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Arts Opinion

If Contemporary Art Isn’t ‘Instagrammable,’ is it Good?


Who wants to have thousands of followers on Instagram and only get 37 likes? No one. If a photo doesn’t fit our perceived like-to-follower ratio, we delete it. This is the contemporary society we live in: shallow, valuing immediacy over all and driven by likes.

Andy Warhol’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art is receiving more double taps on the museum’s Instagram than any other work currently on display. Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors,” previously installed in Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, was probably the most photographed art experience this winter. It goes to show that the social media- and hype-value of an artist or artwork, and often times both, is beginning to overshadow the point of art.

Art, traditionally, was meant to captivate, challenge and inspire questions from viewers. Mark Rothko didn’t just marry black and maroon for “Black on Maroon” (1958), he created large-scale windows for people to ascend into a new spiritual and emotional plane. Jacob Lawrence didn’t just paint brown and black figures engaging in day-to-day work activities to show black people doing everyday activities, he narrates the stories and hardships within the black community that all can understand.

Neither of these artists cared for likes. They wanted to connect.

But likes aren’t the only form of measurement, there are also views. Sotheby’s live streams its auctions on YouTube, one where Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) sold for $110.5 million. Our need for immediacy led to the emergence of Artsy, an app where art appreciators can easily access, bid and purchase one of David Hockney’s or Tom Wesselmann’s works at the blink of an eye. Sooner or later, you’ll probably be able to purchase one of Nicolas Party’s still life paintings on Instagram Shop.

But however cool and convenient that may be, it begs the question: if contemporary art isn’t “Instagrammable,” is it good? Think about it. We’re enthralled in a culture of “pics or it didn’t happen.” As an Instagram-obsessed art student, I find myself taking pictures of art for others to see me appreciating art.

Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition at the High was the first thorough exploration of Kusama’s past and recent works. The most striking (and Instagram-ed) was her transcendent rooms propelling viewers into an immersive, new dimension of thought-provoking infinity.

Yayoi Kusama, The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013. Courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Kusama’s use of light—particularly in “Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away”—reflecting on mirrors in darkness makes for the perfect experience. But most importantly, as a millennial, it makes for the perfect selfie. I even took one myself, and there are thousands of others who did the same tagging the High on Instagram.

“It’s an interesting convergence of things in the world,” says Julia Forbes, Head of Museum Interpretation at the High. “Did [social media], and where we are as a society, and how we care about taking a picture of everything make this a more popular show? Yes. But did Kusama do it for that reason? No. But there is something there.”

Forbes is right. Kusama didn’t have the intention of making art for Instagram. As an artist who emerged in the ‘50s, Kusama had no idea how important “likes” would be to the current zeitgeist. Nor would she be upset that her work has become a social media phenomenon, simply for the fact it’s solidifying her place as one of the most celebrated contemporary artists.

In contrast to Kusama’s 40-plus years of experience in the art world, Amy Sherald, the American painter responsible for the instantly-iconic portrait of Michelle Obama, catapulted into the high art society due to social media.

Amy Sherald, First Lady Michelle Obama, 2018. | via Google

Of course, Sherald’s work before the Obama portrait has always been enchanting: portraying narratives within the black community through exquisite use of color that is visually stimulating and have an essence of optimism. But, because her portrait for the previous First Lady was digestible as an objective work about Obama, it was able to be mass-posted on social platforms.

Did that push Sherald’s work beyond the threshold of just a painting of Michelle Obama to a contemporary, high art portrait of Michelle Obama? Possibly. It undoubtedly put Sherald in the history books, and certainly put her on the map as a “true” contemporary artist to watch.

Instagram and other social media platforms do have their faults, mainly for those of us who want more than the surface-level takeaway of an artwork. In Amanda Hess’s “The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’” for the New York Times, Hess expresses her time encountering “experiences” designed solely for the sake of capturing a picture.

“I found myself sleepwalking through them, fantasizing about going to a real museum.” She dives into the justification of “Instagram Museums,” stating “the real experience plays out only after we post photographic evidence on social media.”

Now, I’m not saying art has lost its purpose and that all contemporary artists aren’t captivating, challenging and inspiring questions from viewers. However, if the challenges and purpose of an artwork are being overshadowed by hype and “Instagrammable-ness” that our society is driven by, does this cultural shift mean that contemporary artworks with the most likes qualify as good art?

Anthony O'Baner

Anthony, a Fashion major, is the Editor-in-Chief of SCAD's thriving fashion blog, The Manor.