Is Instagram Really Killing Artists?

“Around April, with some artist friends, we realized that Instagram’s algorithm had changed. We wondered: ‘Ah yes, you too, you have less and less likes? Does this only happen to us?’ This sort of thing worries you and, at the same time, you don’t want it to worry you. But likes are part of our visibility. So of our work. And therefore our remuneration.”

This is how the painter Jules Magistry summarizes the ups and downs that the Instagram algorithm inflicts on artists, forcing them to modify their practice and their communication, but also questioning them about their status as creators and their ethical choices.

To what extent, in 2022, is it dispensable to play the game imposed by Instagram, a star image network that has participated in the democratization of art and the advent of many talents? Three painters and a photographer shared with us their fears, their questions and their hope in the face of all these upheavals.

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We’re not going to give you a lecture on social networks, but let’s come back to a few basics, in particular the openness and diversity that they, Instagram in mind, have instilled in the art world. Thanks to the advent of networks, talent finally seemed to be able to exist without a piston or between oneself, allowing “do without certain intermediaries”, as noted by the art historian Anika Meier for the Arte documentary The Infinite Gallery.

It is the plurality of artists’ accounts on Instagram which, for example, convinced Maria Tazi to share their creations. It is also thanks to the social network that she was able to organize her first exhibition. A beautiful gateway for those whose job is not painting and who confides that they do not find themselves in “the pompous and bourgeois atmosphere of contemporary artistic circles”. “Insta allowed me to share my universe, with all the modesty that implies: the works are simple, they have flaws.”

For Jules Magistry, same story, in the sense that Instagram allowed him to “to find [ses] first customers”. Even better, the platform presented him with a “artistic queer community”. “It’s really the most precious thing I gained, people who became my friends. There were a lot more than I thought and it felt good because at the same time, the institutions are still run by white, rich, 50-year-old men.”

All housed in the same boat

With the success of Instagram, even famously rich white men have had to get up to speed. If Instagram has given artists access to success, the institutions already in place are making their way to their audience through the social network. Museums, galleries and agents necessarily have an account that they try to make ever more attractive, innovative, in accordance with the requirements of the algorithm.

Franziska von Plocki, community manager of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, reports for example that “all the international days, those of the cat, of the dog, are noted in [son] diary” in order to offer regular publications on the account of the museum, which has become an extension of the establishment.

The famous Center Pompidou redouble their efforts and inventiveness on its networks, mastering the game to the point of adapting its content according to the platforms, for example by surfing on TikTok trends. The same is true for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which has to TikTok and now has more than 138,000 subscribers, and for the Louvre Museum, which has just signed a video collaboration with Pinterest. A rule explained by the painter Sophie La Roche : “Instagram will not highlight a video with the TikTok logo for example. It does a lot of work as a community manager to multiply content like that.”

Artist or community manager?

This workload has increased further since Instagram embarked on a TikTok imitation race, forcing artists to prioritize video content over Reels. It is therefore now advisable to post videos on TikTok and Instagram, but not the same.

“If an artist aims to be visible on Instagram, it’s a huge commitment in terms of time and work. Not all artists can afford it, know how to do it or want to do it. You may feel that it is not for you”continues Sophie Laroche.

Although she would like to point out that art “is not [son] job” nor his main source of income, the artist nevertheless quickly spotted that “for an account to work, you have to follow the algorithm”. “Instagram requires a certain productivity and a certain aesthetic for posts. For it to work, you would have to post a lot of photos and videos per week, stories every day.”

The photographer Nehemiah Lemal morefloss: “We have to master our art and show the backstage. It’s an untenable pace, in the end, we work all the time. […] Everyone seems to be looking for the algorithm that achieves maximum profit with minimum effort.”

On YouTube, many artists and content creators have felt the vein and share their advice for taming the algorithm in question, according to specific periods. Seeing the jolts undergone by the artists since the beginning of the year, the titles of the current videos clearly specify that they will deal with “the 2022 algorithm” to attract their audience.


Counterproductive developments?

Highlighting video content on Instagram inevitably changes the way artists are created. To transform usually frozen content (photo, painting or sculpture) into video, the options are not endless. This is why the Reels showing the process of creation of the works abound. The emphasis is thus placed on the process more than on the finished work.

“You have to constantly think about receiving the work and think about filming yourself painting. It decorrelates a bit from the artistic activity, it’s almost a split personality. It can take away from art itself, it inevitably extracts the bubble that we can create for ourselves and it’s quite counterproductive”explains Sophie Laroche.

Maria Tazi understands the interest of Reels since she is fond of them herself: “It’s visual ASMR for me. It happened to me, during confinement, to fall asleep while watching Reels of accelerated artistic process. I find it beautiful to watch, regardless of the end product.”

Indeed, these videos participate in what makes the attraction of the networks: we get lost in them, they hypnotize us in form, but also in substance. After pushing us to admire and compare ourselves to perfect bodies, luxury vacations and angel faces, Instagram offers us new insecurities on a platter: why is this person so good when I couldn’t draw an eye even if my life depended on it?

Rather than pushing amateurs to use their pencils, these short videos would sometimes rather tend to create a myth that erases the difficulties of creation. In sixty seconds, it is not the doubts, the failures or the frustrations that we are given to see.

Towards a standardization of content?

For Nehemiah Lemal, the “real problem” posed by this omnipotence of algorithms is the way in which “artificial intelligence is thought of as collective intelligence”. “Everything is standardized, you almost never think alone […]. I think it’s dangerous for artists because artists, by my definition, are normally outside of society and have an outside view that can be critical and get things done.”

It is by following this line of thought that the photographer decided not to play the game of algorithms, a decision notably taken during the shadowban from the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter”, who convinced her of the need to regulate these platforms. If Néhémie Lemal can afford not to follow these rules, it is also because his “photos are weirdly adored by algorithms despite all the changes”, an opportunity that unfortunately not everyone shares.

A speech to moderate

Despite these legitimate questions and regrets, the landscape is not so obscure and the artists interviewed share a nuanced discourse. Néhémie Lemal does not forget that “more than half of the people we know on the internet will be either dead in the next decade or will have moved on.” “The platforms will no longer be there or will have changed the codes. I think that for the future, we should not get too attached to all that […], there will definitely be something else new.”

Same rejection for Jules Magistry who, with his experience in the art world, knows very well that“in the end, it’s the work that counts”. “With my artist friends, we are quite calm. [Notre baisse de likes du début d’année] did not change anything in our contracts. Then, for two, three months, I have the impression that things are changing again. There is a small uptick.”

Above all, it would be time for Instagram to stop trying to copy its competitors. After years of wanting to emulate Snapchat, this race to catch up with TikTok seems strange. “Looks like a boomer strategy”laughs Jules Magistry. Come on Instagram, settle down, everything will be fine, just believe in yourself like artists try to believe in their work despite the oddities you impose on them.

You can find on Instagram the works of Sophie La Roche, Nehemiah Lemal, Jules Magistry and Maria Tazi.

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Is Instagram Really Killing Artists?

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