Instagram has more than 500 million daily users, and its focus on images has made it especially popular among those who make and appreciate art.
We are all just singular humans rooted in space and time, but Instagram gives us access to creative production all around the world, whenever we want it.
But what is it doing to us?
Is it changing the way we interact with and experience art?
The benefits of using Instagram became clear pretty soon after it launched in 2010, for institutions and individuals alike.
For photographers and designers and artists of all kinds, Instagram is your own free gallery.
Well, if you don’t count the cost of giving away your data and attention to advertisements.
But it does give power to artists to represent themselves outside of traditional systems.
You don’t have to wait to be taken on by a gallery, or make the kind of work a gallery thinks they can sell.
You hold the reigns and can show your art how you’d like it to be seen.
You can share aspects of your process, and demonstrate that you are a person outside of your work, you know a guy who goes to baseball games… and votes.
Art history has tended to provide us only a handful of iconic images of artists, seriously engaged in their work or posed with a painting conveniently in the background.
But Instagram gives us views into the daily lives of a multitude of artists, making visible the diversity of the individuals producing art today, and allowing each the ability to represent themself.
And Instagram is an outstanding networking tool, allowing you to not only build and cultivate community among other artists, but also speak directly to followers, fans, and potential collectors.
When most commercial galleries take 50% off a sale, the ability to connect to potential buyers without a middle person can be a real boon.
As galleries are painfully aware, rent is high and employing people is expensive.
While showing your work in person may be the ideal scenario, it’s not always feasible, especially if you live in a place that isn’t a cultural mecca.
Which is most places.
Does Instagram favor particular kinds of work?
Some artworks comes across better in photos than others, but most can figure out a way around these problems if they want to.
And plenty of artists have used the platform as a strategic aspect of their work, recruiting participants and fundraising for performances and events, and sharing documentation with those who can’t be there in person.
Some have used the images they find on Instagram to make actual works in real life.
Ai Weiwei has consistently shown us the power of social media to bear witness his own experience of censorship, and to injustice and suffering around the world, all of which are integral to the work he presents in museums and galleries.
But Instagram can be a limiting influence for artists, just as it’s an empowering one.
Like the rest of us, artists are susceptible to the dopamine rush that comes from “likes” and instant feedback.
Artist Andrea Crespo admitted in a 2018 Vulture article: “Reward systems in social media were influencing my decisions while art making.
I would think about what people would think based off of likes and comments.” Artists have long sought out insight and criticism from friends and colleagues, but more often than not the feedback offered on Instagram is superficial, or purely congratulatory.
Or when offered by anonymous strangers, unconstructively cruel.
Exposing your work on Instagram can make it vulnerable to copycats--other artists as well as companies just trying to decorate their stores.
An artist doesn’t have to have their own account for this to happen, either.
Anyone can snap a pic of your work and post it with your name associated, making you present on Instagram even if you don’t want to be.
And what about Instagram’s effect on museums and galleries?
Most not-for-profit institutions have missions that involve sharing their collections with the public.
And their publics used to have pretty finite geographical boundaries.
Take a place like the Cleveland Museum of Art, who in the pre-internet days kinda had to be focused on serving the public of Cleveland and those who visit it.
Today, their conception of “public” can be much more expansive and inclusive.
They can now try to create meaningful experiences with art for anyone with an internet connection.
And Instagram plays a big role in these efforts.
Museums have the problem of only being in one place.
You’ve got to take the bus or drive and pay for parking and do all the walking.
Social media platforms give museums a way of reaching people where they are, sharing works from their collection, promoting special exhibitions, and luring people out of their hidey holes with glimpses of the cool things they could be doing out in the world.
And the magical part is that it doesn’t have to be one way communication anymore.
For so long museums were the authority imparting their knowledge upon the huddled masses.
But with social media, the huddled masses can easily impart their knowledge on the authority, explaining what they value about their experiences and what they don’t.
When visitors hashtag and geotag their posts, Museums gain insights that can inform future exhibitions.
And it’s also free marketing!
Why spend money on advertising when you’ll spread the word for them?
It’s actually a great way to support your local nonprofits even if you can’t afford to donate directly.
But museums do make programming decisions based off of your Instagram habits.
Both museums and their funders want to see visitors and engagement, and Instagram-friendly shows definitely help with that.
Within six weeks of opening their 2015 show "Wonder," the Renwick Gallery welcomed more visitors than they had previously hosted in a year.
And when the Hirshhorn hosted an Infinity Mirror Room by Yayoi Kusama, their membership increased by over 6,500%.
Both good shows, but you do have to wonder what kind of art they didn’t show instead, work that may be amazing but isn’t as photogenic.
If art museums are trying to show us the best of what’s around--the peak moments in human creativity-- do we want them heavily weighing Instagrammability when deciding what shows to devote money and scholarship to?
The answer doesn’t have to be yes or no, and museums often navigate this by creating Insta-worthy moments within exhibitions, even if the art itself isn’t so Insta-friendly.
And I’m not talking about the Museum of Ice Cream or the Color Factory and those types of places.
Those places are not technically museums, even if it’s in their name, because they don’t have permanent collections of objects they’re entrusted to preserve and display.
I find Instagram-oriented experiences fascinating and worth thinking about, but they are basically a series of sets for taking pictures.
Which is both cool and weird, and also something I hope we look back on, and think of as an amusing step in the direction of a more technologically sophisticated future.
But what’s behind our desire to take pictures in museums and galleries in the first place?
What is it that we want to capture and communicate to our audiences when we’re in proximity to art?
For some it might just be: “Art is cool.
Me is cool, too.” But I think there’s more to it, or at least there can be.
The research on this is just beginning, but a study of one exhibition in 2014 suggested that visitors use Instagram in meaningful ways to promote the exhibition, not replacing the in-person experience but encouraging others to see it for themselves.
The study found that visitors’ use of Instagram was actually connected to their aesthetic experience.
They captured mostly close-up images of the objects in the show and focused on their details.
Only 9 percent of images in the data set including people.
Now this was just one single exhibition in Sydney, Australia, about the history of shoe design from the 1500s to the present.
It was not a Kusama Infinity Room where almost any photo is a selfie.
But it’s still showing, at least in one case, what I’d call real engagement with the objects.
What we’re really getting to here is how we construct meaning around art, right?
Like, the old way was to just, um, look at the thing, walk around it, observe it, and maybe read about it and talk about it with others.
Perhaps the camera and Instagram are tools we now use in this construction of meaning, revealing details we might not have noticed through our eyes alone.
Selecting and framing alternative views of the art.
Does this add to the ways we understand art?
Or does it replace the traditional methods of direct observation and reflection?
If on average we only look at a work of art for 7 seconds, does our photographing it extend our engagement, or does it take the place of what might have been a more fulfilling experience?
Is way better than another?
Or in the wise words of the internet’s favorite young lass: Porque no los dos?
But let’s look at who loses out with this heavy presence of photo-taking in art galleries.
Is it just the poor folks who aren’t taking pics and have to step gingerly around everyone else who is?
One study, published in 2017, found that taking photos with the intention to share them on social media actually undermines your enjoyment of the thing you’re experiencing, increasing your feelings of anxiety.
By worrying about presenting yourself in a positive light, you’ve lessened your engagement with the experience.
One of the co-authors of the study, Alixandra Barasch, suggests you might take pictures, but wait until after the experience to share them.
Or you might even just take pics for your own memories.
Which I think we can all agree is weird, I mean who does that?
But it’s complicated.
I really enjoy virtually visiting artworks and shows I can’t get to by following artists and museums and galleries and curators on Instagram.
And by exploring hashtags and geotags, I can find out about the ways other people experience the art I can get to.
Like when I visited Prada Marfa in the middle of nowhere Texas, I spent mediated as well as unmediated time at the site, but later I found it really enriching to discover who else had been there, famous and not famous, years ago, or just an hour before or after I did.
This expanded my experience of it, extending the work beyond just an interaction between me and the art.
It gave me a window into how others saw it.
And a better sense of the communal life of this artwork, that it exists not just for me but for everyone.
Now of course seeing an image of an artwork on a phone is not as good as being there.
But social media gives us access to art and ideas that were previously off limits for many of us due to geography or privilege.
And sharing art on Instagram is clearly something people want to be doing!
At least right now.
Museums would be foolish to ignore or resist our strong impulse to capture and share our experiences.
But hopefully we’ll all evolve better, healthier ways of doing so, ways that deepen our engagement instead of making it more superficial.
Instagram can’t last forever, no platform does.
Maybe one day we’ll just get tired of filtering our lives through screens, and museums will still be there for us.
Not as stage sets for our individual dramas, but as destinations in themselves, whole places filled with voices and visions past and present, where we can come together and interact in real time and real space.
Or maybe we’ll come to some sort of equilibrium between those poles.