The Artist’s Dilemma: Refuse the Addiction of Social Media or Fail at Self-Promotion?

The common belief these days is that, without constant presence and self-promotion on social media platforms, an artist is doomed to obscurity. It can’t be denied that the platforms themselves have encouraged this thinking. But how much success can you expect? Does a constant promotional presence on Facebook, for instance, guarantee that you and your work become more recognizable, and most important, that your posts reach those who want to engage with your artwork or your activities?

Drew Zeiba takes on this topic in his article, “Can You Make It As an Artist in 2018 Without Constantly Plugging Yourself on Instagram?” on Vulture Just what is an artist’s role in society, and does that role include the endless need to self-promote? Zeiba says, “There is a long tradition of artists refusing to play the self-promotion game. Isa Genzken and David Hammons are famous for preferring not to talk to the press; Stanley Brown destroyed his early work and his own image. But in today’s globalized art world, in which collectors buy work based on pictures scrolled through on their phones, isn’t logging off forever rather self-defeating? Refusing to be an artist-as-public figure in the era of social media seems almost reckless — like willful career suppression, if not suicide.” Many cite the addictive quality of social media, and how much time and energy can be wasted on these platforms that is best used in making art.

On the other hand, as Zeiba says, there are those success stories that underscore the uneasy feeling that no artist can afford to unplug entirely: “Brad Phillips is in many ways the poster boy for why artists should be on Instagram. Thanks to the platform, he got a book deal with a prestigious British publisher, mounted solo shows in East Hampton and Oslo, and made direct sales by DM (which means he didn’t have to give a gallery 50 percent).”

But as Phillips himself points out, it is a “double-edged sword”. His article “How Instagram is Changing the Art World,” on Vice talks about the love/hate relationship that he, and other artists, have with Instagram and other social media platforms. Phillips writes, “I have, through Instagram, sold a great deal of work privately to people. I’ve had a solo show in Oslo at Bjarne Melgaard’s gallery. I’ve been included in many group shows. I had a solo show in East Hampton at Harper’s Books. Entirely due to Instagram I’ve had a hardcover book of my drawings published by a reputable English art book imprint. None of the above “developments” in my career, none of the sales, were facilitated by my gallery in New York. That’s not the fault of the gallery. The art world right now is a youth-fetishizing cannibalistic death cult of speculation and interior design masked as progressive painting.”

What is the role of the gallery in this new world? In the past, galleries offered validation, support, protection, promotion. It was the gallery that made the connection to the buyers. For that service they often required 50% of any sales, which while it sounds high to the outside world, was the only way that the gallery could be maintained — especially in an essential city like New York, where real estate costs are quite high and the space for a gallery is an expensive proposition. The gallery owner also needed to make his/her own living through the sale of the artist’s work.

The curators of creativity are being muscled out by these social media platforms. Who, now, is the arbiter of taste in the “art market”? Phillips, again: “Most collectors buy what other people buy, and what other people buy is what is happening right now, today, and if Instagram is anything, it’s an encapsulation and display of the most urgent present moment. Knowing that they can cut out the middle man, knowing that artists will be happy to sell work privately means collectors can arrive at the same point for half the price.” The point worth emphasizing here is that collectors can arrive at the same point for half the price That means that the artist is no better off in terms of profit from sales. It also means that the artist now must be his/her own promotor and curator, a job that was formerly a full-time job for someone else, someone who was devoted to being the social arbiter of artist’s work — and most importantly, who had a more extensive understanding of the artist’s work, and how it was positioned within the history of art movements and styles — a larger picture and a much more erudite approach. That, it can be argued, is a great loss. And, with the artist taking on the work of promotion, where is the time to grow and mature and create as an artist?

Obviously, this is not a new issue. Stephen Sondheim addressed it in Sunday in the Park With George — this situation where creative people find that much of their time is spent in doing everything BUT making art. In “Putting it Together“, illustrates the experience of the creative “market” and its demands on the creative person.

The digital world, however, presents other problems — one being the security of the artwork. Much like the problems with piracy that have plagued the musician or the writer, there is the issue of image theft for the artist who puts work on these platforms. Phillips bemoans this for himself and his colleagues, “But a key issue artists are coming up against now, myself included, is the loss of control over the imagery we post. Our work is screenshot, then disseminated without consent. In an age where a JPEG has almost as much value as the physical object, this is problematic. Artists I’ve known have had their work taken off Instagram and included in publications without being compensated, never mind notified. But at least there their work is identified as their own. Straight up duplication and theft is equally common. I’ve seen my own art recirculated back to me without credit or worse, credited to a stranger. Some people think artists should be flattered by imitation but in the end it just makes it harder to use those images later for artwork and there’s the risk of being accused of appropriating your own work after it’s recycled and reposted on the internet thousands of times.”

Another issue is the erratic, unfathomable application of censorship rules on these platforms. Many artists complain of having work flagged, or removed, or having accounts taken down completely even when the work does not violate whatever the terms of the platform might be. There are often no humans with whom you can speak. There are often no clear reasons for the haphazard ways in which the “rules” are applied. Censorship, it appears is visited upon women artists much more often than upon men, for instance.

Zeiba speaks about the response of artist Jake Borndal, who quit Instagram, citing several issues, addiction being among them. He quit Instagram when he quit smoking. Borndal also wants to remind everyone that these platforms, in particular Instagram, which seems to lend itself so well to the visual, is anything BUT a creative space. Writes Zeiba, “It is a space bound by certain social, aesthetic, and user-agreement constraints, all of them prescribed either top-down by Instagram design or policy, or more amorphously by cliquish consensus among a segment of users, in turn shaping the kind of content that might be made and shared.”

Bottom line: for the so-called benefits that might be offered through the use of these social media platforms, the loss — of time, of creative freedom, of quiet and personal rumination time — may just be too high. What does that mean for artists in these current times? Might there be other ways in which artists can find each other?….can find their audience? One suggestion: might we begin to think seriously about creating our OWN social media platforms where artists, writers, musicians, performers, can gather, can curate the work of each other, can provide a sort of gallery/performance space? Might there then be the possibility to address such issues as piracy, since these platforms are created by, run by and meant to benefit the artists themselves?

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