Delhi's winter is proving to be rather unforgiving to my tropics accustomed body. I realise I'm having my third cup of chai not because I want to but simply because after I'm finished, I can roll that warm ceramic cup all over my chilly shivering face. I’m at my desk, trying to write, and I can’t help but stare at my phone, lying just at hand’s reach, as always, with a kind of contempt and disgust I’ve rarely felt before.
I think I hate my phone. I hate everything in it. The reason I hate it is because I know I can’t do without it. And on my phone what I hate the most is this treacherous little square called instagram. The thing that annoys me even more is that I don’t know how to explain exactly what instagram is.
For me, it is a market. But it’s also my morning newspaper and, to my great annoyance, I think it has also started to become my library. In so many ways, it's also a gallery, along with an auditorium and a limitless archive. And in the last year, it has become the place where you, in real time, participate and spend time with other people. I cannot help but wonder the number of objects, institutions and physical spaces that Instagram must have rendered obsolete over the last decade. But the line of enquiry this piece deals with is about art, and how it has gone through a radical paradigm shift since the advent of Instagram.
Anyone would be seriously remiss if they fail to acknowledge and appreciate the fact that Instagram has revolutionised and in so many ways, democratised the art scene across the world. Anybody from any part of the world who enjoys making any form of art can simply share their work with audiences from across the world by creating an account on Instagram and if your work resonates with people, you can be as successful as they come.I would like to look at this idea from two points of view. First, as an Instagram user who engages with the accounts of artists and second, as an artist who also uses Instagram.
As an Instagram user, interacting with an artist’s page can be a very stimulating experience because not only do I get to enjoy and appreciate the works they put up, I also get to witness their story. By scrolling through their feed, I get an immediate sense of their journey and weave, in my mind, a narrative of the individual. A research conducted amongst over 700 art accounts on instagram revealed that the pictures of the artists and WIP or tutorial videos typically fare much better than posts that show the finished artworks. Instagram makes the institution of the artist far more accessible to the audience and thwarts the enigma behind the persona of the artist.
As an artist myself, I recognise the immense potential that instagram holds for me to grow as a professional and even begin to capitalise on my work. Today, it's easier than ever to be able to sell our work because of Instagram. One doesn’t need to go through the convoluted bureaucratic processes of art galleries and rely on the patronage of the highly exclusive, inaccessible and elitist individuals who run the formal art scene. Ashwin Mohan, a multidisciplinary visual artist and creative director of ‘Whoa Mama Design’ confirms that, “It is a great platform. It is very accessible and has great reach. In so many ways, Instagram is almost like a portfolio for any artist or designer.”
There are also pages that are entirely based around promoting the works of up and coming artists and will gladly amplify you and your work. It’s also easier to network with artists from across the world and learn from their work and experiences. AishR, an illustrator, designer and entrepreneur of ‘AishrTheStore’ says that, “Instagram has great word of mouth reach and is very useful in being able to get in touch with people you otherwise wouldn’t. It is a great tool to connect with people.”
The support systems that we as a creative community have come up with are nothing short of brilliant. If there ever were ideal conditions for artists to thrive, it is today.
On the face of it, all that we have discussed till now seems really vibrant and revolutionary, and is the opinion that most of us would echo on this matter. But is it really so?
This culture that we have spoken of till now, puts an immense amount of pressure on artists who use instagram and the distinction between producing art and producing Instagram content is becoming more and more blurred with each passing day. Ashwin also says that, “ More than creating work you end up having the need to create something, it always feels like you’re competing with something!”
The pressure to keep up with the instagram algorithm, and ipso facto, reach and keep our audiences constantly engaged, requires an artist to be extremely regular with their posts and interact with their followers via stories, lives, reels and the whole wide gamut of tools available on instagram. Our reach is only as good as how active we are on the gram and the number of times our art is being saved or shared. Namita Sunil, an illustrator, designer and model, says that, "I've come to the same realization as you have, and I find this method of working unsustainable as well. It would affect my work tremendously, and I realized after a while that I was making work for instagram, rather than for myself."
While Instagram allows artists to claim their own narratives, it also makes room for a lot of animosity and insecurity because so many times, the dwindling attention span of an Instagram user seeking art, is more allured by the narrative and lifestyle of the artist than the art itself and the artist is entirely left at the mercy of the whims of Instagram’s algorithm and the very small attention span of most of their audiences.
Ashwin feels that the visual artists space is turned into a cool looking set rather than a vibrant creative space. He says, “Instagram is a place where people show their and seek others’ lifestyles.They feel that if a person is a certain way, their work must also be cool.” Namita resonates a very similar opinion and says that, "When I get jealous of an artist on instagram, I don't only covet their work - I covet where they seem to be placed as an artist as well, their accolades and their 'status'. Whereas I see work anywhere else, mostly tumblr, I get genuinely inspired by the work itself."
It is my opinion that, on instagram, the content that our art deals with also affects how well we would do. Topical art that deals with pop culture and current affairs typically fares much better than, say, a drawing that captures a visceral musing over a warm cup of tea by the setting sun. And it is also important to remember that to keep up with the algorithm and the topical nature of the art that people want to see, you have to be very, very quick.
Aishwarya says that, “Anything you put on instagram has a shelf life. If it’s popular today, it won’t be tomorrow. There’s a small amount of pressure to be instant but just because it’s pressuring we don’t have to entirely pander to it.” One wouldn’t be wrong in saying that if one were to choose to keep up, the best way to do this is via digital art, often rendering more analog mediums to take a back seat.
The artist who spends the most hours on the gram, creating content and interacting with popular content themselves, keeping up with the latest viral song on reels, and who is the fastest on their iPad and is digitally active enough to be the first responder to any national or international event, owns the instagram art scene and I wonder if this is fair. And it is my belief that this relentless demand for quick and cool looking art that most artists succumb to also leads to a certain homogeneity in the kind of work we are doing today.
The algorithm recognises a style of work that does relatively well and amplifies it out of proportion and it is inevitable that an artist will feel pressured to adhere to these notions of aesthetics decided by the algorithm. Instead of making art as an expression of oneself, the artist has to make art that can appease and this is not fair. If we don’t give an artist space to breathe, to think, to feel, to practice and to grow, the artist will stagnate and become extremely redundant, and you, the patron, will move on to the next trendy artist that instagram picks out for you.
Perhaps the major struggle that I and without any doubt every single one of my colleagues have to tackle is unpaid commissions. So many institutions and patrons that reach out to us expect us to work without any money, and only for the experience and incentive of adding a commission to our portfolios. Namita adds, “And I think this happens to a lot of influencers, but none of us talk about it. Because we're too busy looking successful on social media, I suppose."
The artists and designers who are able to take up these unpaid commissions and build their portfolios are the ones for whom supporting themselves is not an immediate concern, who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is going to come from. The work done by artists who come from backgrounds of more means takes more space on our feeds and is further pedalled by the algorithm.
The consequence of this is that a certain kind of aesthetic and understanding of art, one that comes from a certain lived experience where one has always had enough means and more, is imprinted in the minds of audiences and becomes what they seek when they look for art on Instagram. Namita very rightly puts it, “In the end, it’s a mini society here copying real life. So the question is whether this is really democratic or not?”
It’s also important to realise that this is exactly why patrons expect us to take unpaid commissions because if today I am to refuse one, simply because I cannot afford to work without pay, they would without any struggle find somebody with a similar skill set who would be willing to do the job for free. Ashwin says, ‘You doing cheap work kills the industry. No matter what, friend, family or anyone, if someone asks me for any work, I don’t do it for free. Even if it's the minimal amount, charge it!”
Artists are, at least I am, scared to use their platform to talk about these issues because we understand that it is very important, on instagram, to maintain the facade of being successful to eventually find success. I don’t know if my patrons, or for that matter of fact, my colleagues, who follow me want to listen to all of this and talk about it. I would sincerely like to believe they do.
One can’t help but be reminded of Andy Warhol’s words, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes" and I wonder if this is what we, the artists of today, are going for. We need to strive harder for greater veracity in our art rather than a greater reach and along with the community, come up with ways to make the atmosphere more conducive and sustainable than it is right now.
Instagram started a revolution in the art world. One can never deny the fact that instagram has enabled anybody to become a successful artist. All three of the artists in conversation have made it where they are by using Instagram as a tool, and how wonderfully. I can only imagine what a little bit of mindfulness on the part of the community, artists and audience, can further do for the Indian art scene.
The intention of my piece is not to offend my colleagues and patrons but to generate discourse on how we can improve things for ourselves and I really welcome any and all comments. You can reach out to me on instagram at @tushar_kanoi1. Oh, the irony!