Is Social Media Art?
I had a kindle once and read 2 maybe 3 books on it before I abandoned it. I prefer physical books. One of the great things about having a collection of books is the ability to leaf through ones you are familiar with for specific thoughts or just to refresh your memory and feeling about them. I picked up John Berger’s, Ways of Seeing the other day and started rereading it. To be fair you can prob read the entire book in about 45 minutes. I turned to the first page of chapter 5, and the first sentence made me think about oil paintings in relation to social media and how their effect on individuals and culture has been similar. It is interesting that we don’t regard social media as art, when it is probably the most widely used medium for individual and cultural artistic expression in human history. Chapter 5 of the book is about oil paintings. In it Berger writes, “Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting, you also buy the look of the thing it represents.” This is the sentence that made me immediately think of our relationship with social media. Maybe thousands of people purchased oil paintings during the height of its popularity and of course they are still being produced however this does not compare to the reported 4.72 billion global social media users. Much of these users are also creators, purveyors, and consumers. Berger writes about, “the analogy between possessing and the way of seeing.” being an outcome of oil painting and its objectiveness point of view. Much of the way social media is seen is through the lens of possession. Consumerism and consumption are often discussed in relation to social media, I am not sure if that is an accurate description of the dynamic that is driving the medium which is supporting the onslaught of more social media apps. I think as Berger pointed out in relation to oil paintings, it is possession. Consume means to use up, destroy, break apart etc. Possession means to occupy, hold, own, take possession. When people are using social media, they are seeing themselves occupying whatever is being depicted. They could be in possession of that dress that man or girl on that beach as they scroll and perhaps save the image. The tweet they read they are now in possession of that thought, which is probably partly why there is so much repetitive regurgitation of the same tweets and themes on Twitter. Plagiarism may just be a circumstance of the desire to possess.
With the advent of oil painting artists became more skilled with pictorial likeness. In art, pictorial likeness is the notion that likeness is an accurate representation of individual facial features in a realistic mode. The idea is a Western European tradition and gained popularity in the Renaissance period. Culturally, it seems pictorial likeness is a powerful tool. Calls for representation, diversity in casting and the backlash against diversity in film demonstrate just how compelling a tool pictorial likeness is for people individually and culturally. Berger describes oil paintings as first something that can be bought and owned, the viewer is described as shown sights of unique objects that they may own. This is the same instrumentation as social media. Anthropologist Levi-Strauss states “rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world. The pictures in a Florentine palace represented a kind microcosm in which the proprietor, thanks to his artists, had recreated within easy reach and in as real a form as possible, all those features of the world to which he was attached.” Our modern version of oil painters are content creators. We are all content creators. We gain followers and gather renown by placing within easy reach that which is beautiful and desirable to our audience. Your page and your feed are your microcosm. If we all regarded social media as art and a mode and medium of possession perhaps, we would be more mindful of what we view and purvey. Berger also points out that, “the art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” At the height the art for, oil painting depended on the new power of capital. Social media serves the same purpose of driving capital.
According to Berger, “Oil painting reduced everything to the equality of objects, everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.” On most Instagram posts the location is tagged, the shoes, dress, earrings, other people in the photo and even what they used in their hair may be listed in the comments. One can be where they are in the post wearing the same outfit, all you must do is exchange places. As pointed out by Berger, reality is measured by its materiality. Not only exchangeability, but the perspective of reality measured via materiality also causes a vison of total exteriority. If one wants to escape their interior reality, they can simply scroll. Social media surpasses oil painting in its ability for illusionism, with filters and careful curation etc. As Berger points out where “oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth, the supreme buying power of money.” Social media seems to be driving the power of buying as the new kind of wealth. “Visual desirability of that which can be bought lies in its tangibility, how it will reward the touch the hand of the owner.” Berger was right in this however we have moved past just tangibility being enough. With social media tangibility has moved on to how will this not only feel but also reward my life. If I have that dress Alix Earle has on, I will be invited to that party etc. The assumption is by possessing the bronzer the influencer is wearing and the outfit they have on it will make one’s life better or offer better opportunities. Oil painting used to depict the desirability of what money could buy, social media has surpassed that medium’s ability to depict that. Possession and envy often go hand in hand and if one cannot possess, typically envy ensues. It will be interesting to see with a medium with the scale and reach of which social media has how constant envy will start to affect individuals and culture.
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