Today I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and, as one does, I stopped briefly on one of my friends photos. I was spurred by mild curiosity, read the comments, and saw that a social media outlet of a major brand—or mildly significant if you want to get technical—commented on her picture. I went to this brands’ page and saw photo upon photo just like the one in question, and I was reminded of how our mental image of what a thing is changes when it enters the marketplace.
Remember the first iPhone? Not the one you bought, but the one you think of when you read the phrase “the first iPhone.” For me it’s a mental image of the owner of the company, in a mock turtleneck, jeans, and tennis shoes holding up this object, this single piece of technology. Leap forward 10 years and now when you think of the iPhone, you don’t think about a specific object but rather the idea of an object. The thing that your mind conjures when you think the word iPhone is so divorced from an actual artifact that your mind can’t reconcile the fact that the word refers to a concept, not an object. Contrast this with your idea of Starry Night (just to pick something at random.) When you think of that, the image springs to mind but, you also realize that it’s more than just an image. That’s why you wouldn’t pay more than a few dollars for a Starry Night poster, but would pay more for a ticket to the MoMA just to get a look at the actual thing—and to take a picture of that thing to prove you were there. Presumably to post on Instagram.
So we have an individual thing produced by an individual that is presumably unique. But even in this case, how a thing is consumed is always different from the way a thing is produced, not only in method but purpose as well. In this way contributors to social media aren’t making individual works of art, but participating in an economic system that doesn’t care about the thing itself. Your photo of Machu Picchu, for the purposes of the system, is no different than the other hundreds of thousands of other images of some American tourist doing a yoga pose (an ostensibly eastern practice) in front of a Mezzo-American structure.
All art works in this way to a point.
Let’s dissect the idea of Value. Think about money. The only reason why it has any value is because we all agree it has value. That’s the principle of the stock market. So why is art any different? Combine this with the phenomenon of perception. When you see a piece of art, you’re not seeing the art itself, and certainly not the exact thing the artist was experiencing at the moment of creation. You are creating your own version of Starry Night in your head and assigning your own meaning to it (or lack thereof.) So if everyone does this—and everyone does this—that means no one experiences the art itself.
The value that gets assigned to a work of art is based on the vague mix of interpretations. Have you ever seen a photo composite of the average human face? They overlay thousands of individual pictures to create a recognizably human face with no actual features. An out of focus accurate representation of a human being that tells no specific truths. This is the method that individual pieces of art come to have value. (Which also means, as an artist, the only time you actually ‘own’ your work is while you’re creating it, in the moment. Add to that the fact you’re being influenced by everything you’ve ever experienced, then the idea of true ‘ownership’ becomes laughable.) The system itself creates more value than any one individual object, but we normally hide this fact it by elevating individual pieces of art and artists themselves. We really try to maintain that any given system is in service to some greater, permanent, essential thing.
With social media the cycle of creation and consumption is the point. It’s even in our terminology. So-called ‘Influencers’ don’t produce anything but desire in others. Memes now get created just because the demand is there. How else do you explain Tide Pods and moth memes? Everything that doesn’t believe in itself to the point of delusion has an undercurrent of the absurd. That practice, the practice of infusing everything with absurdity, is the collective recognition that all of this doesn’t really deserve to be taken seriously, but if we all stop believing in it, it loses the magic. And we’re all so deathly afraid of what might happen if we do, so we cling to it all, out of a kind of fear, giving massive amounts of power to people who predictably misuse it for their own ends.
But hey, at least we’re not bored.