In her 1970 seminal work “On Photography”, Susan Sontag wrote; “today everything exists to end in a photograph”; fifty years later, this statement seems to have been a prescient warning.
In December 2016 Instagram had around 600 million users, in 2017 it had 800 million, by the end of this year (2018) it is predicted to have 1 billion. Specialising in immediate visual and consumable content, it is only natural that a relationship has grown between art and Instagram as a result of its meteoric rise. This new dynamic, however, raises concerns in the art world; will Instagram’s superficial and transitory nature cause irreversible damage to cultural consumption and visual language? As Sontag’s statement suggests, is art being reduced to something which is photographed and liked on Instagram? Or, does Instagram create new possibilities; can it be used as a tool to democratise, liberate and move art and the art-world away from its physical and conservative limitations?
Social networks facilitate digital communication through shared interests and ideas, Instagram does this through a shared photograph. Critics have argued that this visual mode of communication is restrictive however, stressing that its singular context, focusing on likes and comments condenses art, visual language and creativity. These critics, however, are overlooking the radical implication of a free, visual communication platform.
An Artist’s success has traditionally been restricted by gallery and museum clout, and in turn a gallery’s successes by the longevity of its popularity. Thanks to Instagram, both can now exercise enormous individual authority over a new digital exhibition space with a much larger audience. Artists can autonomously exhibit their work whilst also curating a developing visual narrative. In contemporary art where the process of creation can be so intimately tied to the impact of the final product, this is beneficial to both artist and interested buyer. Away from the pretense that may surround physical galleries and exhibition spaces, both artist and gallery must focus on communication via visual impact and engagement, returning the focus to the art itself.
In turn, Instagram provides unprecedented visual access of both contemporary work, and the larger canon of Art History which precedes it, to those who simply would not have been able to access it before. The platform democratises art; side lining the notion of an elitist art world by removing physical, geographical and socio-economical limitations and encouraging digitised education of art. A cross-cultural dissemination of art is encouraged, where visual language and creativity are not narrowed but changed, as the now new and larger audience expand and develop contemporary discussion. This digital space has created an impetus for change, where art, visual language and creativity is extrapolated, commented on and reacted to.
An illustrative example is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who has experienced newfound popularity in the past couple of years. The 650,000 posts under #yayoikusama on Instagram would suggest that her digital popularity is thanks to the interactive ‘instagrammable’ nature of her installations.Her popularity is evidence that her art, can transcend traditional limitations using Instagram, reaching a global digital audience. As a result there is a larger awareness of the importance of Kusama’s work in abstract surrealism. Those who could not experience or learn from it in person can now begin to do so, their online presence and engagement awarding them novel agency and authority over the work.
Like all social media, Instagram does not exist without its limitations and its most stringent critique is that reduced to a digital representation, the integral nuance and complexity of some artworks may be diminished. This critique demonstrates a misinterpretation of Instagram’s role and relationship to art, as it does not propose nor should it replace an original work of art. Rather it provides a cursory impression of the potential physicality of the artwork, encouraging the viewer to seek out the artwork itself. Instagram should function as a tool for change in the art world, one which provides artists with an exceptionally varied global audience, and in return provides these audiences, new and old, with an ever developing canon of immediate visual language. Art cannot exist in a vacuum and Instagram’s challenge to the status quo through new methods of cultural consumption, viewership and creation, assures that it will not.