everyone's an artist on instagram

Duchamp's 'Fountain' was a watershed in the way we view art, but will Instagram have the same impact for the 21st Century that Dada did in the 20th?

by Tish Weinstock
27 October 2014, 2:15pm

Finger Painting by Margot Bowman

In 1917, a man put an upside down urinal in an art gallery, signed it R. Mutt (a pseudonym and witty play on the name of a large manufacturer of sanitary equipment, J.L. Mott Iron Work), dated it, gave it a title, and proclaimed it art. Facebook crashed, Instagram froze, and #urinal began to trend on Twitter. ''But this is not art!'' the board of the Salon des Indépendants shrieked as they hid the urinal from view, seemingly unaware that it was one of their own who had submitted it in the first place. Almost 100 years later and Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is regarded as one of the most important artworks of all time. Why? Because it challenged the very foundation upon which art was built, which, in an age where everyone's supposedly an artist on Instagram - where we can distort and affect whole images with a click of a button, and from the comfort of our own screens - is something that's becoming increasingly more relevant today.

While most of us spend lazy afternoons scrolling through our feeds, basking in the warm glow of an Amaro filter, and showing the @thefatjewish some proverbial <3, digital artists across the globe are signing in for something quite different. Whether they're appropriating the visual rhetoric of social media or using the wily ways of the World Wide Web to create magical GIFs, memes, vines, and obscure digital vortexes, one thing is certain: when it comes to artists today, the 'net is their go to medium. But, as people have always asked of the new, is it actually art?

For the board of the Salon des Independants (who btw were constitutionally bound to accept all artistic submissions), the problem was that Duchamp had neither designed the urinal nor did he have any part in its actual making. For them, there was no difference between what Duchamp had submitted and what you'd expect to find in your local lavatory. However, shortly after its rejection, an anonymous article defending its claim tobeing a work of art was circulated in the New York Dadaists' publication The Blind Man. ''Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain has no importance,'' it read, ''He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object.'' By flipping the urinal over, putting it in a gallery space, and bestowing upon it the semiotic trappings of an artwork (title, date, signature) Duchamp was able to take an everyday, readymade object and transform it into high art. Which is exactly the same logic that we must apply to artworks of the digital age. Especially the ones that live outside of the gallery and inside our screens.

Just like Duchamp, Internet artist Peter Stemmler works under a pseudonym. However, as opposed to a play on the name of a sanitary equipment manufacturer, his is a witty homage to the father of abstract art, Picasso, or as Peter styles it Peekasso. Exhibiting a gallery of online works through his Tumblr - each one is captioned (Reblogging myself from another source being the most notable, not only in its play on Gustave Corbet's provocative painting The Source, but also because it references the day to day life of online culture) and dated - Peekasso pushes the boundaries of digital technology while referencing artworks of the past. From a red and white GIF that uses the Coca Cola lettering to spell out the phrase 'Ebola Cola' (ironic given the fact that Coca Cola has come to epitomize the hyper consumerism of our capitalist culture, while Ebola is supposedly an illness of the poor) to an image which posits SpongeBob Squarepant's animated underwater mate in the backdrop of Edvard Munch's The Scream, Peekasso's art is commentary on life in the 21st century. Much like the Dadaists, Peekasso is putting two readymade digital images together, giving them new meaning, and calling it art. So why, then, are some people still in doubt?

Thanks to the Internet, the way we produce and consume art has been changed dramatically. No longer confined to the physical space of the gallery or even the hand of the artist(s), it's becoming increasingly harder to tell the difference between what is and what isn't art. According to net artist Margot Bowman, because we experience all of our digital content - Snapchats, sexts, updates from the Daily Mail online - through the same device, screen, and, even, keyboard, it's challenging for works of art to stand out amid the rest of the world's online chatter. ''They don't have a specific set of indicators around them that say 'this is Art','' she says, ''there's no burley security guard and you don't have to pay £15 to get in, so this throws people off.''

Along with fellow artists Jolyon Varley and Sean Frank, Margot is the brains behind 15Folds, an online gallery dedicated to exhibiting GIFs. Founded in 2012, each month the gallery responds to a specific theme with a GIF, and invites 14 other artists to follow suit. But with the option for visitors to have their own GIFs embedded within the site, how do we know when a GIF is a work of art and when a GIF is just a GIF? What is it that distinguishes the artist's GIF from that of the visitor?

''Art is completely subjective,'' says filmmaker and fellow 15Folds founder Sean Frank, ''not everyone is going to agree on what is and what isn't art, which is what Duchamp and Warhol's pieces stand testament to. For me, it's not about the medium, it's about how you apply your thinking to your chosen medium, be it painting, sculpture, film, photography, ready-mades or GIFs.'' Which brings us back to semantics. There is nothing intrinsically different between a GIF by one of the gallery's artists and a GIF by a visitor to the site; the former is only a work of art because that's how it's presented. And the same can be said of the artists and artworks of Instagram.

Nowadays, anyone with an iPhone can affect, distort and subvert images, just by adding an emoji. Does this mean that all our bathroom mirror selfies are high art? Only if we frame them as such. Clearly, there's a difference between Internet artist Amalia Ulman, who recently staged a performance piece via her Instagram account, and, say, the sumptuous selfies of Kim Kardashian. One is using Instagram as an artistic medium/social experiment; the other is using it to milk her fan base for all it's worth. Then again, earlier this year renowned publishing house Rizzoli announced they'd be curating a selection of Kim's selfies in a 352-page art book called Selfish. Is that art? Sure, why not? Ultimately, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp created an artwork that would redefine the very meaning of art, almost 100 years later; the meaning of art is very much still - if not more so - up for grabs.


Text Tish Weinstock
Image Finger Painting by Margot Bowman

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