Trapped in the hall of mirrors

An artist considers Instagram again

5 minute read
Ontologically distinctive: Andy Warhol, “Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn)”, 1967. (© The Andy Warhol Foundation)
Ontologically distinctive: Andy Warhol, “Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn)”, 1967. (© The Andy Warhol Foundation)

The only time I entered a county fair’s house of mirrors, I didn’t get very far.

It wasn’t so much the reflections disturbing me as the disorientation from spatial uncertainty that made me flee out the entrance as the barker yelled I was going the wrong way.

On stable ground I found myself at the entrance for the sideshow, Rat Boy. Having no intention of entering, I imagined a child with deformities exploited for carnival curiosity. While contemplating this image, I heard an exiting couple complain; Rat Boy is just a teenager with rats crawling over him.

I think about the house of mirrors when I visit Rome’s Palazzo Spada, a museum of Mannerist artists. The gallery’s main attraction is the corridor built by Francesco Borromini. The 24-foot-long corridor appears to be 60 feet long, and the sculpture at the end, which appears life-sized, is only 11 inches high.

Context or essence?

Of course, no one considers the county-fair house of mirrors to be art. Why do viewers experience the Borromini corridor as art and the house of mirrors as amusement? Likewise, what is the difference between Rat Boy, who endured crawling rats, and performance artist Marina Abramović, who subjected herself to the whims of an audience supplying them with 72 objects to do with her as they wished?

Abramović answers this question in a PBS interview in which she discusses the difference between her performances and those of illusionist David Blaine. She offers the analogy that someone baking in a bakery is a baker, but someone baking in an art gallery is an artist. It is context determining art as art; specifically, galleries and museums.

An artist friend argues that Abramović needs the gallery to define what she is doing, but traditional art stands on its own without context. This argument forgets traditional art has context — history and its thousands of years defining painting and sculpture. Without this legacy, such art could not be understood. If Michelangelo’s Pietà were placed on the corner of Broad and Chestnut, without the context of history the sculpture would appear as strange as the coke bottle found by Bushmen of the Kalahari in the film The Gods Must be Crazy. Never having seen mass-produced objects, the Bushmen considered the bottle a gift from the gods. Everything has context — or we invent one.

The importance of recognition

What is the context that defines art in social media, where anyone doing anything can post something and call it art? Does art seek a context beyond Instagram for its validation, or does Instagram create the context?

One means for validating art on Instagram is through counting the “likes” that an image might receive from viewers. Sometimes that “like” indicates admiration of the artist’s ability to copy photographs — subject recognition becomes the image’s context and art is reduced to a common denominator of drawings resembling one another.

When I first taught art in prison, I was amazed at the limited sources of inspiration: Bob Ross, tattoos, cartoons, and photos of loved ones or celebrities. Basically the aspiring artists copy things already existing in two dimensions. Only one person among both the staff and the prisoners understood this limitation. When guards urged Joe — a prisoner whom they considered the best artist they ever met, but whom I never met myself — to attend my art classes, he replied, Nah, I ain’t no artist, I’m a copyist. Joe was an anomaly in prison where copying replaces creativity.


Prison penetrates virtual walls. As I look at drawings under the hashtag #portraitdrawings, I see drawings similar to prison drawings: Achievement is equated with how well one copies, and metaphor is often lacking. Perhaps, like my prison students, these artists don’t know that Warhol’s numerous interpretations of Marilyn Monroe photographs are ontologically different from theirs. (Actually, they may not be familiar with Warhol at all.) Warhol searched beyond the surface of Marilyn’s photographs to metaphors of death and the cult of celebrity. In prison and Instagram drawings, a drawing of Angelina is, usually, just Angelina.

There is interesting work on Instagram that doesn’t contract art to photocopied drawings, but this virtual venue makes its own visual reduction and the authenticity of art is always in question. In this world of ideal imagery, distinctions between what exists in actuality and what does not exist are eliminated. Nothing really exists as it appears on Instagram (unless it is in the medium of photograph), thus making Instagram a unique context of its own.

A fleeting moment

For instance, I posted a photo of a work in progress: the first layer of a rubber mold on my clay sculpture in the process of bronze casting. At this state, the art has no existence outside a single moment that lasts only until the next coat of rubber is applied. But because I saw the rubber-covered clay as interesting — at this point of the process, from a certain angle, in a certain light — I posted it.

Does it exist, does it not exist, and what defines existence? Is it a photograph? If so, is the photograph a document or art? What is the difference? Does documentation become art?

Some artists use documentation to post art that is not meant to last, art that addresses the transient nature of existence. But is documenting this transiency hypocritical?

Does Instagram documentation have to be truthful to the actual art? Or can it present an altered version — like the airbrushed beauty of cover girls?

I recall an installation of a graduate sculpture student; bits of torn paper on the floor of his studio. It wasn’t particularly interesting, but on the wall of his studio was his photograph of it. The photograph, framing this chaos, had an authority his sculpture lacked, making me realize that perhaps the pathetic torn paper was a means to something else.

How will we know virtual art? Is it documentation and/or advertisement for the actual world? Is it a new medium within its own context? Is it a constructed pretense like Rat Boy at a county fair? Or is it just the means for posting whatever by whomever for whatever purpose, simultaneously reflecting something and nothing at all?

For the author’s previous consideration of Instagram’s relationship to art, click here.

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