Art + Social Media

Over eighty years ago, the philosopher Walter Benjamin proposed that while works of art have always, in principle, been reproducible, ‘mechanical reproduction of a work of art … represents something new’. Benjamin celebrated the potential that the technological reproduction of artworks has to put art together with mass audiences in new and politically powerful ways. Benjamin’s notion of mechanical reproduction rescued art from the ivory tower of the gallery, allowing it to ‘meet the beholder halfway’.

To a twenty-first century reader, Benjamin could so easily be describing what social media, notably Instagram, does for our engagement with art. But the changes Instagram has wrought on art affect makers just as much as audiences. The equality of viewer access that the platform provides is popularly imagined to be accompanied by an increased sense of egalitarianism on the end of production, especially in terms of curatorial and critical practice. However, in this context, ‘egalitarian’ isn’t always a synonym for ‘fair’.

There is a degree to which Instagram does provide an accessible platform for new critical voices. Much of the most exciting work in this domain is done by young women, often still in art school, or fresh out of it. Instagram provides a space to think critically without depending on the endorsement of institutions which can be difficult to gain access to, and which frequently impose limits on the matter and manner of work done under their banners. Without needing to accommodate the expectations and interests of authoritative institutions, emerging thinkers are producing genre-bending and boundary-pushing work online.

Often, this work is collaborative. Collectives Tabloid Art History (@tabloidarthistory), The White Pube
(@thewhitepube), and The Art History Babes (@arthistorybabespodcast), for instance, all publish work that represents the combined efforts of their members. These groups link their practices on Instagram to work in other media. Tabloid Art History has published two print editions of a magazine, The White Pube runs a website publishing weekly essays, and The Art History Babes produce a podcast that makes art history accessible to a non-specialist audience.

Some of the most compelling criticism on Instagram takes form as memes. Doctoral researcher Kristen Cochrane’s account (@ripannanicolesmith) uses memes as ‘alternative ways of circulating knowledge and lived experiences’. Here, we’re offered an image in which Kris Jenner – Kim Kardashian’s momager and mastermind of the Kardashian spectacle – is imagined to remark that ‘the whole thing reminds me of a book I read by this guy named Jean Baudrillard’. In this way, emerging critics and curators working across social media take artworld jargon down a notch, with practices that are irreverent, relevant and – most subversively – fun.

The most common artworld criticism of Instagram centres on the somewhat Victorian moralism of its ‘community guidelines’, which often feel like a crude framework for censorship. Indeed, the de-platforming of thinkers whose work is seen to push boundaries is a legitimate concern. But the greater problem with taking criticism and curation online isn’t so much that ‘freedom isn’t free’, but rather that it is. To put it directly, the labour that takes place on Instagram almost always goes without pay.

Often, the difficulty of assigning value to work done on social media makes running accounts unviable in the long term. After two-and-a-half years of incisive cultural analysis, Tabloid Art History announced in May that they would be discontinuing work on their Instagram account. On the decision, the group stated that ‘over the past few months it has become increasingly difficult for us to handle content with our day jobs … we can’t devote the time needed to keep this page thriving.’

In other instances, thinkers behind popular pages attempt to monetise their labour by setting up Patreon accounts that followers can choose to donate to. Kristen Cochrane recently started offering a subscription newsletter for followers of @ripannanicolesmith. On the decision, she says that she’s ‘had some people write to me and say that they can’t believe how much material they receive in exchange for $5 a month. At first I lacked confidence about asking people to subscribe, but then I realised that it was my low self-esteem eliciting that feeling. I have to remind myself that I am indeed a professional gatherer of knowledge and a cultural critic, with formal education that I have pursued at the expense of my social and romantic life.’

Aside from this, there’s the ethically ambiguous option to enter into a ‘paid partnership’ with a company, and produce something close to advertorial for them on your account. Usually, this is politically antithetical to the work that Instagram’s critics and curators produce. Really, the financial value of their labour is harvested by Instagram itself, which has its product produced for it – for free – by the creative people who make the app’s actual content.

The ‘mechanical reproduction’ of critical and curatorial practices on Instagram may be a great catalyst for new work that is free from the expectations and limitations of gate-keeping institutions. It’s a shame that working freely, in this context, mainly means working for free.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 48, 2019

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