Head over to your Instagram account and tap Edit Profile. At the bottom choose Switch to Professional Account, pick an account type (Creator or Business), and now pick Artist from the list of categories provided. That’s it!
As insanely ridiculous as that suggestion might sound, we must be very careful not to undermine how an app that is being used by one seventh of the world on a daily basis can affect how we view and define certain ideas. And Instagram is just one example. As of January 2021, there are 4.33 billion active users on social media platforms combined, which accounts for more than 55% of the world population.
The happy marriage between social media and streaming platforms has resulted in a somewhat underwhelming offspring: Content. Produced and brought to us often in unhealthy doses by content creators, who take the liberty to satisfy their god complexes by simply calling themselves “creators”. But let’s deny them the joy of attention and go back to the word content. Is content art, or is art content? Which contains the other?
Surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the two. You could say art requires years of practice to master one’s craft; but then so much of the higher-quality content is also created by people who have spent years mastering their craft. And what about art movements like Dada that didn’t really care about mastery or the normative approach to quality; that would deliberately attempt to be satirical? Doesn’t that also count as art? And what does that remind you of? Memes, right? Fast, low-quality, satirical; checks all the boxes! There are many who actually consider memes a form of art too, and maybe rightly so!
Now let’s look at it from the other side. Isn’t all art a form of content? To be able to answer this question we need to go a bit deeper. What is the purpose of content? Is it merely there to entertain? If so, then isn’t art? Well, maybe not. At least in what I’ve learned to consider art, the main goal has always been to provoke thought. And of course, much art can be considered entertaining too; but it doesn’t have to be!
Now we can see how content moves in the opposite direction; because all content has to be entertaining, at least to a big enough group of consumers (keep that word in mind please), but it doesn’t need to be thought-provoking at all. In fact, it’s often designed to be thought-suppressing and reaction-provoking. You see, social media platforms are not just charitably free! They survive and thrive on every tap or click you make. The pace of your scrolling, the pauses you make, every post or story you long-press on, every swipe is recorded and analyzed, and the more time you spend doing those things, the more behavioural information they can collect on you and then sell to advertisers or other companies that might have a use for it. But to be able to continuously do that, they need to keep you engaged; they need to make sure that every time you leave you will come back for more. Even the aesthetics of their apps and websites are designed with that exact purpose in mind. Without content, these platforms would have nothing to scroll through; therefore they existentially depend on it.
The promise of this self-representation paradise is equal chance. No matter who you are and where you are, you all get the same set of tools, for free. And it’s definitely a very luring promise, but the moment you fall for it, you’re taking on the extremely demanding challenge of becoming your own official promoter. Now the time that you would ideally dedicate to taking the world in, processing it, reflecting on it, and then turning inspiration into an artwork, has to be spent over-documenting the process, creating posts in different sizes for multiple platforms, and writing captions that follow various guidelines set by each one of them.
More often than necessary, these limiting policies of social media platforms go beyond layout and formatting guidelines and step into the realm of content policing. If your work bears any nudity, or if some random person finds your post offensive and cares enough to report you, the platform might go as far as taking down the work and terminating your account. You could, like many, blur or black out the nipples and genitalia; but is that really okay? Just imagine if Egon Schiele was living in our time; if he, as an emerging artist, had to use Instagram to promote his work in hope of being seen and discovered. Can you grasp how infuriating it would be for him to black out the most defining elements of his paintings? The parts that carry the most concentrated layers of emotion in his work?! The same case could be made for many other bygone artists, but there’s no need to just imagine these situations, as there are already (too) many real world cases out there. Just back in 2019 Betty Tompkins, the famous photorealist painter, was banned from Instagram for posting a photo of one of her works titled Fuck Painting #1. While Tompkins’ account was reinstated after several hundred people (including many artists and the two galleries that represented her work) reported the matter to Instagram, many obscure or not so well-known artists might not be as lucky. Some may end up deciding to abide by these restrictive regulations in order to maintain their artistic career. What is happening as a result is that artists are being slowly conditioned to create in certain ways; to look at their work as a product rather than a means of self-expression; to create for the trends followed by the consumers rather than to steer the taste of their audience according to their artistic direction.
But this unquenchable need for presentation has a shadow that looms large: the fear of being forgotten. And while this fear can take many forms, it so often appears as a growing tendency to compromise; as quantity goes up, quality drops: Mass production 101. Even our terminology for creation has changed in the past few decades. We don’t strive to be prolific anymore; we want to be constantly productive! To make more and get more done! And while some might argue that these two words can be used interchangeably, you can’t deny the unashamedly explicit reference to production in the latter. In prolificness, quality is a given, a prerequisite; you’ve reached a level of matureness in your craft that you can now create and recreate pieces that carry it over and build up on it. But in productiveness, that’s hardly a matter of concern.
That same production-based approach has become the defining ingredient for many renowned modern day artists who have gone so far as leaving the whole process of the physical creation of the work to groups of assistants or hired professionals. A good example of this could be Damien Hirst’s series of Spot Paintings, which has been reproduced by his assistants in various sizes and forms 1400 times! And that’s not counting the 10,000 variations in the recent Currency series—which is basically a remarketed version of the Spot Paintings, again fully produced by assistants but signed by Hirst. This method of creating artworks has turned into a golden goose for both the artist and the galleries supporting them. It has also completely shifted the role of the assistant (often played by younger artists); turning them from mentees who had minimal input on the final work to factory workers who make the whole product and are never credited for it!
However, there’s still a little to be argued for these artists, as all they’ve done has been to naturally embrace the global shift towards a more capitalistic and entrepreneurial approach to every aspect of life. In a way, these artists are simply being a sign of their times, but that doesn’t necessarily vindicate them.
The overlap between art and content can sometimes become so eclipsing that it would be almost impossible to tell one from the other; to the point that it would be even futile to try. Who could argue that Escher’s or Vasarely’s optical illusions are not visually entertaining, meticulously crafted, and conceptually rich with methods to interrogate perspective at the same time?
Now in such cases what would be the distinguishing factor between the two? The end goal. Do you remember the word I asked you to keep in mind? Consumers. Content is specifically designed and produced to be consumed. It uses tried and tested formulas and utilizes trends in order to become more consumable, to turn more heads, to get more clicks and views. Art on the other hand only hopes for an audience, but does not immediately require it. History is filled with brilliant pieces of visual art, literature, cinema and music that failed to garner enough (if any) attention in their own time but found their niche tens or even hundreds of years later. The artists behind those works would have definitely preferred the recognition, fame, financial security, and social status that comes with having a dedicated audience. Still, they kept creating; and maybe that on its own could be considered the sign of a true artist. The persistence; the sheer acknowledgment of the fact that if you have something to express, and you know how to express it, then you have to keep doing so regardless of how it’s going to be received. Profit margins and viral views are not the point.
This brings to mind the last scene of Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate: Van Gogh’s dead body lies flat on a table, surrounded by all his paintings; the same ones that no one bought while he was alive. And for the first time, people are enthusiastically looking at them, not seeing the mad man responsible for the work, just the paintings themselves. Although that depiction might be historically inaccurate, I can still respect Schnabel’s take here. Knowing that he’s a brilliant painter himself, who’s had his share of witnessing the rise and demise of some other geniuses, you could see how he’s proposing that true art can only be comprehended to the fullest when it’s freed from the burden of the image of the artist.
So, how should one go about being an artist in our day and age? I think at its core it shouldn’t be any different from any other point in time: persevering defiance! Know your times and the world you’re living in, but refuse to suffice to what it’s offering you. Know your medium inside and out, learn its capabilities, then strip them! Learn its limitations, then exceed them. Know the platforms where you can present your work, then challenge them! And just keep doing so! And while you’re at it, put all of yourself in it, so much so that the work would end up defining you, not you the work.
–Arman Paxad, October 2021