The art is meant to be interactive. I get that. While looking at Jeff Koons’s Tulips, I realize that the work actually changes in space: as you move around it, the museum lights rotate around the mirrored surface, constantly creating something different. But beyond the artwork itself is something eye-catching in its own way. Everyone holds their mobile phones at-the-ready, snapping photos of just about everything. Most of these photos will rest forever in the purgatory of the camera roll and will never be seen again.
Strangers feign politeness as they duck their heads, bend their bodies, and wave a courteous “ope, sorry!” to avoid getting in strangers’ shots.
But a man-made queue begins to grow behind the artwork, at a spot that people seem to silently agree to be its best angle. Everyone wants to get a shot from that same spot: the position where the polychromatic bulbs fan out in a symmetrical pattern, yet still allows for the stems of the abstract tulips to be seen from behind the bulbs. But the queue isn’t growing because everyone wants to get the same shot of the tulips. People are queuing because they are waiting for others to get out of the way—to move from standing in front of the artwork. The hold-up is a growing group of people who desperately want a picture of themselves with the artwork.
Look, I get it: if it isn’t on Instagram, it didn’t really happen. That’s the culture we live in now. This sort of behavior has become synonymous with being a member of the millennial (or younger) generation. I read that Instagram “influencers” can sometimes earn tens of thousands of dollars for a single shot, depending on the picture and how many followers they have (i.e., how influential they are). We’re so obsessed with cultural capital that we can literally get paid for having lots of it now. I wonder what Pierre Bourdieu would say about that (he’s the guy who developed the theories of cultural and social capital). He probably wouldn’t be surprised, actually. This stuff is as old as humankind itself. Probably ever since the first caveman started a fire and all his caveman friends were jealous of how big and bright it was compared to theirs.
But the issue to me isn’t so much that we value or crave cultural capital; it’s that we value and crave cultural capital more intrinsically than actual experiences. Because with all these Instagram-worthy shots that I witnessed being taken that afternoon at the Broad,
the shots were never about the art. They were about the person in front of the art. A shameless display of “hey, I’m really cultured and here’s the picture to prove it!
Can you imagine anything more narcissistic than that? To take someone else’s artistic contribution and make it about you? To literally use their hard work to increase your social well-being? Well, this kind of thing isn’t really new either. I mean, Haydn worked his ass off to write 107 symphonies—one-hundred-and-seven!—many of which were written under the employment of the Esterházys. So, the Esterházys benefitted culturally and socially from Haydn’s work through some fresh beats at their big, swanky parties. But at least Haydn was paid, allowed to live in a badass palace (see below), eat what I assume was amazing food, and have musicians at his disposal whenever he needed (and, I mean, anyone who’s tried putting on a recital or concert knows how difficult it can be to find musicians).
But here, it was a [somewhat] mutually beneficial situation. Haydn earned a good living while the wealthy Esterházys got to show off how cultured and elite they were. Some have even argued that this is one of the largest economic drivers of music and the arts, as problematic as that might be. But I digress.
the issue to me is that our interactions with the art is no longer about the art.
The likes on Instagram are not about how beautiful or captivating or moving the artwork looks; it’s about how attractive or captivating the person in front of the camera looks. The art is just the backdrop. It might as well be one of those cheesy neon-light backgrounds you got from picture day at school in 90s (don’t act like you don’t remember). Then, for good measure, we slap a few hashtags on it to ensure that others will see it. And the most gag-worthy of them all? #Blessed. That hashtag has become a caricature, it’s so overused. And I'll mention it, but will avoid talking here about
how irritating it is to see someone take an Instagram photo of something that displays their shameless narcissism, only to add #blessed and try to pass it off as some moment of personal humility.
But the narcissistic Instagram culture isn’t all bad, right? I mean, the cultural capital associated with this behavior is sort of good for the art museum, right? The desire for the perfect Instagram shot does mean that the artwork—and by extension, the museum—get free publicity and attention. The culture is pretty annoying for sure, but it’s innocuous. It might cause me to roll my eyes involuntarily every time I see someone standing in front of a Warhol painting holding up peace signs, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not hurting anyone. Especially when there are so many things in our world that are actually hurting other people. And who cares if people want a picture of themselves with a famous painting just to post on Instagram? Many of their followers may not otherwise know that the artwork even exists….right?
Well, it’s true, taking a picture of yourself in front of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans or Jeff Koons’s Tulips might be harmless besides causing a hold-up for others who want to look at the art without needing to look past your duck lips and peace signs. But the story changes when the exhibit is about something weighty; something unquestionably beyond you. For example, take the Soul of a Nation exhibit featuring important artwork from the Black Power movement of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (also currently featured at the Broad). A non-Black visitor mocking the pose of Barkley Hendricks’s Icon for My Man Superman for an Instagram shot is just not okay. Do you think he even read the accompanying placard? The part that said,
“here we find the Black artist as superhero, painting himself into history rather than waiting for someone else to confer the honor upon him”?
I think the point of the portrait was lost on this gentleman, who I can guarantee did not need to paint (or photograph) himself into history.
I should add, I really don’t mean to be overly judgmental about all this. I admit, something feels funny about writing this kind of post, because I often think we try to further gain cultural capital over others by doing so (just like with “call-out culture”). I’ve thought about this a lot lately the more I log into Facebook. Do my so-called “woke” friends truly, deep-down, believe and practice what they are preaching? Or are they (and I) getting drunk off the elusive thrill of appearing to be more socially-conscious than others? It’s probably not a matter of either-or, but it’s something that fascinates me—
this idea that we might actually be pretty narcissistic in our portrayal of altruism and other-orientedness.
So, I don’t mean to give off that impression that I’m above any of this. I have selfies, too. A lot fewer than many people, but I still have them. In fact, as you can see above, I shot a picture of Koons’s Tulips from the same, now-iconic angle. I didn’t take a selfie with it, and I didn’t pose with it, but I still took it and posted it to Instagram.
But I did take one selfie that day. Of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors—which, let’s admit, has become the most iconic photo for millennials over recent years. (Back when I was online dating, the number of women with the same exact shot was astounding. And you can’t even clearly see the person in the picture, so it’s clear that this shot is only used in dating profiles to say, “I know you can’t tell what I look like, but look how cultured I am! Date me, I’m interesting!” But again, I digress.) Anyway, I took a picture with the Kusama exhibit because it was genuinely one of the coolest contemporary artworks I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I took the photo, because whenever I look at it, I’m able to transport myself mentally back to that room and recall how awesome it was. But for some reason, posting it on social media and then paying attention to how many likes it got made me feel really icky. But I still did it.
Again, I don’t think I’m better than those who chase Instagram likes. Sometimes I do it too. This isn’t about gaining some intangible cultural capital by putting others down. I guess I just want to connect to people again by not double-tapping a picture on a screen. I want to be able to smile at someone whose eyes light up the same way mine do when we both have the same reaction to a piece of art. But we don’t, because we’re not looking at the art, and we’re not looking at each other. We’re both looking down at our screens. Trying to decide if our life looks better in Clarendon or Perpetua.