Q: I regularly use art to improve my life, and I understand the importance of it. In fact, I paint every day at the Art Students League and work as a designer, so I lead a creative lifestyle to say the least. However, I recently deleted my Instagram account, for multiple reasons — including my increasing need for validation from people I don’t know, as well as mounting social anxiety and addiction — in the hopes of canceling out distractions and finding my inner voice to express in my paintings. This cold turkey treatment has its drawbacks. I used Instagram to share my art, and that’s what art still is for me — sharing with my community of friends and family.
My question is: How do we stay integrated and continually share our values through art and expand our influence as creatives without social media and at the same time not feel like we’re missing out on something that the majority of our population seems to be trending toward? — Richie Chen, New York, N.Y.
A: Recently, while FaceTiming with a friend in another city, her young son wanted to introduce my daughter and me to the family pet, a plush, cocoa-colored bunny named Peanut. But Peanut would have none of it — he head-butted the phone away with startling violence, the glowing screen invading his space with the looming faces of people he didn’t wish to know.
I understand Peanut. I tend to feel that way about my own phone these days, lighting up with tweets and package alerts and push notifications about our latest form of existential doom. And yet, I’m not as wise (and definitely not as cute) as Peanut, because I’m still of two minds about social media. Early on, I decided I was far too reticent and dreamy to even pretend to be good at it (and this Bartleby-like choice won me no points in my former workplace). Initially, it bored me a little, the dust-ups on Twitter, all heat and no light, and it often embarrassed me, too, the way people would hang it all out to dry. These days, I enjoy it sporadically, catching glimpses of far-flung friends in places I used to live. By keeping my account private and tightly curated — I only follow people I actually know and like — I’ve been able to minimize my exposure to selfies, cocktails at sunset, fisherman knit cashmere, or the kind of posts that seem to whisper softly, in a distinctly Gwyneth-esque tone, “nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya.”
Congratulations for recognizing what isn’t working for you: the evanescent satisfaction and dopamine release that accompany an approving “like” in response to a painting you’ve shared — a painting no doubt many, many hours in labor and conception. How could that feel, to an artist just starting out in his or her career, in any way adequate? It has become a thing for some to use Instagram as a kind of CV, and there are stories of those who have found gallery representation on the basis of their feeds. At the end of the day, though, I suspect that by recusing yourself from social media, what you’re mostly missing out on is the illusion of community, rather than an actual, supportive, real-life one, which you’ve already taken steps to build. Let’s face it: Social media is better at fostering solipsism than it is at inspiring or showcasing creative work. And for those of us trying to listen to our more subtle selves, who are perhaps unduly sensitive to the neuroses and agendas of others, the pursuit of fleeting approbation can become a real distraction, thwarting those tender shoots of new ideas.
Worse, I think, is that social media can have a way of mediating or even supplanting our experience of life, keeping us mired in the past, seeing through the filters and preconceptions of others to the detriment of our own vision of the world. It’s amusing to imagine how creators of yesteryear would have dealt with digital age realities, and while Emily Dickinson might have killed it in 280 characters, I also think that Twitter might have killed her. It frankly horrifies me to imagine Virginia Woolf pushed by her publicist to post “early praise” or a “sneak peak” of one of her book covers — a lighthouse at sunset, a woman at her easel (though what a great essay she would have written on the subject!). How quickly a visual style becomes a gimmick in our age of memes: think of Caspar David Friedrich’s seascapes or Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers or even Marcel Duchamp’s urinals reduced to the digital equivalent of a gift shop postcard. That little Instagram square has become the most ubiquitous and banal of framing devices.
Here is the current content of my IG feed: a mountain vista view from a friend’s vacation; tips for insomnia (L-Theanine tablets); a British cookbook author’s “heirloom” bean stew; a Luchita Hurtado painting on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; some sculptural icicles dangling from a friend’s front porch; a model in a sheer turtleneck knit studded with iridescent crystals; a little girl wearing pajamas printed with images of Bernie Sanders’s visage; a dog watching the Westminster dog show on television. In the “stories,” there are the usual mix of parties and openings and cute pet or child antics, as well as one showboaty post by a novelist friend who has a new book to promote.
The Hurtado painting aside, this is largely noise: I find little to inspire (or feel envious of, and what a fine line that is). But is it damaging to whatever art-crit cred I might have to admit that it’s the sheer artlessness of Instagram that appeals to me? Something about this whole human jumble drawer of cheap ironies and offhand beauty feels oddly touching these days. Maybe it’s the visual imperfection, the bad lighting and awkward compositions, the attempts to get around the inherent vanity of the form. It’s the way the feed illustrates the passage of time, the unspooling evidence of life’s fleetingness in this digital film reel: the children growing up, the grids that end abruptly, the knowledge that mine will, too. But most of all, I think it has to do with the human unfathomables that move a person to create or capture a moment: the effort it took to envision that turtleneck and make it, the decision to buy those pajamas for that girl, or watch a dog show. This is the kind of thing I might look at while waiting for the kettle to boil — entertainment, not art — and yet I’m reminded of the way life marches forward relentlessly, seemingly in defiance of the crises of the world, or oblivious to them.
As for the self-promotional friend, I can easily forgive her, because even though I didn’t care for her soon-to-be-released novel, I do very much like and admire her, and I recognize the pressure on authors to cultivate a “following” — as though the real point of connection weren’t the work itself. Like every other serious artist, this particular writer is rigorous about her daily routine, waking at six and switching off the internet and phone until well into the afternoon. If there’s a common thread between all of the writers and artists I’ve written about or befriended, it’s that they are either obsessive or very disciplined; responding to the world through their work is the priority. The real creative life, in other words, is entirely offscreen.
How best to carve out an identity for ourselves, to make our work seen and known? These are questions artists throughout history have faced. Read any great art biography and you will find them to be as much about the pursuit of connection and community and sensibility as they are about the struggle to forge a self: I recommend Joshua Rivkin’s book on Cy Twombly, “Chalk” (2018); Mary Gabriel’s capacious group portrait of Abstract Expressionists, “Ninth Street Women” (2018); Patti Smith’s memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, “Just Kids” (2010); or Cynthia Carr’s take on David Wojnarowicz, “Fire in the Belly” (2012). How could those things be separated? The chance meetings and great friendships are some of art’s great stories, such as that of the painter Beauford Delaney and the writer James Baldwin, whose relationship of nearly 40 years proved galvanizing to the practice of both as gay men of color whose exchange seems to have been as spiritual as it was intellectual. (Their mutual influence is the subject of an exhibition on now at the Knoxville Museum of Art.)
In the movies, the lives of real-life artists are often (if grittily) romanticized. It’s simply the nature of biopics, from Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Gerhard Richter-inspired “Never Look Away,” that they buy into the “great man” theory of art. But one film portrait of the creative life that has stayed with me is the Norwegian writer and director Joachim Trier’s 2006 feature, “Reprise,” about a pair of young novelist friends and their search for intellectual and artistic validation — from commercial interests, from girlfriends, from a literary icon, from each other. The film — fictional, yet so true — tackles the enduring myth of the artistic genius as a tortured, self-destructive, solitary outlaw; at the same time, it recognizes, painfully, the capriciousness of success. True validation is hard to come by.
As you already know, art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and you’ve provided yourself with what sounds like very real and stable groundwork for building a very real, non-illusory community. You can build on this by seeking out peers at the Art Students League and colleagues in your office whose ideas you find interesting with the same generosity and support you’d like to receive in kind. Identify teachers as potential mentors and solicit their feedback on your work; attend the openings of the artists you admire. You could suggest to your friends at the League to put on a regular rotation of group shows built around certain themes, or to hold a Stammtisch at a local coffee shop or bar. As your practice expands, you could consider renting a shared studio space with other artists who inspire you to keep at it. If you choose not to promote yourself on social media, you can instead create an email list of people you’d like to keep in the loop when you exhibit your work. But most of all, invest the time now to experiment with your modes of practice and find what makes you happiest and most productive. Do the work, in the studio and out, to become the thing you want to be.
I’ve always thought that part of the reason art confounds us is that it is essentially paradoxical in nature: private, mysterious, even largely subconscious in genesis but socially attuned and publicly affirmed. Reflective of this is the way in which many artists go about their work in a seasonal, cyclical way: a period of going deep in the studio followed by a period of public exhibition followed by a period of rest and reappraisal. What I want for you is to find your own rhythm, one that allows you to grow and surprise yourself with what you can do, because in the end, the toughest endorsement of all will be your own.
Questions are condensed and edited. At top: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s “Self Portrait, Sitting Next to an Easel” (1825). Scala/Art Resource.