Art for Instagram – is social media ruining art?

Published in The Independent on July 14, 2016

Turning the corner in the London’s Newport Street Gallery, Damien Hirst’s latest venture, I’m met by a large, blue, shiny metal sculpture, a Jeff Koons balloon monkey. I’m also met by a bevy of cameras: the young couple comparing shots on their phones, the hipster dude with a SLR slung round his neck, a girl sorting her hair before snapping a selfie.

I can’t help but feel a flicker of irritation – is anyone really looking at the art? But as I move round the sculpture, seeing myself distorted in those super-shiny curves, my hands twitch. This would look great on Instagram, whispers a voice. I whip out my phone and snap away, telling myself it’s OK, it’s Jeff Koons: this art is all about surfaces and reflections anyway. Take a picture of a Koons sculpture and you can’t help but capture yourself, an “accidental” #art #selfie.

The instant recognition and instant gratification of his art is perfectly suited to our instant share age. There are currently 186,808 Instagram posts tagged #jeffkoons. Colourful, shiny, and pop-culturally savvy, his 2014 Whitney show in New York has been named one of the most Instagrammed art shows of all time – and it looks like London is following suit.

And no wonder the Insta art snap is popular: it’s a way of taking a selfie with added cultural capital, where the just-so backdrop is also proof of your excellent taste. And be prepared to see a lot of those this summer, as a plethora of new shows, buildings and structures open that seem designed more to invite a trout-pout that a chin-stroke.

Artist Carsten Holler’s slide, which twizzles round Anish Kapoor’s Orbit Tower monument in the Olympic park, recently opened and offers a chance to brag your bravery as well as your artistic credentials. The Serpentine Summer Pavilion, Bjarke Ingels’s “ice cube cave”, provides endless appealing angles for an arty shot. And expect to see plenty more shares from the new Tate Modern Switch House and Ai Weiwei’s giant tree in the Turbine Hall.

Yayoi Kusama has a new show at the Victoria Miro gallery; her polka dots and infinity mirror rooms have seen her dubbed the world’s most popular – and most Instagrammable – artist. Queues to see a recent show in LA stretched to five hours, with the blame put on people posing for too many pictures inside. Having recently been to her new show at Victoria Miro in London, phone in hand, I confess that they are just irresistible. Stepping, alone, inside a small room, you’re surrounded by twinkling chandeliers or spotty pumpkins, endlessly reflected in mirrors on all sides. It’s perfect Insta fodder, a selfie multiplied to infinity.

Yet the desire to get the perfect, shareable snap surely stands in the way of the wonder such immersive experiences were designed to create. It’s easy to waste the time thinking about future “likes”, not the present moment, or some true self that might be thrown up in all that duplication.

Is the experience any longer really about art – about looking at, thinking about, emotionally responding to something beautiful, provocative or disturbing, allowing it to change our understanding of the world or to enrich it? The risk is that art, instead, becomes a mere tool of our narcissism, the equivalent of a flattering filter, making us appear more attractive, more hip.

On a practical note, people taking photographs in galleries is also just really annoying sometimes. I’m a hypocrite, I know. But I hope my occasional gallery snaps are at least swift and unobtrusive. Some of the posing and preening, the charging through the gallery just to find the best backdrop – it drives me nuts, and I’m a Millennial; I can only imagine how bewildering and irritating it must be for an older generation more interested in Holbeins than hashtags.

But this consume-and-share approach is encouraged: Victoria Miro has the appropriate hashtags on the wall (#instakusama). I’m sure marketing teams are delighted when their gallery gets a flurry of tags on opening weekends.

Isn’t that also a reason to be cheerful, however? A social media buzz is a great way to attract new, and especially young, visitors. Even if a post is calculated to win likes, if it actually leads a follower falling in love for real with the art of, say, Louise Bourgeois, then that can be no bad thing.

You could argue we get the art we deserve in this hyper-active age – children’s slides and cutesy pumpkins, eye-catching and shiny but ultimately vacuous and shallow. I don’t entirely subscribe to that. And even those who do denigrate fun, interactive work as overly populist must surely also acknowledge that it can be an excellent way to lead people into cultural environments where they can experience a wealth of other work. Come for the photo op, and stay for the masterpieces.

Instagrammers might be putting themselves in the frame for vain reasons – but putting cynicism aside, lets recognised that it is often an indication of very real enthusiasm, of engagement with the work. It’s also a sign of an audience who feels comfortable in a gallery, who take ownership of the art.

And a sense of ownership is a rare and powerful thing. Art is too often seen as exclusive, elite, something for posh people, or intellectuals – so anything that helps break down that it’s-not-for-me barrier is to be celebrated. Art is for everyone, and encouraging a new, younger generation to get involved and feel it belongs to them is incredibly important. Social media can be a massive part of that. #selfiedefence.

Where next?