#CannibalisticDeathCults: Instagram and the Politics of Self-Expression

The creation of Instagram has ensured that the starving artist is dying, and the masses are pleased. Because of its ability to create broad exposure with little monetary investment...

The creation of Instagram has ensured that the starving artist is dying, and the masses are pleased.

Because of its ability to create broad exposure with little monetary investment and nearly immediate gratification for an artist, the app has enabled creatives to follow their passion and make money without ever needed to be a “starving artist.” However, it has also changed the type of art we see through censorship, and the enforcement of mainstream societal structures. The combination of greater access to art and a smaller acceptable range of material, has resulted in the creation of a mainstream art culture that is new-wave in its format, but not revolutionary in its content. Instagram was created in 2010 and has since become the eighth most popular social media platform in the world. Because of this broad reach, the medium provides an outlet for artists to show their work without ever having to leave their home, never mind quit their jobs and move to a major city. It is also a way to find potential buyers and allow them to contact the artist if they are interested in purchasing it. Instagram has effectively allowed artists and consumers to transcend the limits of geography, and turned being an artist as well as an art collector in to viable avenues for the “everyman” for the first time in history. Instagram also has “community guidelines” that disallow specific content deemed unsafe for the Instagram community. This has resulted in work being removed from the platform and therefore censoring creative expression.

The issue of pushing the societally acceptable boundaries has been essential to the artistic process for as long as society and art have interacted, so some would say that this is simply the newest rendition of an old classic. The difference, however, is that this time the audience reached by each piece, or not reached if censorship is an issue, is significantly larger, with many artists having millions of followers. The world of art thrives on controversy, and by creating community guidelines that allow Instagram to limit what is or is not acceptable with total authority, the platform is effectively limiting art to a mundane and childish endeavor that is then eaten up by millions across the world. Instagram is shaping the world of art to make it more accessible for both artists and consumers, but also less interesting and fundamentally important as a system of social commentary. This new world of seemingly senseless censorship, which can remove a photo of tortellini if users flag it enough times, can be the launch pad for an artist’s entire career or the rubber stamp of disapproval that comes with having your account deleted for violating vague “community guidelines”.

Toronto-based artist Chris Austin is an excellent example of this phenomenon. A profile story in Business Insider explained that Austin is a former Wonderbread factory employee who now makes 25% of his income on Instagram. Six years ago, this never would have been possible and Austin would still be putting GMO bread into brightly colored plastic bags. In contrast to his success, the historic bigwigs of the art world, including institutions such as the Philadelphia Art Museum have had images removed from their accounts for being “suggestive”. I would like to point out that what exactly is “suggestive” is entirely subjective, which allows the platform to limit any piece of visual media it chooses and forcibly conform art into a single hegemonic cultural structure. This often takes the form, as written by artist Brad Phillips in Vice, of “a youth-fetishizing cannibalistic death cult of speculation and interior design masked as progressive painting.” Simply stated, something as simple as censorship on Instagram means that art could become simply one more vessel for social media to commoditize and mainstream, instead of a vehicle for social change and important commentary.

Author: Hunter Hedenberg, University of Vermont
Content creator and photographer with a coffee habit and a rock climbing addiction.

Advisor: Rob Williams, Ph.D., University of Vermont Professor of Media/Communication

1. Miranda, Carolina A. “Social Media Have Become a Vital Tool for Artists — but Are They Good for Art?” Los Angeles Times. June 23, 2016. Accessed October 11, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-is-social-media-good-for-art-20160517-snap-htmlstory.html.
2. Phillips, By Brad. “How Instagram Is Changing the Art World | VICE | United States.” VICE. N.p., 18 May 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016. http://www.vice.com/read/how-instagram-is-changing-the-art-world
3. Renfro, Kim. “This Artist Makes a Living ‘flash-selling’ His Work on Instagram.” Business Insider. 2016. Accessed October 11, 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/how-artist-makes-a-living-by-selling-paintings-on-instagram-2016-1?r=UK.
4. Siegal, Nina. “Instagram Takes on Growing Role in the Art Market.” New York Times. August 4, 2016. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/arts/international/instagram-takes-on-growing-role-in-the-art-market.html?_r=1.


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