Art isn’t dead: A defense of Instagram

There’s been a lot of debate lately about the relationship between art and technology. A lot of people have been saying that recent technological development is having a negative effect on the artistic process. They claim that Instagram is ruining photography, for example.

Speaking as someone who has studied photography, I have to say, I don’t really buy it.

Here’s the problem that photographers and other artists REALLY have with social media apps like Instagram: they take ivory tower art and make it accessible. Overnight, the tricks and techniques that used to be considered ‘high art’ were rendered common currency.

Back in the 90’s, when people asked art students how they could possibly justify spending $15,000 a semester on a photography degree, the art student was usually able to ramble on about light, shading and lens filers. At that point, the person asking the question—who was neither capable of understanding, nor interested in, the answer—would usually just change the subject.

The thing that has every would-be professional photographer in the world getting so angry is that now these people have a follow-up question:

“Can’t you just do all that stuff on Instagram?”

This article is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about. In it, the author writes:

“First the machines came for the musicians, but since I was not a musician, I did not care. Then the machines came for the photographers. The machines came with Photoshop first, then with Lightroom, finally, with Instagram. Now all photographs look the same. You do not need talent to apply a filter. You do not need to worry about aperture settings, exposure, film. The digital camera takes care of that for you. It has a built in memory, so you don’t need one. Just point and click.”

As a fine arts photographer myself, I sympathize with sentiment behind the article. I really do. It’s very frustrating to wake up and realize that any twelve-year-old with a smartphone and a WiFi signal can do things it took you four years of art school to learn how to do.

That said, if you’re operating under the assumption that the existence of Instagram constitutes a threat to photography, you probably weren’t very good at photography in the first place.

Put another way—it the photos on Instagram are really as bland and generic as you say they are, why are you so threatened by them? Why bother even taking the time out of your day to complain about them? Isn’t that time you should be spending working on creating something better? Something that can’t be replicated by a machine?

There’s an old saying—“if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

That saying applies as much to photography as it does to small business—if you’re really half the photographer you think you are, shouldn’t you be able to compete with the twelve-year-old and soccer moms that uploading photos to Instagram every day?

Saying that Instagram is a threat to photography is like saying that mad-libs are a threat to literature, or that hot-pockets are a threat to five-star cuisine. It’s like saying Twitter is a threat to poetry, or that the existence of tee-ball somehow detracts from the value of baseball—it just doesn’t make sense.

Besides, the entire debate about whether Instagram is “good” or “bad” for photography is largely irrelevant when you remember that Instagram is just a tool, the same way a camera or a paintbrush is a tool. When prehistoric people decided to stop smearing paint on walls with their fingers and use a brush instead, I doubt anyone sat around the cave whining about the death of art.

So when uninspired twenty-somethings start moaning about how Instagram killed photography, I can’t help but laugh. Photography isn’t dead. Art isn’t dead either. Technology might expand our definition of what constitutes art, or influence the ways in which we create art—but that’s always been the case. If you think art is dead, it’s because you made the decision to stop moving forward.

So maybe, instead of complaining about the rapid pace of technological development, you should use your time and energy to stay one step ahead of technology. By that, I mean you should strive to create art that can’t be replicated by a machine.

I have one thing to say to the whiny hipsters who sit in their basement and complain about how “art is dead” while they chain-smoke cigarettes and post Jack Kerouac quotes to their Facebook wall: do the world a favor and get over yourselves. Please stop using the existence of Instagram, drum-machines and Photoshop as an excuse for your inability to create something authentic, inspiring and original.

Quality is like cream—it rises to the top. Authentic expression will always be appreciated, regardless of what tool or social media app you use to get there.

Amy Cobb feels most at home behind a keyboard or a snapping shutter. She’s a Jill-of-All-Trades media refugee turned blogger who blogs on all things media and media-education-related. Most recently she’s worked on cataloging the best photography schools. When not writing, Amy maintains a patch of kale with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Snarls Barkley.

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