Ledger of Likes: Instagram and Art School

Paul Rouphail
→ MFA PTG, 2016

It would be wise for a graduate student entrenched in the mania of art school production to seamlessly diversify and manage the multiple lives of their work. An object constructed in studio, for the duration of a degree program, will inevitably shift from one academic situation to another and adapt to each discrete critical review. The critique room, the studio visit, the university gallery show, the online portfolio, and the artist lecture are just some of the school scenarios that engender specific social responses from artists and their respective audiences.But the synapse between artist and audience has become infinitely more rapid with the advent of the pervasive image-scrolling feed Instagram. Much as my peers—only a few years ago—cited their colleagues for neglecting to maintain a personal website, an artist nowadays sans social media is often perceived as out oftouch, haughty, or “professionally negligent.” In the exclusive social echelons of higher education this presents a problem, as Instagram has transformed not only into a repository for self-promotion butalso into a lubricator for greater peer-to-peer exaltation. Instagram distributes social connectivity as prospective professional currency.
It doubly functions as a bridge that holds in suspension the networks internal and external to art school social structures: this includes the art market as well as the fear of anonymity inherent to the art world’s well-acknowledged caprice. So, is this new image application yet another professionalization trap set before artists have even exited school?

    Admittedly, there are strategies by which an art student might employ Instagram as a viable studio tool. Some use the application as a medium for social practice, engaging an audience outside conventional art spaces; some use it as an auxiliary spaceto test and examine the social expectations of the medium. But for most students in the arts, like myself, Instagram is used merely as a synthesis of a personal blog and image portfolio. Certainly there are hybrid examples as well. Yet for the purposes of this argument, Instagram is largely a fast, public counterpoint to the slow, private labor of graduate school art production, painting in particular, which is done mostly in the solitude of the artist’s studio. What is it about Instagram that so appeals to artists? Some artists cite the ease with which the app connects the dots between the studio and prospective “unique” viewers, due in part to its minimalist aesthetic and the assumption that the artist can post whatever they deem socially appropriate or urgent. Both qualities give Instagram a feeling of neutrality, where politics, paintings, recipes, car ads, and daily non-sequiturs can co-exist without any suggestion of hierarchy. It is different from a newspaper, for example, because the content on Instagram is self-curated. Unlike a magazine, television, or a blog, Instagram’s public listing of “followers” suggests that the user commands their own audience. To scroll though Instagram is to speed headfirst through the salt flats of an artist’s politics and predilections. Hashtags sort posts into ledgers, and users link viewers to real-time discourse as fast as their thumbs can slide.

    Content on Instagram, however, is ultimately edited though the platform’s Terms of Use, which states that Instagram “is not responsible for, and does not endorse, content posted with the Service.” The app in fact reserves the right to manage content if it “violates these Terms of Use.” Legally, Instagram presents a peculiar double standard in service: it evinces free and openly distributed content yet sorts this content vis-à-vis its malleable legal code of conduct. So, despite what many suggest—that the image platfor offers a progressively neutral forum countering old power dynamics of museum or gallery spaces—one would have to argue that this is not entirely true.

    Instagram’s Terms of Use further dictate that content “must be appropriate for viewing by minors as young as 13.” Art advisor Todd Levin has argued that this “gives artists making inoffensiv abstraction paintings an edge over those making political, or visually difficult works.”1 Artnet News last year reported on artist Rupi Kaur’s dispute with Instagram concerning the censorship of her photo series “Period,” which depicted (fully clothed) menstruating women posing in various domestic settings.2
Kaur’s photographs violated the app’s discretion regarding “nudity or mature content.” After Kaur publicly complained about Instagram’s inconsistencies in censorship, the app eventually restored the images and released a public apology to the artist. Nonetheless, Levin’s observation remains concerning. As collectors and galleries look to the app to guide future acquisitions, the content Instagram chooses to flag puts a chilling effect on how artists use the platform.

    Additionally, the app’s limitations on image size and videotime restrict what kind of content performs best. Temporally based work like film and video, for example, loses emphasis on the scrolling homepage in comparison to relatively passive counterparts in painting and sculpture. Any painter will tell you, however, that the slow pace of the practice dissipates in translation to the excesses and rapidity of Instagram’s scroll. What is left to fill the gaps the is content that depicts the culture and mode of studio production rather than showing the result of such labor. Artist feeds are flooded with images exemplifying something between the romantic peripatetic and the exquisitely distasteful, a market-savvy lifestyle placing works-in-progress beside ad-hoc studio cocktails. Instagram becomes both a showroom and and kind of adjacent PR zone for mthe artist to cultivate, and exploit. 

    As more and more curators and cultural producers scan Instagram looking for new content, the onus is on artists to register images that entice prospective viewers. As a user’s audience ledger increases in scale (followers), so too does the demand for increased content (images). This content on a user’s homepageis distinguished by which images the user has recently “hearted.” Thus the more images one posts and hearts, the more likely his or her content will appear in their followers’ feeds. This simple algorithm entices users to consistently post new content to keep their profile relevant among their fickle followers. Unlike a website, Instagram requires high-volume studio production to arouse and sustain online demand for images. This amped-up image propagation is not unlike the mode of art production in school, which in my experience is interminably high. But it’s even more accelerated: in an academic setting, an art student might have his or her work critiqued every few weeks or months. On Instagram one’s work is best shared every few days.

    Speed of image production aside, the application serves individuals who mimic, often anonymously, the power plays and relationships latent in the art world social sphere. Many high profile artists who use Instagram often do so under false names an aliases. Part of the pleasure of rummaging through the applicatio is in discovering the secret (and not so secret) profiles of established figures of culture production. One such artist with fourteen-thousand followers, my peers recently noticed, has their images consistently reposted by another individual with thirty-eight
thousand followers. The latter user’s name is not disclosed on the application. We later figured out that this individual is an assistant curator at a major American art museum.

Graduate students at RISD take part in another kind of gaming of the Instagram system when they location-tag the graduate studios in posts. The CIT-Fletcher building is an exclusive piece of real estate, accessible only to those who have the privilege of participating in the graduate program. To tag one’s work in this location is to claim one’s membership in its social sphere. (This practice might sound provincial, especially to artists working in New York, but it is a form of authority by association.) Certainly we shouldn’t be surprised when nepotism and exclusivity exist indigital platforms as they do in real life.

Another way in which Instagram mirrors real life is in itsadaptation to the kind of improvisational rhetoric trafficked in art-school crit rooms and studios. As RISD Painting critic Roge White observes, where the written word might flow in “crisp, gno-mic propositions, laden with reference to theory and art history,” the spoken word of the crit is much “looser and rougher.”The language of Instagram might be said to amalgamate the two under an aesthetic of lifestyle magazine-cum-reportage that conflates the quaint verisimilitude of the everyday beside the earnestness of one’s work. If the artist is especially adept, he or she will make these two polarities indistinguishable.

At its most divisive, however, Instagram’s rhetoric avoids both the “crisp and gnomic” written word and the “rougher” spoken word altogether. Instagram presents a get-out-of-jail-freecard for those too insecure to elicit real criticism from their peersand for those, like myself, who depend so much on their phones for content, and so little on confronting the actual work of people around them. The app essentially truncates conversation, limiting it to sleek jpegs and risibly indifferent comments. Instagram is the clean, critic-free antipode to the messiness of art school conversation, which is inherently subjective, and at times divisive and
contradictory. Is this not why we congregate in such programs—to occupy the same space with each other? To test our intellectual and critical boundaries together with our peers?

Instagram, ultimately, has become the site that relaxes—if only temporarily—our fears as young artists. As thousands of painters, printmakers, new-media artists, sculptors, etc. graduate each year with tens of thousands of dollars in debt into a viciously competitive professional world with little-to-no state support for the arts, many of these young artists fear the real possibility of professional anonymity and financial helplessness. In the professional sphere, the artist must become the ultimate social creatur and occupy every multimodal function of art production. Thes multifarious roles are assumed in and outside the studio: the producer, the accountant, the PR representative, the promoter, the entrepreneur. Instagram, today, is the tool that evinces this process. It collects all of these roles and compresses them with ease, just as it compresses the object into a jpeg. But this compression comes at a cost, because Instagram is the not the democratic alternative some assume it to be. It is simply not capable of encompassing all the complexities of academic or professional social dynamics, the messiness of collaboration and rigorous discourse. Instagram is simply too clean, too removed, and too myopic to entertain our mutual engagement.


  1. Howard Hurst, “Who Has theCure for ‘Zombie Formalism’?,”Hyperallergic (December 17,2014); http://hyperallergic.com/169198/who-has-the-cure-for- zombie-formalism/.

  2. Sarah Cascone, “Artist RupiKaur Criticizes Instagram forCensoring Photo Showing PeriodBlood,” ArtNet News (March 31,2015); https://news.artnet.com/art-world/instagram-slammed-for-censoring-period-283123.

  3. Roger White, The Contemporaries (New York:Bloomsbury, 2015), 22.

Paul Rouphail is in the MFA Painting program, class of 2016.