From soul-killing comparison to feelings of inadequacy, the downsides of Instagram clash with the numerous career benefits and opportunities for community building it also offers. With testimony from artists themselves, Marco unpacks the realities of being an artist on Instagram today.
Social media has revolutionised the way we view, appreciate, and create art. It has ruptured the traditional commission – gallery – collector pipeline and made it easier than ever before for anyone to have their art seen by thousands of people at the tap of a screen. But with artists complaining of a social media induced anxiety that is affecting their work, just how healthy is the relationship between the two?
Instagram is a platform that thrives and makes money from comparison and feelings of inadequacy. Research published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture has shone a light on how using Instagram can affect our mental health. Compared with other social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, Instagram appears to be more harmful to our brains, especially when it comes to the ways we compare ourselves to everyone else using it. The study also found that the more time people reported spending on Instagram, the more anxious and depressed they felt. This is all while its owner, Facebook, has gradually hollowed out the platform to recently become an advertising and shopping mecca, chock-full of content that is targeted at users’ insecurities.
Artists too are locked into a battle with overly attaching their self-esteem and worth to the validation that the likes and shares their work receives on Instagram. If they suddenly receive few(er) likes, naturally one will wonder whether their art is simply not that interesting. An ever-encroaching sense of impostor syndrome can also set in when an artist is receiving a sudden buzz of attention. As artist Andrea Crespo explains in Vulture, “you begin making art not for yourself, but for the dopamine rush that comes as each double-tap lights up your phone.”
Jaffar Aly thinks that, overall, Instagram has had a positive effect on his career as an artist. He points to the fact that he’s able to reach a wider target audience outside his own circle. In addition, Jaffar has taken advantage of the marketisation of Instagram by paying the platform to promote his work – “it does work by the way”, he adds.
However, the downsides of using Instagram are plenty for Jaffar, with the main problems being “comparison and number chasing.” Alongside being a motivation killer, Jaffar believes comparison makes you start questioning your skill as an artist : “I’ve somehow found myself spending hours just looking at art I’ve found in the search page section and [I’ll] compare my allotment with the next person. We are not on the same journey at all, but I feel like they’re better or further which is not true.”
In terms of feeling able to comfortably and openly voice his political views on Instagram, Jaffar is conflicted. “I might make art that has a political narrative … and with [projects] I’ll definitely be voicing my political views. But outside of that, it’s not me, especially on social media. If you wanna hear my political views go read my essays but social media is a field of constant contestation, a place of constant stress. You can miss me with that. My battle is elsewhere.”
The contentious ‘public/private’ liminal space of being an artist on Instagram
When it comes to artists that have attracted a sizable social media following, what isn’t spoken about enough is the reality of suddenly existing in a liminal space between being a public and private figure, and specifically how that affects their sense of self in addition to their work.
In 2018, Luke Turner, withdrew from the Athens Biennale after a very public Twitter spat with Daniel Keller, another participating artist. The argument was about another artist, Deanna Havas’, act of liking racist and inflammatory memes on the platform – which Turner took serious issue to. Havas is known to have attended a controversial talk with the far right figure Nick Land at a since shut down “fascist” art gallery LD50, in Hackney. Havas, as quoted in Document Journal, responded to the saga saying: “I find this entire situation extremely bizarre. I’m a marginal person in my industry and I’ve always considered myself a private citizen rather than a public figure. I’m shocked that anyone cares about my “likes” [on Twitter].”
While not attempting to negate or sweep aside her blatantly controversial social media posts, Havas’ response to the situation lays bare this liminal zone between the public and the private that artists with a sizable social media following find themselves in. Her particular concern is that it can lead to receiving a level of public scrutiny they did not sign up for and despite personally leading out relatively private lives.
The proliferation of social media has been a great social leveller in allowing the opportunity for anyone to direct criticism (or abuse) to whom they please, and is a particularly problematic space for artists to navigate. This dilemma presents a multitude of questions going forward. Primarily, how does a sense of perennial anxiety at being at the behest of public backlash pair with the need for artists’ to have freedom of creative expression?
Can that fear stifle such expression or can it fuel it? Does it only add to a purely reactive echo-chamber where artists retaliate against criticism with yet more intentionally provocative work that appeals to temporary serotonin jumps over everything else? Is the online circus of today leading to a situation where artists are defined not by the quality of their work (political or not) but through their political posturing and (potentially) performative activism? It’s clear that the incessant drama of the online space is pushing some artists away from saying anything even remotely political.
For others, it’s leading them to project faux ‘wokeness’ onto a personal brand that they’re desperate to maintain in order to keep selling their work. With Instagram, it’s very easy to appear political, or to care about issues and current events through sharing infographics without taking tangible actions that affect or shift the status quo.
With millions of artists around the world using Instagram as the main means to get their work seen, the task of dramatically standing out from the ever-burgeoning crowd is difficult to say the least. In the post-Instagram age, success has for a long while been redefined to mean how large an artists’ following is, while their relative success is tied to an algorithm which necessitates very frequent posting. It’s simple: the more followers, and the more likes: the more an artist is perceived to be ‘successful’. But how has this reimagining of success – totally divorced from the physical reality and validation of gallery spaces – distorted reality for artists themselves? Has it been an equaliser or, instead, a great stressor?
A further problem is how Instagram’s business model necessitates that content creators post with extreme frequency in order to maintain or grow their client base and following. Artists who take a slower approach to working can therefore find it hard to attain any sort of solid fan base. This heavy posting culture also cuts into someone’s day, and adds to the culture of competition for engagement and follower retention that can drain the artist more than it benefits them.
The pressure to routinely post is definitely something that Lauren Doughty, a London based artist, feels too. “When you’re really busy with lots of jobs on, it’s difficult to keep up to a regular posting schedule, and you can easily feel ‘guilty’ for falling behind on your own content posting. Which is kind of ridiculous!”. She says that it’s a pressure she’s trying to “let go of”, as she does not think it is essential to make sure you’re posting every day or “even every other day.”
The inherent capitalistic nature of Instagram ensures that art becomes a digital commodity just like everything else. Lauren says that on Instagram “individuals start trying to act like brands”, and she feels nostalgic for the platform’s early days when “there was a really cool community feeling”, as opposed to today and how it has evolved to become a predominantly commercial space. In this space, an artist’s relevance and success is tied to their likes, and follow count, while their entire raison d’etre can be derived to finding a niche that is different enough to other artists while, of course, still meeting the content guidelines on nudity enforced by Mark Zuckerberg’s multibillion + dollar social empire.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned awkward dance between public and private that an artist must do in order to promote their work, can worsen existent mental health issues. In turn, this creates the situation where not only is their work made with the sole intention of being digitally bankable, but their entire personhood becomes monetised and firmly in the public domain too. Where this leaves the artist room for growth and renewal is complicated, depending on how ‘niche’ they are perceived to be.
On top of this, in this late-stage capitalist world, productivity has become intrinsically tied to perceptions of self-worth. Reddit threads lay bare the reality for artists grappling with the toxicity of Instagram. Low likes on some posts, can lead to some artists even considering quitting, with the platform crippling their previously healthy self-esteem.
As the downsides to social media use for artists become ever more evident, new approaches that preserve both the mental wellbeing and integrity of the artistic process might become more commonplace. Jaffar Aly says he has limited screen time in order to not compare himself to others – because “as an artist comparison really kills the soul.”
Lauren’s trick to surviving on Instagram is in not trying to “overthink it” – which she admits is easier said than done. She says it is important to retain some of that “blog feeling”, and show people part of your artistic process, sketchbook pages, as well as finished projects. She adds that Instagram “is still a great space to connect with others in what can actually be a genuine way, and share some insights into what you’re thinking as an artist / creative.”
Artists will continue to navigate the ever expanding marketisation of Instagram, which presents itself as both a career booster and mental health minefield. Some might delete the platform altogether and re-discover more old-school ways of selling their art. Some simply can’t do without it. What’s clear though is that Instagram is a platform that’s use must be carefully managed or the downsides can become truly debilitating.
Jaffar Aly: YOUR REGULAR LEWISHAM PERSON BUILDING A BODY OF WORK THAT PRODUCES AND CATALYZES AN ALTERNATIVE AND PARALLEL FORM OF KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION FROM ACADEMIA. A BODY OF WORK THAT ILLUSTRATES AND HIGHLIGHTS HOW THE EMBODIED AND LIVED EXPERIENCES FROM THOSE WHO DWELL IN THE ‘UNDERCOMMONS’ (F. MOTEN & S. HARNEY 2013) ARE OF VALUE. INTRODUCING THE VOICES OF (AN)OTHER IN THE MAINSTREAM HAS DISRUPTED THE FLOW OF COLONIAL REPRODUCTION BUT IDEAS OF WHITE SUPREMACY STILL RUN DEEP AS THE ‘UNNAMED POLITICAL SYSTEM’ (C.W. MILLS 1999: 1) THAT HAS FORMED THE CONTEMPORARY, MODERN, AND AESTHETIC WORLD WE LIVE IN TODAY.
Lauren Doughty is an artist and illustrator (born Singapore 1991), based in London after completing a BA (Hons) in Illustration at Camberwell College of Arts. Her work draws attention to the natural world, showing appreciation of its links with human wellbeing – using colour, iconography and recurring motifs, informed by her experience of living in different countries and cultures in South East Asia, and her half British / half Balkan heritage. Influenced by everyday life and idiosyncratic details; she uses drawing to highlight the smaller, relatable moments which may otherwise pass us by – working from both observation and memory.