‘Got my blonde on,” writes Cindy Sherman in a recent Instagram post. In the photo, a woman with a blond wig and a computer-generated symphony of neck wrinkles, faces down the viewer. “Looks like some women I saw at Mar-a-Lago,” reads one comment. Good point: Sherman seems to have tapped into the Trump era’s gaudy glitz and glares. But there’s more to this. “Yeah and?” the surly tilt of her head seems to be saying, even if her eyes – poised between vulnerability and defiance like so many Sherman-created women – tell a different story.
It’s odd that it took Sherman so long to put her work on Instagram. For decades, she was doing Instagram before Instagram. From Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) onwards, her art has dealt with all the stuff that captivates and disgusts about the photo-sharing site: the narcissism, the perils and pleasures of self-exhibition, the cunningly filtered fantasies masquerading as the real thing.
Not all Sherman’s posts depict her as different women in delirious costumes and bonkers makeup. And not all are the result of her playing about with Facetune, an app that allows her to reshape heads and eliminate wrinkles, or Perfect365, the makeup simulator she uses to give her subjects garish digital makeovers.
There are holiday snaps of lighthouses, Mick and Keith bumping and grinding at a Rolling Stones gig. But even the dullest moments of Sherman’s Instagram are incidentally fascinating since they reveal the woman of 1,000 disguises letting her mask slip for once. She goes to Katy Perry gigs? She gets inspiration from a Dior show? Her Instagram besties include Sex and the City siren Kim Cattrall? Cindy, we hardly knew you!
But here’s the twist: because we’re looking at an artist’s Instagram, rather than our friend’s, the everyday is transfigured. Just as Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and called it art, so Sherman can put her day-to-day life alongside her art on Instagram and invite us to contemplate the quotidian in a new setting.
Indeed that venerable artistic mission – the transfiguration of the everyday – is what Instagram’s most exciting artists are doing. I love Wolfgang Tillmans’ post of a sliced strawberry. He calls it “a hint of a smile” and if you look – really hard – you can see the strawberry smiling back at you, just as a cloud formation might bear the image of Christ if you were alive to the possibility.
Another Tillmans post, Fruits isolés, shows an apple and pear on a plate entombed in cellophane. Like the recent rumpus over £3 plastic-wrapped ready-to-drink coconuts, Tillmans’ still life provokes meditation on excessive plastic, but it’s also a thing of beauty. Look at how he has lit that cellophane with the same care shown by, say, Chardin when he made the bottle shine in Still Life With Plums. Tillmans makes us look at the everyday differently. I will never again roll my eyes at my brother-in-law’s endless photos of pre-match dinners in Birmingham City’s hospitality suite.
That said, it’s artists whose work foreshadowed the age of the selfie who fit best with Instagram. Nan Goldin, who became famous in the 1980s for intimate photographs of herself and friends, released her first Instagram post just before Christmas. It was captioned: “Joey and Andres in Hotel, Askanischer Hof, Berlin 1992.” As one critic put it, Goldin’s images “presage the blurring of private and public moments that characterise the Instagram age, where so many of us feel compelled to share photographs and status updates tracking our every action, from burgeoning relationships to the smoothie we drank for breakfast”.
Understandably, Goldin worries that social media narcissism is her fault. Beneath the headline “Nan Goldin Wants You to Know She Didn’t Invent Instagram”, she told the New York Times: “I’m not responsible for anything like social media, am I? Tell me I’m not … It can’t be true, but if it is, I feel terrible.”
Even before Goldin joined Instagram in December, fans had been sharing her work there. When The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her confessional work consisting of a 700-image slideshow of her and bohemian friends in New York’s East Village in the 1980s, was shown at MoMA last year, visitors posted photos taken at the exhibition on Instagram with the hashtag #NanGoldin. There were no shots of breakfast smoothies, to be sure, but plenty of horror, including an unflinching self-portrait of Goldin battered and bruised a month after being beaten up by her lover Brian.
Goldin’s own Instagram offers a handful of old images including several of Kathleen White, the friend she documented extensively throughout the 1980s, during the Aids crisis. Goldin also astutely uses the site to do politics – campaigning for arts organisations to refuse donations from the Sackler family, arguing that the philanthropic family’s millions are tainted because some members profited from the US’s opioid epidemic. The political is personal for Goldin since she has been treated for addiction to OxyContin.
Yoko Ono also makes the political personal. Her charming Instagram suckers visitors with captivating selfies in different locales, sporting a series of hats and shades, before hitting you with an appeal for gun control. In one poignant post, a pair of sunglasses lies on the ledge of what we presume to be Ono’s Manhattan balcony. One lens is shattered. The caption reads: “1,186,000 Americans killed by guns since John Lennon was shot and killed on December 8 1980.” Ono adds: “We are turning this beautiful country into a War Zone … After 36 years, our son Sean and I still miss him.”
Elsewhere, astute artists are using Instagram to connect with their fanbase in ways they couldn’t before. Earlier this year, it became clear that Damien Hirst’s people were no longer writing his Instagram posts, but rather the artist was. Suddenly it became worth following – Hirst was disarmingly explaining how he got the diamonds for his skull, why he was wrong about minimalism, and how sausages are “stupid”. I’m also enjoying Ai Weiwei’s posts for their captivating capacity for selfie mockery but mostly for his dystopian shots of rotting veg. Why he’s posting jade-glazed doughnuts, though, is beyond me.
Cannier still are the artists appropriating other people’s work. Kenny Scharf, best known for his cartoon-like graffiti characters and doughnut paintings, posted a diptych of him smoking a huge bong apparently inside Richard Serra’s sculpture Vortex, raising all kinds of questions. Did the security guys at the Fort Worth gallery not spot the large contraption? Does Serra like the fact that his sculpture makes a great hotbox for the consumption of illicit pharmaceuticals?
Richard Prince, meanwhile, has found another way to exploit Instagram. The American exhibited 38 paintings of screenshots of other people’s Instagram photos at the Gagosian in New York in 2014. He sold the results for up to $100,000, without crediting their original creators. Some critics called his work “genius trolling”, but that didn’t wash with one appropriated photographer, Donald Graham, who is now suing Prince. The case is ongoing but Graham has posted a photo of works in Prince’s show with the comment: “The only way you’d know my work was a part of this display is … well, that’s just it, you wouldn’t know.”
Another Instagram image Prince appropriated was a selfie of Ivanka Trump getting her hair and makeup done for a photoshoot. He printed the image on to canvas and sold the result to Ivanka for $36,000. She, proudly, posed in front of the print – thus creating that abomination of narcissism, a selfie of a selfie, and posted that on Instagram.
And then something very odd happened. Prince returned the $36,000 to Ivanka and posted the following on Twitter: “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art.” A nice satirical touch. But, with all due respect, Prince missed a trick. What he should have done is to keep the $36,000 and painted another picture, this time of the screengrab of Ivanka’s Instagram post of her selfie of her standing in front of his painting of her selfie. And then he could have sold that painting to her. And then – well, the process could have gone on for ever.
In our era of post-truths and fake news, Prince’s Instagram appropriations seem as on trend as Cindy Sherman’s new image-dramas of self-presentation. But while she puts her art on Instagram, he makes his by plundering it. Either way, it’s becoming artists’ favourite social media app. Adolescents need Snapchat, media drones must have Twitter, musical.ly is for miming schoolgirls, and LinkedIn a mecca for middle managers – but increasingly, Instagram is where the art world plays.
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