Hubert Burda Media

The Art of Instagram

Is Instagram undermining artists? Or is the photo-sharing app an exciting new platform that creatives can use to make and promote their work?

Ai Wei Wei takes a selfie with Paris Hilton, which he later shared on Instagram. Photo: Getty Images / Marc Piasecki

Instagram is getting plenty of flak these days. Psychologists claim that the app is ruining our self-esteem, as well as increasing anxiety and depression. Doctors say all the screen time spent staring at envy-inducing images is ruining our eyesight. On top of that, we’re now being told that Instagram is destroying the careers of photographers and other artists. “Instagram is debasing real photography,” The Guardian exclaimed, while examined “how social media is ruining creativity”.

And that’s worth investigating. With just a few clicks, Instagram can turn blurry, second-rate shots into arty photos ready to be shared online. Up the saturation, add a filter, include a witty caption and within minutes you’ll be racking up the “likes.” It’s easy to despair about the impact this has on professional artists, most of whom spend years honing their craft.

But perhaps there’s a flipside, and maybe Instagram is bringing something new to the art world. One of the app’s biggest supporters is, perhaps surprisingly, Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects at London’s Serpentine Galleries, who is renowned for his academic approach to curating.

“I think [Instagram] is a positive thing,” Obrist was quoted as saying. “The exciting thing is that there are so many possibilities of how to use these new platforms and how to use social media in terms of curating.” As if to prove this, Obrist has turned his own Instagram account (@hansulrichobrist, 117,000 followers) into an online gallery of artists’ handwriting. The inspiration for this project came while he was on holiday with the poet and artist Etel Adnan, who scrawls her ideas out on small scraps of paper. Alongside Adnan’s contributions, Obrist’s Instagram account includes a memo from Michael Stipe (in crude block capitals), a letter from sculptor Jimmie Durham (in flowing, flowery cursive) and a note from Ai Weiwei (in scratchy Chinese characters) among more than 1,500 submissions from artists including Marina Abramović, Isaac Julien and Yoko Ono.

Another advocate of the app is artist Daniel Arsham, who posts highly stylised, often black-and-white photos on his account (@danielarsham, 220,000 followers). Although many of the photos document Arsham’s sculptures and installations, the way he edits his images makes his Instagram account a clear extension of his work – almost a virtual, ever-changing piece of art itself.

But while Arsham experiments with the online world, artist Richard Prince is turning Instagram posts into tangible works of art. In 2015, Prince controversially printed a series of strangers’ Instagram photos on to large canvasses that were then exhibited and sold (at up to US$100,000 a pop) at Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street in London. Although these images were merely lifted from other people’s Instagram accounts, copyright laws state that – because Prince used his own account to add a comment to each of the photos – they can legally be claimed as his original work.

The idea for this series came about when “I was on the phone talking to Jessica Hart and had just looked at her ’gram feed before picking up the phone,” Prince explains. “I asked about a picture she posted of herself. I told her someone should make a portrait out of this photo. She said, ‘Why don’t you?’ [But] I didn’t want to paint it. I didn’t want to mark it.” So Prince just logged on to Instagram, added his comment, then printed out the photo.

Some of Prince’s unsuspecting subjects are flattered to be included, while others feel violated by the use of their images. A 19-year-old student complained, “I just think about how I’m a working student in school, I’m extremely broke, and here is a middle-aged white man making a huge profit off of my image. Kind of makes me sick.”

Critics were similarly unimpressed. Although she wrote a thoughtful piece on the issues of appropriation that lie at the heart of Prince’s work, The Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson ultimately concluded, “I’ve never, ever been to a show and been so unmoved. So underwhelmed. So what’s-the-point?” Artnet’s review of the exhibition was simply titled “Richard Prince sucks”.

But Prince is an anomaly, and plenty of art-world luminaries are using Instagram for the same reason as the rest of us – just to generate a little buzz. “So many people are either artists, collectors, gallery owners or photographers who are using it very actively, so it allows you to preview exhibitions happening everywhere in the world, and to see the works the minute the exhibitions open,” says the international auctioneer Simon de Pury. “That’s what makes it exciting.”

And since de Pury generates plenty of art-world chatter through his own Instagram account (@simondepury, 146,000 followers), maybe he’s right.