how the pressure of social media is affecting nyc’s young artists

When some of your classmates are Instagram-famous, forging a career in the visual arts can come with loads of added pressure. NYU and Parsons students discuss how they stay mentally healthy when the competition feels stacked.

by Blair Cannon
20 July 2016, 4:15pm

For every Insta-famous photographer elevated by social media to near-celebrity levels of recognition, there are thousands of young artists scrambling to assemble their own unique, coherent online identities. In recent years, Tumblr and Instagram pages have transitioned from places to share vacation pictures and inspiration images to legitimate (and immediately accessible) portfolios for potential employers and press to peruse. In 2016, a meticulously crafted social media presence can be your most valuable tool for jumpstarting a professional art career.

But what are the psychological effects of the expectation placed on this generation to be so social media-savvy? And how does the Instagram shortcut to success that some young artists take affect the rest of the class? This generation of visual arts students in New York is developing a uniquely complicated, tumultuous relationship with social media.

"Instagram is the only [platform] I use in a professional manner," says Michael, a photography senior at NYU, of his social media presence. "It's kind of like a business card. I've been on a number of sets where, after shooting, everyone exchanges handles." This situation is familiar; having an updated Instagram or Tumblr is imperative to making and keeping industry connections. "I think the longer you wait to put your work out there, you only do a disservice to yourself," says Brittany, a master's student at NYU's film school.

However, starting out is no easy feat. "There is a major pressure to show off what you've done," says Emily, who studies film and television production at NYU. While students in other fields labor over resumés and LinkedIn accounts, art students have an extra box to check. "As an artist looking for employment, you need to think twice as hard about your appearance," says Emily. "There's a whole other facade to worry about when being an artist in our generation."

And if you wait too long to establish your presence, "How else will clients know you exist?" asks Michael. The job market for BA graduates can be cutthroat. Internships are often no longer enough to satisfy a potential employer or agency, and late-teens and early-twenty-somethings are pushed to build their own clientele sooner and sooner. But there are pitfalls. "I think the negative side [of having Instagram] is that you can get tricked into making work for Instagram, as opposed to making work for yourself," says Michael, "That's a total trap." Parsons photography senior Ryan agrees, explaining, "I'm still not sure if posting my images in a public, digital realm lessens them in a way. And the worry that the imagery becomes an Instagram post rather than a piece of work is always on my mind."

The ability to share, collaborate, and gain traction goes hand in hand with the compulsion to do so constantly. While Ryan recognizes the supposed importance of posting, he says, "For artists, it becomes difficult as we all move at different paces when creating work." The pressure can lead to spirals of self-doubt and even burnout. "It does kind of get to you, you know?" says Michael. "Like, you're not sure what to post, or you haven't made new work in a while, so you don't have anything to post. Then you realize you're losing followers, and are suddenly like, 'Am I losing my career, my dream?'" He laughs and quickly adds, "I'm also kind of crazy though." But he's not alone in feeling that way.

For students at New York's top art schools, there's a strong chance that a number of your peers have already achieved the level of recognition you're chasing through social media. And when you're spending a fortune on tuition, equipment, and a New York City apartment, kids who snag gigs because of their Instagram fame can also feel like the enemy.

"I don't want my work falling subject to the Instagram effect," says NYU senior Luke, who studies psychoanalysis and visual arts. "The friends I know with the largest followings have conformed their aesthetic to practicality. Everyone ends up with this Nan Goldin/Wolfgang Tillmans aesthetic and it becomes more about who you hang out with than the actual quality of the picture." Luke says he tries to stay above it, though. "I know a few people who have become very popular on Instagram," says Ryan. "However, their posts are not generally anything too exciting, which makes me question social media and the validity of 'a following' altogether. Sometimes, it's frustrating."

"It definitely creates pressure," says NYU digital media senior Shira of the city's Instagram it-kid vortex. "But I've been trying to be really cognizant about supporting and feeling empowered by others' work and success." It is a fight, certainly, to stay mentally healthy under the pressure. "I have a lot of creative friends who have really impressive videos or art on social media and it would be a lie to say I don't feel incredibly intimidated when I compare their work with mine," says Emily. "The pressure I feel is a paralyzing one. The Internet has exposed me to such amazing and impressive people that, as passionate as I feel, it becomes a challenge to not doubt my own creativity." She quickly points out, "But that feeling of inferiority would exist even if social media didn't."

It's a good point. The art and fashion worlds have never lacked that sense of extreme competition and the necessity for a bit of luck. But there is something about having that competition shoved in your face at the touch of the home button that gets to you. Confronted with round-the-clock images of other artists' shit-togetherness, it becomes that much easier to question your own creativity, talent, and motivation.

Photographer Ophélie Rondeau — one half of photo agency Girls by Girls — posted a since-deleted caption-essay to Instagram last week that perfectly sums up the creative industries' relationship with social media in 2016. Ophélie, who has 15k followers, wrote that even she has countless "Instagram depressions." She doesn't want to be on Instagram, but she says she needs to be: "I have this pressure of having to make an effort if I want my 'stats' to look more appealing to future clients [...] Look at Burberry getting 16-year-old Brooklyn Beckham to shoot their campaign. This guy is just a kid. But he has millions of followers."

Ophélie's essay outlines another perspective: that of the kids who are already in the social media spotlight. Max, who was just accepted into USC's famously competitive film program, says his 35.5k Instagram followers probably helped him get into the school. "I believe my follower count provides employers and film schools with my willingness to be in the business," he explains. (To answer a question he says he receives all the time: in high school, he discovered a like-to-comment ratio within a certain period of time that put him on Instagram's Popular Page on a consistent basis.)

"Everyone would like to see the same success," he says, but "it's all about connections and not always about the follower count." And while his follower count arguably helped him make many of those connections, he says he would still "much rather work with a passionate artist who has 1k" than a company with 200k and "mundane content." But the vicious circle brings us right back to Michael's earlier point: "Good work comes first, but if that work isn't online" — or if it's not receiving decent exposure — "nobody's going to know it's good."

Whether we choose to embrace this new pressure for a social media presence or not, it is becoming our reality — and it's equal parts blessing and curse. While photographers, filmmakers, designers, stylists, musicians, and writers in 2016 know that we may not need to be present online to be successful, it has only ever helped. The problem, though, is that when gaining a following looks like a fortuitous shortcut, students struggle to keep their faith that art school and a committed artistic practice will still be worth it for them. The only thing left to do for this generation of art students is to keep on posting without giving those posts too much power.


Text Blair Cannon
Image from The Street Issue, i-D No. 326, Pre-Fall 2013
Fashion Director Charlotte Stockdale

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