In art, there is always a lot of arguing — over what things mean, and what value they have, and what’s going to change, and who matters and who doesn’t. But I will argue only this: that a lot of people showed up at a contemporary art fair last week and spent most of their energy focusing on getting cool Instagrams.
When you arrived at the Armory Show, New York City’s largest annual contemporary art fair, you were immediately presented with a highly Instagrammable moment. There’s a large art installation outside the fair — big planks of wood that spell out “I NEED TO START SEEING A THERAPIST.” And since the fair is located in convention center-esque piers along the edge of Manhattan on the Hudson, the picture is pretty perfect, in Instagram terms. A semi-funny, very frank, and just slightly dark sentence spelled out in wood planks, against a backdrop of green grass, the river, and tall buildings. How could you not Instagram it?
So you did. And then there was a 20-minute-plus wait just to buy a $30 ticket and get inside — so that you could go in and take more of the same photos, slap on a filter, and upload to Instagram.
The primary purpose of an art fair is for galleries from around the world to set up small exhibit booths and sell art, but most people don’t go to buy art — largely because the art is very expensive. At this particular fair, some works are priced in the hundreds of thousands, nearing a million. Most aren’t as astronomical as that, but you would be hard-pressed to find much for less than a few thousand dollars. Most people come to have a look around, and to get an idea of what’s going on in the “art world.” There are two portions of the fair, modern (think Picasso and Matisse) and contemporary (think Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and a lot of things written in neon), but the contemporary hall is twice as big and much more crowded. Naturally, the contemporary fair is more popular with the young, Instagramming crowd.
From an observer-on-the-scene perspective, it wasn’t hard to tell, from just looking around qualitatively, that a large number of people were meandering around, looking for the best, brightest, quirkiest piece of art most likely to receive “likes” on a social network. For one, you could just look around: If a group of iPhone-wielding people was gathered in a certain area, you could expect it’d be because there was probably something worth uploading. One gallery from Beijing was exhibiting a set of grenades covered in fur and candy. The booth was particularly crowded. I even posted an Instagram of the fur grenade. Again, how could you not?
But there’s quantitative evidence, if you will, as well. Just look at the geotag for everyone who posted their Instagrams as tagged at the “Armory Show” location. As you scroll through the page of all photos taken there, the same works show up over and over again. The venue is over 200,000 square feet and there are thousands of works and hundreds of galleries, but when it comes to Instagram, it’s the same images over and over again. Anything written in neon lights is sure to be popular, and objects with a pop-culture sensibility (the grenades, for example, as well as a wall of basketball sneakers dipped in copper paint) shows up in the geotag a disproportionate amount.
I don’t mean to say this is bad or wrong, nor do I mean to make any big statements about capital-A “Art” (a practice best avoided, when at all possible!). What I am saying is this: When you spend all your time and energy seeking out that perfect Instagram moment — whether it’s of your sizzling food or the lovely sunset or whatever — you might be missing something. In the case of art, you’re probably missing out on things that potentially interesting. It’s wonderful that we’re sharing photos of art, but it’s a shame that anything that’s not photogenic, or doesn’t fit into Instagram’s required square box, or looks weird with a filter, gets ignored.
And also, remember: A dozen other people probably just posted the same photo.