Image Makers, Selfie Takers - Democratizing Art

by Helen Wong

‘Instagram’ and ‘selfies’ are terms that have permeated into our everyday culture. We’ve become a generation saturated by images: ones depicting what we eat, what we wear, or what we do. We’ve distanced ourselves from images taken by others, to ones produced by us. We are the image-makers and the selfie-takers. We have deemed ourselves fit to be curators of our own social media platforms, asserting that our own opinions and values are important and should be shared. An article published by The Atlantic states that individuals born between 1982 and 1999 show “generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, and self-importance” labelling us “Generation Me”. This is the reason why we choose to proliferate our feeds with selfies: we’re narcissistic. We are witnessing how social media is giving rise to a whole new generation of creatives.

This idea prompted my interest in exploring how narcissism works to democratize art through the rise of the so-called “Instagram artist”. The lure of Instagram is that it’s universal and accessible. Think of it like your own booth at an international art fair, but for free. Nowadays, anyone with access to a camera phone can own their own booth and exhibit as many of their works as they like. The Guardian posted an article that argued that social media panders and encourages pre-existing narcissism through our ubiquitous use of social media. It’s narcissistic that we value our work enough to be shared, but I think it’s this very act of narcissism that works to democratize art. By widening the platform and giving everyone equal visibility, it lessens the association with traditional hierarchies. In the past, art was a subject that could only be understood by the upper-class, in many cases it still is, Instagram works to subvert this elitism.

all images curtesy Michele Bisaillon

all images curtesy Michele Bisaillon

One artist who caught my eye was Michele Bisaillon, her Instagram is rife with images of the self, disrupted and distorted by her use of the mirror. For me, her work tackles two subjects: her role as an “Instagram artist” and the use of herself as subject matter, exploring  the link between narcissism and the democratization of art. “I think Instagram is a great place to share your creativity on the Internet but the term ‘Instagram artist’ is the kind of unfortunate side effect of doing that. I think some people’s work translates to Instagram easily and effectively. It’s a space to curate your own little ongoing exhibition” says Bisaillon. Bisaillon renders digital collages of her body through the use of self-portraits by displaying multiple perspectives of herself in one image. Her work is self-reflexive through her use of the trope of her reflection in a mirror. Traditionally, an artist’s self-portrait represented how they wanted to be seen, in other words, it was a curated image of the self. Often times, these portraits examined the theme of the artist as genius displaying their confidence in the form of narcissism. Similarly, the use of the body in art is a tool where artists can learn to be comfortable and display their acceptance of oneself. 

“I take photos using myself as a subject because my body is all I really have. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I feel comfortable with myself and my body [...] I don’t believe the act of taking a photo of yourself is always narcissistic. Taking a photo of yourself and sharing it on the Internet or with others is a way of documenting your existence. We all have a desire to be seen” says Bisaillon. Yi Zhou, a University professor at Florida state conducted a study that argued major artists are also major narcissists. She found that the size of an artist’s signature paralleled the success of the artist, so, the bigger the signature the more successful the artist was. Here we have an example of how narcissism runs parallel to confidence. If an artist believes in the work that they produce, it subconsciously relays to the viewer that their work is worth looking at. Pair this notion with the accessibility of camera phones, and you have a platform ripe for all those narcissists out there - apparently that’s everyone in “Generation Me” - leading to the discovery of new and innovative artists. “Camera phones have altered the way our society works in so many ways and I think we are just beginning to see how they are changing the way we engage in and interact with art” states Bisaillon. Instagram has become a database for art through our narcissistic (or more aptly, confident) act of publishing our own work and becomes an essential tool for artists both new and established. Scrolling through your ‘suggested feed’ exposes you to artists you’d never stumble upon in a gallery or museum creating a whole new way of experiencing art.