16)
At the most recent show at Gagosian Gallery, thirty-eight Instagram photos are shown, enlarged and printed on canvas by Richard Prince. Prince (of appropriation) displayed the selfies of Kate Moss and others along with their (somewhat) racy comment threads. This exhibition beckons the eternal (art) question: is this art?
Peter Schjeldahl, of the New Yorker, answers, “Of course it’s art, though by a well-worn Warholian formula: the subjective objectified and the ephemeral iconized, in forms that appear to insult but actually conserve conventions of fine art.” Schjedahl points out a critical historical lineage of Warhol, of the Duchampian tendency of appropriation. This is all well and good for Prince, an established artist with a teeming collector base. What about the rest of Instagram?
As a media, Instagram insists on the creation of aesthetic material. On Instagram, to exist is to post, to take and crop and filter and like and comment. Whether it is a well-plated kale salad or two stoned friends and a pumpkin, Instagram has an aesthetic foundation. It produces image. The assorted industry of apps that have arisen around Instagram, such as VSCO and Insta-size, echo this aesthetic necessity. From contrast to shadows, the mechanics of Instagram demand aesthetic attention.
And yet, is it ‘art,’ or is it just ‘artistic’? Marcel Duchamp, of the aforementioned tendency of appropriation, writes about this tension in “The Creative Act.” In attempting to articulate the creative act, he argues, “… the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” In Duchampian terms, the spectator plays an integral role through interpretation. ‘Art,’ thus depends on both creation and recognition. The ever-democratic Instagram offers this feature, liking and commenting to recognize those worthy pictures. Instagram itself curates pictures based off fame in the second table, those thousand plus liked photos of Instagram celebrities.
Still, many would argue your friend’s craftily edited carton of eggs does not Girl with the Pearl Earring make. This is true. The aesthetic efforts of Instagram vary wildly, and cultural conditioning causes us to question the expertise and the presentation of Instagram. The white feed of Instagram is not the white wall of a gallery, and the biography of every profile does not read with a RISD graduation year. Nevertheless, I would argue the artistic potential of Instagram lies not in the traditional aesthetic image but in the creative persona.
The ‘creative persona’ is a term I employ loosely but alludes to the identity formation on Instagram and social media generally. Social media operates on the principle of representation of self. This is self-imposed. Instagram welcomes users by writing, “Instagram is a fast, beautiful, and fun way to share your life with friends and family.” One shares your life, one ‘Kelvin’ filtered image at a time. The deception of Instagram is that it employs an author upon its inception. You are you, if in image only.
To be sure, this is flawed. One needs only to read Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” or to look at my Instagram to question the genuine representative possibilities of self on this platform. Instead, the author is created simultaneously with image. The author is derived from the expertly cropped, perfectly faded, tightly composed post. The brilliance of Instagram is that it presupposes the author before and after the image. The image is instantly connected to all other images posted by the user on the profile. Thus, the image is a technical part of a larger artistic creation of the creative persona.
This distinction, one which can be challenged in a variety of ways, opens new vehicles for criticism. The formation of the creative persona requires certain fluencies in technical creation, the accumulation of cultural and social capital. Instagram is not used universally; particularities of virtual social etiquette vary by time and place. Thus, the judgment enacted on others for their supposed Instagram identities perpetuates socio-economic disparities, not simply in content but in format and etiquette. In fact, the most recent trend of what I shall dub “Instagram Realism,” the poorly edited and captioned image that harkens back to the early Internet, requires a conception of how Instagram should be used in order to create its humor. This is just one example of the oppressive potential of social media to enforce normative freedom, that is the liberatory potential of the Internet bounded by newly created and self-enforced rules.
To be sure, this article addresses only a minute portion of this narrative. It remains a starting point, a picture before caption. After all, I'm seeking an answer to a much larger question: is Ben Romero 'hotsophomoreboy,' or is 'hotsophomoreboy' Ben Romero?