Of all the social networks, it’s the easiest, the simplest, the least full of harm. Let’s put it a different way. Facebook is Sauron. It’s also your mom’s couch, a yoga-center bulletin board, a school bus, a television tuned to every channel. Twitter is Grub Street, a press scrum, the crowd in front of a bar. Reddit is a tin-foil hat and a sewer. Snapchat is hover boards, Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots and Saturday morning cartoons. Instagram is a garden: curated, pruned, clean and pretty. It lets you be creative, but not too creative; communicate, but without saying too much. No embedding, no links—just photos, captions and hashtags. Elegant. Simple. Twenty-three filters. A crisp square around each frame.
In the world of social media, Instagram may be an oasis, but as a collective creative project its size is staggering, almost beyond comprehension. In the past year, 30 billion photographs were uploaded. Eighty million go up every day. What does that even mean? A few years ago I saw an exhibit by the Dutch artist Erik Kessels called “24 Hrs in Photos.” Kessels printed out every photograph that had been posted to the photo-sharing service Flickr (one of Instagram’s predecessors, now moribund in Yahoo’s fatal embrace) over one 24-hour period. The photographs filled a room, climbing several feet up the walls, forming mounds like a snowdrift. There were so many you could make snow angels or take a bath. To do the same thing with Instagram it would take a basketball court or a concert hall. The scale of Instagram beggars all attempts to describe it piecemeal. It’s a tidal wave of visual information sweeping away all the old shibboleths of art criticism as it comes to shore.
Forty years ago, the great art historian Michael Baxandall introduced the idea of the period eye. Renaissance viewers, for instance, brought a world of experience to bear on paintings. They were used to estimating, assessing and appraising. They shared a visual language, in which meaning was expressed through color harmonies, costly fabrics and metaphorical meanings. When they looked at a painting of the Annunciation, they priced out the cloth on the Virgin’s table, guessed the number of hogsheads of grain that would fit in a baptismal font and recognized the allusion to the Neoplatonic doctrine of forms concealed in the stained glass of the apse. Few among us now measure the world in casks of wine or yards of taffeta. But the broader point stands: vision is not neutral but shaped by our historical moment.
Today, we look at Instagram feeds with the same level of scrutiny as the Renaissance merchants who converted their Madonnas into ducats. Only the criteria of judgment have changed. Does the user obey the unwritten laws of adult Instagram, posting less than once a day, avoiding too many shots of their face, going easy on the hashtags? (Teen Instagram rules are different, if even more stringent). How are their vacations? Do they inspire envy in a way that’s beguiling, or merely crass? Are they eating in the right places? Instagram can seem like an index of mores in the age of self-branding and self-surveillance. But even as we look and like, we often fail to see to what extent our present image-world is rooted in the past. Instagram hasn’t yet introduced much that’s new to art, or even to vision. For the most part, it recycles old tropes, which it then delivers at high speed and massive volume.
This starts to become clear if we take a tour through the ten most popular Instagram photos ever taken. The figures are all celebrities, mostly ones with large teenage fan bases: Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, assorted Kardashians and their hangers-on. The occasions are matrimony, birth, friendship, love. For a long time, the most popular photograph on Instagram was of Kendall Jenner (recently surpassed by a blurry pic of Bieber kissing Selena Gomez that was captioned “Feels”). Kendall is twenty years old, lives in Calabasas, California and has over 60 million followers. According to Wikipedia, we are the same height. In the photograph, she is lying on a carpeted floor in what looks like a bridal dress. Her eyes are closed and her hair is arranged in a series of hearts, recalling the elaborate hairstyles found in Botticelli’s portraits of court ladies, passed through the added filter of their Pre-Raphaelite revival. If the photograph has a single antecedent, it is John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia from 1852. It combines the coiffure of Florentine princesses with the quintessential pose of tragic womanhood from the Victorian era. The cherry on top is the caption: a single, sideways glyph of a heart.
Art changes all the time, and when it changes, so does its history. Strong forms give birth to their own ancestors. The word “selfie” only dates back to 2002, when it was coined on an Australian internet forum (and what an antique wind already blows from that word “forum”) by a clumsy drunk who took a photo of himself after tripping over a staircase at a friend’s twenty-first birthday party, and it hasn’t been in widespread use for more than a few years. By 2013 it was the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year. By now, in 2016, the selfie is as common as water, responsible for a clutch of hideous gadgets as well as several dozen fatalities: a plane crash, a boat capsizing, and at least one (alleged) dolphin murder.
The word “selfie” may be new, but the idea wasn’t born from Instagram, or from cameras on mobile phones, or even from the Kodak or the daguerreotype. The germ of it—the self-portrait, executed casually and made to be shared— has been around for centuries. Six centuries, to be exact. The first selfie in recorded history was made by Leon Battista Alberti in Florence, sometime around the year 1435. Alberti sculpted his self-portrait in wax and then had it cast in bronze. It’s a portrait medallion, and an unusually large one. It looks like a very large, awkwardly shaped, oval coin. Connoisseurs tell us that it is obviously the work of an amateur. There’s a blemish on the cheek from a casting flaw, and the ear, though ably sculpted, rises too far above the rest of the relief, creating the odd impression of a whorled mountain towering over the plain of Alberti’s face. But then amateurishness is part of the medallion’s message. Coins and medals were the province of emperors and kings. And now here is Alberti, the illegitimate son of a merchant father, born in exile and without a lasting position anywhere, saying to the world: This is my face. Take a good look—it’s worth your time.
This was the beginning of a Copernican revolution in the history of art whose fullest consequences are only being felt now, a turn away from religion and politics and history towards the universe of the self. Alberti was the perfect person to kick it off. He was an architect, art theorist, dramatist and scholar. He was Burckhardt’s model for the universal man of the Renaissance, a draft version of Leonardo da Vinci. He was also vainglorious, and a liar. Or at least I think he was. He claimed he could play the organ, even though he probably couldn’t. He kept a list of his own wittiest remarks. He said he could toss a coin high enough to hit the roof of the tallest cathedral in Florence. But the thing that settles the case for me is this: in his autobiography, Alberti says he could leap over a man even with his legs tied together with a string. Who says something like that? Why? (And why, unless you are Vince Carter, would you think it would be believed?)
Alberti’s message is one that was once barely heard but now blares at us from every corner of the visual world: Here I am. This is me. This is mine.
Instagram creates a disarming sense of intimacy with people you’ve never met. Recently I’ve been following Instagram’s founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Both are young men (younger than me, at least) who live in San Francisco. I live across the Bay, and I recognize many of the places the pair visit and work. Mike is the sweet, earnest one. Kevin is the bro. Mike posts lots of pictures of his dog. (He takes his dog to a park I sometimes jog at.) Kevin goes to a lot of vineyards. He goes to a lot of whiskey distilleries, too. His other interests appear to be fashion, models and breakfast.
When Instagram launched, Mike was 24 and Kevin was 26. Both went to Stanford as undergrads. Before Instagram, Kevin worked on an app called Burbn (he loves brown liquors), a check-in service in the mode of Foursquare. The app was a failure, but he learned from it that people were more interested in sharing photos than registering where they had been. This insight became the foundation of Instagram.
The two started their collaboration in a Cole Valley walk-up. Mike was in charge of the technical side of the sharing service, while Kevin handled the user interface. Both brought something of themselves into the project. Instagram’s square format was a product of a semester Kevin spent abroad in Florence while at Stanford, where he used a Holga camera while studying photography. Mike had actually worked on a photo-sharing service before. For a class project, he designed an app to treat seasonal affective disorder. It was called “Send Me Some Sunshine.” People on one side of the world could send photos of sunshine to their peers in more wintry climates to cheer them up.
What a sweet, silly and utterly useless idea.
One of Kevin’s favorite accounts is called Symmetry Breakfast. It was started in 2013 by a gay couple living in London, Mark van Beek and Michael Zee. Michael cooks and Mark eats. Symmetry Breakfast was launched when Michael posted a picture of their perfectly arranged meal. This year, Michael quit his job at the Victoria and Albert Museum after signing a lucrative book deal. Recently, Systrom met with the pair in San Francisco. They had breakfast, naturally, and Systrom, just as naturally, photographed the meal—though the third plate rather spoils the effect.
The golden era for the depiction of food in art came with the popularization of the still life in seventeenth-century Holland. The first society to experience the problem of having too much money and too much stuff, the Dutch had multiple genres of food-related still lifes, each dealing in a different level of luxury. They began with the humble ontbijtjes, or breakfast paintings, to the slightly more elaborate banketjestukken or “little banquets,” and on to the kings of them all, the pronkstilleven, from the Dutch word for “ostentatious.” The “little breakfasts” were the domain of simple food: a plate of herrings, a freshly baked bun, a few olives, maybe a peeled lemon for a bit of color. The atmosphere in these canvases is orderly and Calvinist. By contrast, in the pronkstilleven, the prevailing mood is one of jubilant disorder. Lobsters perch precariously on silver trays. Tables are strewn with plates of oysters, overturned tankards, baskets spilling over with fruit, scattered nuts and decorative cups. Cavernous mincemeat pies jostle with lutes and the occasional monkey.
For a century scholars have sought a deeper meaning in these and other still lifes. A half-eaten cheese stood for the transubstantiated body of Christ; walnuts represented him on the cross—the meat of the nut was his flesh, the hard shell was the wood of the cross he died on. Some art historians have argued that the genre got its start as a species of allegory—specifically, the vanitas. The message of all those overripe cherries and flyblown cheeses is the same: death is near and everything is transient. But, the argument goes, the Dutch painters did so well at painting their allegories, were such virtuosos at depicting the physical presence of embodied things in all their joyous profligacy, that they inadvertently drew the mind away from moral meanings and toward the world of sensual impressions. Instead of contemplating death, their viewers were filled with admiration for the artistry, and their minds filled with the clang of silver cutlery, the smell of pralines, the softness of a freshly baked roll, the crook of a pheasant’s newly throttled neck.
Instagram’s obsession with food isn’t the only thing it shares with the Golden Age of Dutch art. In seventeenth-century Holland, art was plentiful and cheap. A middle-class home might contain a hundred or more paintings, and a canvas could be purchased for far less than the price of a tablecloth or a fine plate. It was the first time in history that ordinary people had easy access to images that depicted their surroundings and did so without prejudice. The result was a world of images that was at once vast and trained on the ordinary. It was an art that collapsed hierarchies of class and subject matter—an art that could concern itself, deeply, with breakfast.
The lineage of Instagram goes beyond Renaissance portraiture and Dutch still lifes. Practically every photograph of nature on Instagram, for instance, stems in one way or another from the impact of the Romantic era. Before the age of Wordsworth and Constable and Friedrich, the only kind of nature thought worth depicting was that which had been cultivated and tamed by human industry. Mountains were depicted as threatening and ominous; rainbows only shone if they landed on angels’ wings. Animals appeared in paintings only to the extent that they were useful, like the melancholy cattle in a Ruisdael landscape, or if they were symbols of status, as in George Stubbs’s trembling mounds of finely rendered horseflesh from Georgian England. It is thanks to the transformation of vision in the early nineteenth century, with the emergence of Romanticism, that we now live in a universe of dogs playing in verdant fields, of endlessly scudding clouds and innumerable sunsets.
Modernism has also left its mark on Instagram. An entire mode of photography comes out of the legacy of surrealism. Any picture that takes as its subject an odd juxtaposition of dead objects or visually stimulating detritus, whether faded, rusted, anthropomorphic or bizarre, traces its existence back to the work of photographers like Eugène Atget, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Walker Evans. This is a world of old street signs, disconcerting storefront displays, armless dolls, shotgun shacks and prophetic graffiti. It’s a way of seeing that regards the city the way a detective looks for clues. To borrow from Lautréamont, it’s the search for anything as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.
Yet in other respects Instagram is remarkably resistant to modernism. It is not particularly reflexive or engaged. Its image-world hews closer to that of the Dutch seventeenth century than anything that came after. A world of self-confident burghers, surrounded by the products of their industry and the vehicles for its enjoyment—it’s strange that we’ve returned to it now. The great difference though is that those burghers didn’t have to worry about curating their own lives. Artists did that for them, selecting objects and scenes and imbuing them with meaning. Now the onus is on each of us.
Life in the Instagram bubble requires a constant calibration of how it will be viewed from outside. That need to make life itself aesthetic, to ask, over and over “What will this look like in a square?” exerts a slow, constant pressure of its own. It can be pleasant, and it can also squeeze like a vice. At Stanford, where Instagram was born (or at least grandfathered), they have a name for it: Duck Syndrome, since, in the words of one student, “It’s where everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly … but below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.”
How does it feel to live atop this pool? Is it worth trading the occasional dopamine rush for the feeling of constant self-surveillance? As the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska once wrote, “The window has a wonderful view of a lake but the view doesn’t view itself.” Part of the pleasure of Instagram is the way it edits out the ugly emotions that make up so much of the rest of social media. But it takes tremendous energy to live a life managed for appearances. The longer one lives in this world, the more tempting it becomes to escape, and to disappear.
A couple of years ago, for a little while, I lived a version of this dream. I lived in a cabin, an in-law unit in my landlady’s backyard, high in the Berkeley hills. It was less than two hundred square feet inside. I suppose you could call it a “micro-house.” My kitchen was in my bedroom. So was my office. The refrigerator was in the bathroom. There was a tiny second story, a plank the size of a coffin, just big enough to lie down on and look at the city below through a porthole window. The wi-fi was too spotty for me to do anything more than occasionally check my email in the mornings.
I woke up with the sunrise. In the evenings, the fog would roll in from across the Bay. Condensation streamed down the needles of the pine tree above my roof down onto the skylight, lulling me to sleep with a soft pitter-patter of rain. It felt like freedom, or like living in a haiku. I stopped worrying about what the internet was thinking. I read books before going to bed, especially books about hermits and castaways. I read Japanese poets, and the history of how they made their art. One in particular stuck with me. It was about Ashikaga Yoshimasa.
Yoshimasa was the shogun, or military ruler, of Japan in the fifteenth century. He was a very bad shogun. Politics bored him. He had no aptitude for battle. He couldn’t decide who should be his heir, his son or his younger brother. The resulting civil war nearly consumed Japan. Eighty thousand people starved in a famine while he supervised the construction of one of his palaces. While Kyoto burned, he worried about the health of his gardener, the only person who could arrange his rock garden just the way he liked it.
Yoshimasa brought the tea ceremony to its greatest height. He sponsored poets, priests, flower arrangers and actors. While the Onin War raged in the capital, Yoshimasa poured his soul into the construction of his mountain retreat, the Silver Pavilion. Its architecture, featuring bare interiors, clear lines and paper walls, became a model for the rest of Japan. He learned the secrets of wabi-sabi from the abbots of Japan’s great Buddhist monasteries, worldly men like himself who liked to gossip amidst their immaculately kept gardens. Almost everything we think of as being a part of the Japanese aesthetic—simplicity, transparency, love for the fragile and the evanescent—flowed from his patronage.
In the end, Yoshimasa found himself living in a private world, in which tiny pleasures loomed much larger than the clashes of men and arms. Even as his neighbors’ houses burned, even as his sons tore the country apart, even as war and famine swept the land, his palace remained a refuge—spare, perfectly groomed and terribly expensive, the perfect place to enjoy the taste of a perfectly brewed cup of tea or the beauty of a subtly flawed porcelain cup.
Mark Zuckerberg lists “Minimalism” as one of his main interests on his Facebook page. Larry Ellison, the former CEO of Oracle, had a samurai castle meticulously reconstructed for himself on his estate in Woodside, California, outside Palo Alto. In April, Mike Krieger posted a photograph on Instagram from the gardens of the Nezu Museum in Tokyo. Kevin Systrom was there a few months ago too.
When asked in a recent interview what features he would like to add to Instagram in the future, Systrom gave this response:
Imagine a world where virtual reality exists and is ubiquitous, and we have whatever device we need to experience it. How cool would it be if you were at a concert in the countryside and I could be there with you—hearing, smelling, seeing it, too? Or the presidential inauguration—that would be amazing. That’s what Instagram is now, in a very low-fidelity way. I like to say we’re working on time travel, but the difference is we’re not sending you there—it’s coming to you.
Never mind that Systrom seems to be quoting Don Draper’s “Carousel” speech from Mad Men, or that he appears to confuse space with time. The statement is emblematic of the messianic ambition of all truly successful Silicon Valley startups. Bend space, erase time, transform reality. Except that it runs counter to everything that has made Instagram succeed—modest aims, limited range, unqualified reach. Systrom may dream of creating an immersive, totalizing experience, but the key to Instagram has always been what it leaves out.
The same could be said of the refined minimalism pioneered by Yoshimasa and his court, which depended on carefully chosen contrasts and an assiduously cultivated restraint—the perfect pairing of an ink painting with a clutch of flowers arranged in a vase. Of all the arts practiced at the Silver Pavilion, Yoshimasa loved gardening and flower arranging best. When his retainers rushed into battle on his behalf, he could barely be bothered to remember their names. When his chief gardener took ill, he personally supervised his treatment and conducted curative prayers.
A garden is a miniature version of the world. According to the strand of Buddhist thought Yoshimasa followed, the type of waterless garden he favored at his palace retreat was meant to encourage the contemplation of higher realms. But it could not be apprehended without a frame. The whole of the Silver Pavilion could be said to be that frame. Its austere white interior shut out the world of strife, politics, war and suffering. Its interior was decorated with a few choice objects, as notable for their humility as for their perfect arrangement. Its paper walls let in only a diffuse white light. And when the shoji doors opened, it was always onto the exquisitely manicured grounds of his garden.
In its exclusion of links, minimization of text, and encouragement of gauzy filters, Instagram turns every smartphone into its own little Silver Pavilion, through which the user can both cultivate a world and blot out what they don’t wish to see. But if that’s the case, what does Instagram’s frame let in? We no longer spend much time contemplating universal transience (or, certainly, not enough to account for billions of pictures). Like other social media platforms, Instagram may owe much of its success to its role as a supremely efficient brain parasite, feeding on our need for instant connection and validation. But as art—and in some way, however variegated and diffuse and inapprehensible and multiply banal, it is a kind of art—Instagram owes its success to the triumph of the everyday.
Nothing, not even the internet, has had a better career these past twenty years than the everyday. On television and in social media celebrities shorn of talent or responsibility serve as our avatars of ordinariness. The greatest source of fascination in our daily lives isn’t art or politics or faith, but the lives of the people around us, and those of people we’ve never met. Call it the Great Disintermediation. It started with the Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age. And it continues to this day, on 200 million screens and 70 billion snapshots a year.
In 1930, Ludwig Wittgenstein had a presentiment of this evolution. In a passage from his notebooks, he speculated on the future of the arts. He began by imagining what it would be like to watch someone without their knowing it:
Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theater, the curtain goes up and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes—surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself. But then we do see this every day and it makes not the slightest impression on us!
“Life itself.” Without the proper perspective, left simply at the level of existence, life has no import, no meaning. But through the right lens, it would be wonderful. Wittgenstein then goes on to say that of course this is impossible. There is no way to stage daily life, to put it in a theater and watch unobserved. And without that remove, the everyday becomes cold, boring, dead. In Wittgenstein’s words, it’s like a snapshot, “one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experiencing something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness.”
There’s something ironic in the remark about “justifiable coldness,” since Wittgenstein himself loved photography. He used to buy cheap cameras for every excursion and liked nothing better than to take snaps with his friends. Had it been around in his day, he probably would have loved Instagram. But would it have been the frame he was searching for? I don’t think so, at least not yet. For the time being, Instagram is more of a peep show than a theater. For all its enormous reach, its view on the world is keyhole-tight. It lets in just enough light to see the vase in the corner and the picture scroll hanging on the wall. Never mind the storm raging outside or the fire beyond the palace gates.