Ways of Seeing: Social Media and Art Theory

Today’s essential question: Do you think social media and the ease with which sites like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook allow the untrained masses to post photographs has degraded the quality of art, and in particular, photography? Explain your answer.

Today we will:

  • discuss an excerpt from the ArtNews article, “Ways of Seeing Instagram” by Ben Davis
  • identify some common subjects throughout art history
  • view one another’s photo essays and leave thoughtful comments on at least 10 classmate’s essays. You may choose to explore photo essays from both class sections.
    • Examples of empty comments: “Like :-)”, “Nice work”
    • Examples of thoughtful comments: “Breanna did a great job showing the difference between the architectural city scape and the tranquil beach. The light, cool colors of the beach scene show a significant contrast from the darker cityscape.”
  • create a new blog post with the following:
    • a link to 2-3 photo essays you found compelling, and a few sentences explaining why
    • an image taken by you or another Media student that reminds you of an artwork from art history
    • a paragraph comparing and contrasting the student photo and the famous artwork. What do you think the artist would have thought of the photo if they had been alive today?
Left: Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Roemer and Oysters (1642); right: Instagram post from inahalfshell

Left: Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Roemer and Oysters (1642); right: Instagram post from inahalfshell

An excerpt from Ways of Seeing Instagram

Ben Davis, Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the average person would be more interested in their friend’s Instagram account than, say, Sigmar Polke at MoMA—but as far as Google knows, “Instagram” has been a more interesting subject to the masses than “art” itself since sometime last year. A force that important in visual culture is probably worth having a theory about. And in fact, rather than just being swept along by the stream of images, it may be possible for art—and art history—to add something to understanding the photo-sharing obsession.

When I think about that problem, I think about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a work of theory that came more than four decades ago, in 1972…If you doubt that a 42-year-old BBC documentary might be a guide to the possibilities of social media, the following passage makes it pretty clear to me that it was ahead of its time on this front:

The means of reproduction are used politically and commercially to disguise or deny what their existence makes possible. But sometimes individuals use them differently.

Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living-rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. Logically, these boards should replace museums.

To be fair, that sounds a bit more like Pinterest or Tumblr than Instagram. But, then, Instagram art star Richard Prince himself has written about how it was Tumblr that inspired him to rethink his brand of appropriation art in relationship to social media:

The first time I saw Tumblr I saw it on my daughter’s computer. I said, “what’s that”? She had organized a bunch of photos according to color. As she scrolled down I was reminded about how I use[d] to look at hundreds of slides on my custom made giant light box. What I was looking at and what I was remembering wasn’t that different. The next question I asked her was, “whose images were those and did you have to ask “permission” to use them”. She looked at me like I was the “man from Mars”. “Permission”? “For what”? (That’s my girl)…

These days, extending that line of thinking, Prince has this to say about Instagram: “It’s almost like it was invented for someone like myself. It’s like carrying around a gallery in your pocket.” From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Berger’s prediction that Instagram, or other things like it, “should replace museums.”

Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography.

Why this (largely unintentional) echo? Because there is a sneaky continuity between the motivations behind such casual images and the power dynamics that not-so-secretly governed classic art. Last year, Slate speculated about how Instagram’s photo-boasting tends to amplify feelings of isolation, perhaps even more so than the more textual braggadocio of Facebook and Twitter. (“Seeing,” Berger writes, “comes before words.”) One expert described how Instagram in particular might accelerate the “envy spiral” of social media: “If you see beautiful photos of your friend on Instagram,” she postulated, “one way to compensate is to self-present with even better photos, and then your friend sees your photos and posts even better photos, and so on. Self-promotion triggers more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and further from reality.”

View the full article here.

Discussion questions:

  1. The article alludes to the “envy spiral” of social media. To what extent does this happen with our class blogs?
  2. Compare the subjects you most frequently photographed for your photo essay to the subjects most frequently painted throughout art history. Does this make your chosen subjects feel more or less important?
  3. Name some historical artists whose theoretical Instagram accounts you would like to follow. Why?

I noticed some interesting parallels between Katie’s photos and Impressionist paintings. What do you see?


Left: Photo by Katie Murrer; Right: A Rainy Day in Paris by Gustave Caillebotte


Top: “Feeding Ground” by Katie Murrer; Bottom: “A Sunday on la Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat

top: cross country race course photo by Ms. Lawson; bottom: "Autumn Sunset" by Jasper Cropsey

top: cross country race course photo by Ms. Lawson; bottom: “Autumn Sunset” by Jasper Cropsey

Examples of “Fine Art” photographs that have recently appeared in my Facebook news feed:

Photo Credit: Erin Mahoney; adjunct photography professor at The Art Institute of California - Sunnyvale

Photo Credit: Erin Mahoney; adjunct photography professor at The Art Institute of California – Sunnyvale

Photo Credit: Beth Adams, art teacher at Geneseo High School

Photo Credit: Beth Adams, art teacher at Geneseo High School


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