The Art of Instagram

Photo by Aiony Haust

In recent years, I’ve gotten my head around the fact that all companies, particularly social media titans like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, are pretty abstract things. Without your pictures of that thing you have with floors/walls/yoga/coffee/sunsets, etc., etc. Instagram is just inanimate (yet extensive) coding around the idea that people like to dress up their lives & then share the photos. Instagram needs us to fulfill its promise: it doesn’t really do anything until we supply Instagram with our lives, their content. Then it becomes a “social media platform,” which still makes limited sense to me, so for the sake of clarity, let’s go with “a place to do what people do – tell stories to friends & strangers using words or pictures or both.”

Anyone who uses Instagram is charged with telling stories, making the abstract real, and turning Instagram into a social media platform with their posts. Weirdly enough, content (or as I call it, Art – that very thing that we collectively have such a hard time pinning down), is what turns all of the coders’ coding into a concrete thing.

Photos are what make Instagram go round. Art is what makes the business man’s business plan work. Each Instagram account holder is given the exhilarating responsibility of self-representation, creative direction etc. & so operates within the scope of traditional artists. The leap from social media user to Artist, preferred medium: Instagram, is an easy one. I think that leap is probably what the suits who refuse to wear suits in Silicon Valley wanted from its users, in the “Instagram: where we’re all artists!” sense. Art is appealing (ask a 2nd grader what their favorite subject is & their answer will be Art class or Gym class), and appealing means marketable.

So, we’re artists. What’s Instagram?

Patron? Canvas? Factory Foreman, i.e. The Man? All of the above. Instagram gives its users an assignment: go forth & document your life; gives us a medium: a lens, a set of filters & a 3 by Infinity grid. It gives us the task of making it work: post your pictures, entice your friends, use your platform often enough to entice advertisers, & use it well enough that we can use you & your artistic posts to advertise ourselves.

Then again, artists making things for “the man,” and/or the man making it possible for artists to make things, is a very old story. Artists were also once court jesters & portraitists for political dynasties. Though its mythology is less compelling, patronage is as much a part of the Western artistic tradition as La Vie Bohème.

Though most art has been made on The Man’s dime, it’s kind of new to use art to make The Man his dimes. We do exactly that every time we use our Instagram accounts (particularly if we’re “good” or have a fair number of followers): we put ourselves to work on Instagram’s behalf. We make art that plays nice with – or at least plays next to – a commercial agenda. So, no Instagram might not be benevolence incarnate, but it’s no bad guy. It’s all pretty symbiotic, actually.