On Social Media and Art
by Aubrey Prestwich | 31 Oct 2022
We live in an age inextricably linked to the internet and, by extension, social media. Social networks run by Meta, Twitter, and TikTok hold incredible power that their users cannot ignore.
The art world has embraced platforms such as Instagram, whose parent company is Meta. Its influence can drive sales to the private market in both the big gallery and small-time craft market. Artists like Lisa Congdon have hundreds of thousands of followers and attribute their success, in part, to Instagram. Her folk-inspired, colourful motifs and hopeful phrase work is especially suited to the grid because it is compelling and easy to read quickly. Similarly, David Shrigley’s internally captioned, punchy acrylic works embody the whimsy of the artists on the platform. Each artist has shown in traditional gallery settings, has their own web shop, and reaches hundreds of thousands of people weekly. Social media is an integral part of their success.
Museums show off elements of their collection that aren’t on permanent display with clever captions. A recent post on The Clark’s feed pictures a painting of a toddler eating an apple captioned ‘Who, me?’. The Getty posts monthly zodiac-inspired artworks. The Met displays print works and photography on its story semi-regularly for screenshotting to use as a phone background. The institutions take on the double role of entertainer and educator, pairing this popular content with advertising for lectures, video conversations with conservators, and long-form, catalog entry-style captions.
The medium has greatly benefitted the art world in terms of access. Instagram and other platforms have borrowed the art world's language to describe their algorithms: liking, following, commenting, and sharing works enable users to curate their feeds. The imagery of the platform suits the way art is shared: it is principally an industry of looking and attention.
So, when Instagram initiated several changes to focus on video content, it was unsurprising that there was pushback from its users. Some artists and institutions were better suited to this change, but most experienced dramatic drops in engagement without commensurate changes in posting habits.
We are now a few months removed from the heart of the outrage, and it’s a critical moment to stop and look at what’s happened. Instagram rolled back many of the changes it had proposed. Influencers like the Kardashians got involved, and an executive at Meta filmed an apology. We’re in a moment of limbo. Artists have had to pivot or reassess their relationships with the platform. Well-funded institutions are still producing a variety of content; some have not visibly changed how they engage with the platform. Some institutions formed unlikely stars long ago and stuck with what works: who can forget Tim Pearce of the Carnegie Museum and his snail jokes?
The internet is a soup of emotions, extremes, and creativity. As someone who considers myself “chronically online,” I feel a lot of tension about my consumption of the platforms I use. I love learning from The Getty and the Tate and all the other institutions I follow. I love buying or sharing art from small makers in unexpected places. Yet, I know I am not immune to the influence of the shadow. I know the content I see results from the content I have already consumed, and my slice of the internet is not nearly as expansive as it could or should be. Critical interrogation of the media I consume is integral to being a good online citizen. Still, constant vigilance isn’t the reason I want to look at Instagram in the first place.
The future of social media is contested. This dialogue seriously impacts the art world and society at large. Although Instagram has responded to the needs of its users, the drama is still playing out. Our role as consumers and witnesses is to critically engage with what we consume and support the artists and institutions we care about. The rest is up to the ether.