Recently on Instagram I got a direct message from a friend in New York, a reputable photographer. He said, "You're a cult figure on the internet these days," then to make it really hurt, he added: "And I say that with zero sarcasm."
The photo sharing app has been both an amazing and horrible tool for me and other artists. People love it and hate it. The hate is starting to bypass the love for me. It's a double-edged sword, but one side is getting sharper.
Since I've had my current account, I have, through Instagram, sold a great deal of work privately to people. I've had a solo show in Oslo at Bjarne Melgaard's gallery. I've been included in many group shows. I had a solo show in East Hampton at Harper's Books. Entirely due to Instagram I've had a hardcover book of my drawings published by a reputable English art book imprint. None of the above "developments" in my career, none of the sales, were facilitated by my gallery in New York. That's not the fault of the gallery. The art world right now is a youth-fetishizing cannibalistic death cult of speculation and interior design masked as progressive painting.
But it also means that increasingly for young artists, galleries are becoming obsolete. Not many people outside of art realize that galleries take 50 percent of the money from a sale. This shocks people in other businesses. They take that percentage because historically being associated with a gallery has provided an artist with validation. More and more though, collectors don't care about validation, or a proven track record. They care about names that they hear repeated at cocktail parties and art fairs. In this way, having a prominent presence online contributes to your name being circulated, cutting out the need (a false one anyway) to be vouched for by a gallery. Most collectors buy what other people buy, and what other people buy is what is happening right now, today and if Instagram is anything, it's an encapsulation and display of the most urgent present moment. Knowing that they can cut out the middle man, knowing that artists will be happy to sell work privately, means collectors can arrive at the same point for half the price. It could be argued the only real function of the gallery space is to fulfill the ego of the artist to see his or her work exhibited in a white cube, I'm one of those artists.
Easy access to buyers is an obvious benefit and increases the output of original artwork on Instagram. But a key issue artists are coming up against now, myself included, is the loss of control over the imagery we post. Our work is screenshot, then disseminated without consent. In an age where a JPEG has almost as much value as the physical object, this is problematic. Artists I've known have had their work taken off Instagram and included in publications without being compensated, never mind notified. But at least there their work is identified as their own. Straight up duplication and theft is equally common. I've seen my own art recirculated back to me without credit or worse, credited to a stranger. Some people think artists should be flattered by imitation but in the end it just makes it harder to use those images later for artwork and there's the risk of being accused of appropriating your own work after it's recycled and reposted on the internet thousands of times.
There is also a notorious censorship issue on the app that prevents real artistic freedom. Sure the official stance is that you can post pretty much whatever you want but sexual images (ones that do not violate Instagram's terms around nudity) are often flagged and deleted. Instagram's inability to control its users have rendered these terms essentially meaningless. Officially when it comes to sexualized images, you cannot depict breasts in their entirety (hence the indefatigable #freethenipple hashtag). You cannot show intercourse or genitals. Apparently Instagram has made a tiny move towards a more liberal visual culture by allowing users to post images of asses, but from a distance. Who decides this distance? Who knows. But in the end none of these rules are really rules. Of the photos flagged off my account, none of them violate the official terms, and the ones that flirt with violating the terms remain up. This tends to particularly affect women representing their own bodies; I know many women, including my partner, who have had their work flagged, photos deleted, and their accounts erased. Petra Collins notoriously had a photo deleted where her pubic hair was peeking through her underwear, yet other explicitly pornographic accounts remained unmolested. What this says about our cultural aversion to women's bodies in their natural state is depressing.
Because my account has been flagged and deleted three times before, I now have to look at everyone who follows me. I have to block anyone who says they love God or posts photos of their kids. I fear they're the snitches who flag my photos and since Instagram doesn't tell you what's been removed or flagged it's frustrating to try and figure out exactly what's offended who. Since the ones I think are vaguely sexual stay up, I have to assume they're photos I don't see as being sexual, but that others do, or that some people simply don't like me. As I learned from a man who works for Instagram who helped me get my account back once, if enough people flag a photo of lasagna, it'll get deleted.
As I said above though, Instagram is also a boon for the art world. It's launched the careers of many emerging artists, in particular, Canadian bp laval, and UK artist Genieve Figgis. Both of them were simply posting their work on Instagram until Richard Prince took notice, posted it on his account, and went on to help them launch exhibitions and books through a gallery and publishing imprint he backs in New York. How would I, they, anyone, have found a way to connect with Richard Prince before Instagram? An earnest letter and a CD of images? I can guarantee that even if someone were able to track down Prince's home address, such a package would have been immediately thrown in the garbage by his assistants. This Instagram connection is a new thing, and a very beautiful thing, and what is most lovely about it is that artists who are perhaps disinclined to play the boring and expensive game the art world requires—move to New York, glad-hand at a million openings—can now be themselves, perhaps agoraphobic or socially anxious, and still reach a very wide audience.
It's been especially good for me in the ways I've described. Jerry Saltz, one of the last legitimate art critics in New York wrote not about my work, but my Instagram account. Did I put that on my CV? Sure. Pack it in. On Instagram, there's a liberating dissolution of the multiple barriers that have prevented young artists from connecting with galleries and critics in the real world. This is only positive. Everyone is equal on Instagram.
In art, timing is everything. With art on Instagram, timing has become both sped up and slowed down. The time is always now, if the right person stumbles upon your feed, connects with what you do, and, like Prince, is possessed of a generosity of spirit that pushes them to want to help. So while artists run the risk of theft or the devaluation of their ideas and work, they do so in a climate where many more eyes are out to help and spread the good news than have ever existed in the art world before.
And yet all that being said I still can't fathom a more humiliating exit from this world than having my tombstone read, "He had a great Instagram."
Follow Brad Phillips, sigh, on Instagram.