SAM SANDERS, HOST:
There's this exhibit by the artist Yayoi Kusama. It's at The Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles, and it's beautiful but really, really hard to describe. Sara Lawyer can explain it better than I can. She's an associate curator at The Broad.
SARAH LOYER: This room is called "Infinity Mirror Room - The Souls Of Millions Of Light Years Away."
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LOYER: It has LED lights, lots and lots of LED lights, that are glowing, going on and off, flickering at times. And all around you, you have mirrors - so on the floor, on the ceiling and on all of the walls around you.
SANDERS: It's like you're floating in a room full of stars. The thing about this room, this exhibit - when you go see it at The Broad, you actually can't stay in the room that long.
You have a stopwatch.
SABRINA GIZZO: Yes.
SANDERS: You actually have a stopwatch.
GIZZO: Forty-five seconds - that's right.
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
GIZZO: It's like championship timing.
Sabrina Gizzo is a visitor services associate at The Broad. And before every group of visitors go into this room, Sabrina gives them a little spiel.
GIZZO: You're going to have 45 seconds in the room. We ask that during that time that you stay on the rubber mat. It looks just like...
SANDERS: If she didn't give them a time limit, these visitors might stay in that dark room for God knows how long, trying to get the perfect selfie. But Sabrina wants them to take pictures. The museum wants them to take pictures.
GIZZO: If you're taking photos, take a lot of photos. I always say, the experience can be awesome, but the photos can be breathtaking.
SANDERS: They are - pictures of people standing almost reverently in this room full of stars and mirrors. It's as if this exhibit at this museum was made specifically for Insta (ph). And if you want to really get meta about it, you could argue, besides just the "Infinity Mirrors" room, all these selfies in that room of mirrors all over Instagram - this collage of similar yet unique and personal photos spread all around the Internet - maybe that's art, too.
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SANDERS: From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Today we ask a very big question - how is the internet and social media and Instagram, specifically, changing art with a capital A - how we see it, how we share it, what we think of those who make it, who we think owns it. In this episode, we'll talk with some independent artists whose primary means of sharing their art is Instagram. And we'll talk with Wesley Morris. He's a critic at large at The New York Times, and he has a lot of big thoughts on all of this. All that after the break.
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SANDERS: At The Broad museum in downtown LA, you can see very clearly just how Instagram has totally changed the way all of us experience museums.
CHARLES HENRY OH: We've been sitting in line for, like, over an hour to make sure we would be the first in the room.
SANDERS: Charles Henry Oh (ph) was one of the many people waiting in line at The Broad just to see the "Infinity Mirrors" exhibit.
Will you Instagram it?
OH: Most likely I will, yeah.
OH: At first (laughter).
SANDERS: OK. Yeah, yeah.
Adriana Hidalgo (ph) and her family were in line as well, and I caught them just as they left the room.
ADRIANA HIDALGO: It felt like we were just floating in air or something (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Did you take pictures?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, tried to take some.
SANDERS: How many did you get?
HIDALGO: I don't know. I didn't check yet, so.
SANDERS: These kind of visitors are a curator's dream - visitors who will wait in line just to pay to get into a museum and who will then publicize the museum with a bunch of photos afterward. At The Broad, there are lines down the block on weekday mornings, and The Broad museum has found that almost a quarter of visitors to the museum, they come after they see pictures from the museum in their friends' and families' social media feeds. And all museums realize now that Insta has to be a big part of their outreach. You'll occasionally hear these stories of museumgoers with selfie sticks, taking those Insta photos, knocking over the artwork and stuff. But Sarah Loyer, the curator at The Broad, she says, for the most part, people are totally fine with folks making Insta part of their experience.
LOYER: I'm a curator. I go to a lot of exhibitions and look at art, and I'm constantly taking pictures, too. So...
SANDERS: So it's OK?
LOYER: I'd almost compare it to the way that, if you go to a restaurant, and you see a beautiful dish, and you take a picture of it because you want to document that beauty, and then you eat it, and you enjoy all of the flavors and savor every bite; I think you can do the same thing...
SANDERS: Mmm hmm. Yeah.
LOYER: ...With an experience of art.
SANDERS: Museums like The Broad have totally leaned into Instagram. It is good for them, but even if it's good, it's changing the museum experience a lot. I called up someone who could really speak to all that change. Hey, Wesley Morris. Can you hear me?
WESLEY MORRIS: I can.
SANDERS: How are you?
MORRIS: I'm good. How are you? What's going on?
SANDERS: Wesley Morris is a critic at large for The New York Times. He writes about art and films and music and a whole lot more. And he says, everywhere you look, art is changing, almost bending itself to the will and the aesthetics of Instagram; in museums, yes, but also everywhere else.
MORRIS: I can see the effects of this thinking on more commercial ideas, right? Like, how a storefront works or, you know, how to design a retail space so that it attracts people's cameras, not just people. Because in the museum space, what's interesting is you don't really have to do a lot to be Instagrammable (ph). I mean, obviously somebody like, you know, Kusama...
SANDERS: Yeah, Yayoi Kusama - she has the "Infinity Mirrors" exhibit that I saw at The Broad.
MORRIS: She is ready-made for Instagram-oriented or, you know, camera phone-oriented consumption. But I also think that I can already see the way people who design retail space have appropriated her art to attract people to their space. Like, if you're going to open a gelato shop in 2019, you're probably going to just steal - like, misinterpret what she's doing.
MORRIS: Or, like, use the most superficial approach to her ideas, her sort of vast visual imagination, to attract people to come in and get gelato. Yeah - I mean, because the first thing you thought - that I thought of when you brought this - when you mentioned this to me was just the iconic photos of people taking photos of the "Mona Lisa." I...
SANDERS: Which I don't understand. I'm sorry, I don't get it. I'm not here to see you. I want to see the "Mona Lisa."
MORRIS: But aren't we past - I mean, we're past, I don't get it, right? Like, that's the whole point.
MORRIS: And this is the world we live in.
SANDERS: What I found so interesting - so we went to see the "Infinity Mirrors" that's at The Broad right now and talked to the curator and, like, interviewed her while we're in one of the rooms with the mirrors. And I kept waiting and trying to ask her for, like, well, what's the downside of this? All these people coming in here with their cameras and their smartphones and all the lines and this and that. And she basically was like, there's no downside.
MORRIS: Mmm hmm. Yeah, I know
SANDERS: We like it. People are engaging with this art. We're not snobs about smartphones. They're consuming the art and sharing the art. Why would we be mad about that?
MORRIS: Mmm hmm.
SANDERS: Is anyone mad about this, or am I thinking that there's some, like, hypothetical angry curator who's like, this is not the way it's supposed to be?
MORRIS: I'm sure those people are out there, but I also understand the pressure museums are under to get those feet coming through those doors. And...
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. And if "Infinity Mirrors" does it, then so be it.
MORRIS: (Laughter) Right. I mean, I think that there is a way to be a crotchety old person about this, and then there is a way to just be like, yeah, that's just not a thing I'm going to do when I go to the museum, right?
SANDERS: Mmm hmm.
MORRIS: My problem is when that experience disrupts my experience, right?
SANDERS: Mmm hmm.
MORRIS: When I have to - like, when I have to ask you to get out of the way of a painting because you are, you know, selfie-ing (ph), you know, in front of something that I want to look at, like...
SANDERS: Like the "Mona Lisa."
MORRIS: Right. I mean, forget the - "Mona Lisa" is like a joke at this point. Like, just a Ray Pettibon, you know - like a Ray Pettibon painting.
SANDERS: (Laughter) He said it.
MORRIS: Like, I mean, that - well, it's a joke...
SANDERS: Heard here for her first time ever - the "Mona Lisa" is a joke. Wesley Morris, y'all.
MORRIS: (Laughter) No, what I mean is trying to get close enough to it to do anything remotely intimate. You know, the funny thing about that "Apes***" video - the Beyonce, Jay-Z "Apes***" video - was that I actually...
SANDERS: Mmm hmm. Where they're in the Louvre.
MORRIS: Where they're in the Louvre.
SANDERS: And in this video, the two of them are, like, posing in front of the "Mona Lisa."
MORRIS: By themselves. I thought the more - that video was such a cop-out because the real power move would have been for the two of them to go at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday.
MORRIS: And just be like, y'all got to get out of the way; we need to see the "Mona Lisa." But I just think that - I mean, I was just - the reason "Apes***" just occurred to me was just because I was thinking about all of the ways that, you know, we have this relationship with this art, and the experience these two people have in this music video is the experience we kind of think we want, which is just to have these famous images to ourselves without, like, being poked in the head by somebody's selfie stick.
MORRIS: But it doesn't bother me. It doesn't bother me, like, in the macro sense.
MORRIS: I just feel like there's certain things that you - because think about this also - like, you - think about the people who just don't have access to these images.
SANDERS: Mmm hmm.
MORRIS: And I think the museums themselves are aware of this, too. If I'm a person who can't get to any museum because for any number of reasons - I'm disabled and I can't get in; I don't have money to get in; I don't really like museums; I'm agoraphobic; any number of reasons that you couldn't actually access the space - a place like Instagram or the actual, you know, museum sites, gallery sites, can give you a sense of what you physically can't see. And I mean, I think that's really valuable, whether it's coming from some random person's selfie stick or, you know, the Whitney; I think either one of those things is OK.
MORRIS: And also, if you think about the collection of these images, you are getting - you are, like, being given ways of seeing.
SANDERS: What is - for someone who just wants to consume art in earnest and learn something, what is the best way to try to go about living in this world? Like, if you had to give someone some, like, pro tips on art criticism 101 through the Internet (laughter) - I don't know. Like, what is your first tip?
MORRIS: Make sure you get that caption.
MORRIS: I mean, just make sure you know what you're looking at. Like, what are you looking at?
MORRIS: Who made it?
MORRIS: What year is it?
MORRIS: Like, what materials are these?
MORRIS: You want to know some basics, right? You just want to know - I mean, you just want to know what the dimensions of the piece are. I...
SANDERS: But no one does that anymore.
MORRIS: I don't know.
SANDERS: Ask any of those Instagram - those Instagram "Mona Lisa" selfie takers. Can they tell you one actual thing about that "Mona Lisa?"
MORRIS: Well, I hope they could tell you that it's the "Mona Lisa" (laughter).
SANDERS: Perhaps, perhaps but that's the one thing, right?
MORRIS: But no, no, no. I mean - but I think that there has to be - I mean, think about the idea that people still are going to take their picture with the "Mona Lisa," right? It does mean that there is some value. Now, does anybody care that DaVinci did it? I don't know, but I can't speak to that. But clearly, it is less about DaVinci and more about the experience of, like, seeing this thing and, like, taking a picture of it. It is simultaneously - it has an Instagram value, but I don't know that it has art value.
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SANDERS: We're going to leave the museum talk for now and talk with some artists for whom the museum or the gallery is Instagram itself. That is after the break. BRB.
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SANDERS: We are back. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. And today, we're asking a question with quite possibly many answers. How has the Internet, specifically Instagram, changed art? We're going to talk now with an artist who shares her work on Instagram.
PAVANA REDDY: My name is Pavana Reddy, and I'm a poet and songwriter.
SANDERS: Pavana kind of made it big when the singer Anoushka Shankar, Norah Jones' sister, caught her work on Instagram and reached out and asked her to write a song for her album. Here's one of her poems.
REDDY: (Reading) If he doesn't love you the way you need to be loved, for God's sake, leave. Life is too short to keep breaking your back for someone who refuses to grow a spine of their own. There is strength in love, so darling grab her by the hand and walk away. Don't bother looking back. He won't stop you. The spineless ones never do.
SANDERS: Pavana also has two books out. By many metrics, she's made it. But because her work is Instagram first, there are some big questions about how her stuff will do over time if Instagram makes any big changes. She is in many ways an artist at the mercy of this platform.
REDDY: It's frustrating. It is hard to follow Instagram's algorithm, so it's hard to play that game.
REDDY: And also I hate having to play that game. I don't want to sit on Instagram and look at what the best time to post is.
REDDY: I trust that the people that are waiting to see my work will come visit the page and look themselves. So I've really learned in the years to distance myself from that.
SANDERS: There's also this weird thing about putting your art on Instagram. You can be popular, you can get a lot of likes, you can have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers. That doesn't mean all that's paying all your bills. Pavana still has a day job at a coffee shop.
REDDY: And I'll be at work and I'll be stressing out and someone will come in and be like I love your work.
SANDERS: Oh, so they'll know your face.
REDDY: Right. So there'll be a moment where I'm just like, oh, no, please don't recognize me. But also that's so humbling. You know, that's so cool to have someone come up to me and, like, not even think about what I'm doing. I think initially sometimes my mind goes to, oh, my God, I don't want them to know I work in a coffee shop to...
REDDY: ...That's so cool. It's not even, like, on their mind. They just saw me, recognized me and they wanted to tell me they loved my work. That's amazing to me.
REDDY: I love that half of LA knows me as a poet and the other half knows me as a barista.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to Pavana Reddy. Gonna hear now from Timothy Goodman. He puts his art on Instagram as well, but his work also lives in the physical world.
TIMOTHY GOODMAN: I'm known for doing a kind of whimsical, freestyle drawing thing, which I do on large murals. I'll do a 40-foot mural over the course of eight hours, which is all line drawings that will be on murals or packaging or T-shirts or whatever.
SANDERS: Timothy does this really good job of at least trying to make sure he's using Instagram and that Instagram isn't just using him.
GOODMAN: Instagram for me is like how a jazz musician in the 1940s would play, you know, at this kind of beautiful swing dance club for all these people. And then the show would end at midnight, and he would go up to Harlem and jam sessions all night till 4 in the morning and playing the music he really wanted to play. And so I was...
GOODMAN: So I always think about Instagram as this, like, sketch for me. You know, it's like let me throw something against the wall, put something out there to an audience and see how people relate to it, how they interact with it, what kind of relationship they find with it. Does it resonate with people? Does it not? When I started talking to Uniqlo a couple years ago about a potential clothing line, what resonated most with them was all the Instagram writing I was doing on all the art I was doing for Instagram. And then that became this kind of really great collaboration because so much of the work I've been doing for free on Instagram ended up on Uniqlo shirts and we sold - you know, we sold one million of those globally. And so I've always thought about Instagram as this kind of like me, you know, shooting free throws before the game.
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SANDERS: Adam Kurtz is also really comfortable with Instagram. He does these colorful, text-heavy illustrations that do extremely well on the platform. But he isn't sure how closely he wants to be tied to the app.
So I guess my first question for you would be, do you consider yourself a, quote-unquote, "Internet artist?"
ADAM J KURTZ: I would consider myself an artist.
KURTZ: And I think adding the word Internet before that is sort of like a weird qualifier. I don't know what that adds or subtracts, and so sometimes it can be added and it's like a positive, and other times it feels like a negative. Like when someone says, you know oh, well you have beautiful eyes, and it's like, well, what about the rest of me? So sometimes it feels like that where I'm like oh, an Internet artist but not a real life. You know, sometimes it feels like a separation almost, like a have and have-not. So I'm not a huge fan of that.
SANDERS: Do people call you that?
KURTZ: The first mainstream press I ever got was Paper Magazine in 2012 and they said, Internet artist Adam J. Kurtz, blah, blah, blah. And I was like OK, I guess that's it. And that really hasn't changed. You know, it shifted. It was Tumblr artist, more recently its Instagram artist. But, like, I mean, it's still me. I've been doing this a long time.
SANDERS: When did you start?
KURTZ: I like to say over 10 years. It's hard to put an exact label, but I've been building fan sites and making things on and off the Internet, you know, since I was a child. Stuff that I was doing as a teenager is honestly not too different from what I'm doing now.
SANDERS: And describe that stuff for folks who might not have seen your stuff before.
KURTZ: So right now I am, you know, I'm an artist and author. I do this illustrative work that manifests in a series of journals and stationery books and then also a line of gift accessories like pins, patches and fun stuff.
SANDERS: Yeah. I'm trying to think of how to describe visually some of the stuff that I see in your Instagram feed to our listeners. It is handwritten, text-heavy illustrations? For instance, like, your latest Instagram post is this - it's got, like, planets and stars and then you've handwritten (reading) Mercury is finally out of retrograde, so now everything is your own fault again.
SANDERS: Doing this kind of work on a space like Instagram, the entire process of sharing the art is inherently different than sharing it outside of Instagram. Like how much time do you spend thinking about the way your work moves through the world when it comes to a space like Instagram as opposed to like, I don't know, back in the day when you, like, drew a thing and it was in a gallery and like that was it?
KURTZ: My work has really always...
SANDERS: Has always been online (laughter).
KURTZ: Yeah, it's always been online first. And so that was sort of what I was used to. And what's - what is nice about the Internet and what, you know, what I will always be grateful to Instagram in particular for is it provides a human context that I think the work needs to feel real. And also, you know, there is something about being held in people's hands where people feel like they really know me despite the fact that I don't post, you know, daily photos of myself or I'm not necessarily sharing my, quote, "real life" on Instagram. That's not what I use the platform for. But my comments are such a, like, happy and supportive and nice place.
SANDERS: Teach me your ways.
KURTZ: Right? I don't know. I think it's - maybe I'm not popular enough. Maybe that's - if any listeners out here want to come and like hate on me...
SANDERS: You have 252,000 followers. You're fairly popular, sir.
KURTZ: Well, I wonder what 252,000 people is in 2019 on the Internet.
SANDERS: What do you mean?
KURTZ: I spend a lot of time thinking about this because I think - well, I think a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about it. I don't know if a quarter million followers is a lot of followers anymore.
SANDERS: It's so crazy to hear you say that because I could imagine, you know, in a world before the Internet if an artist could say that 250,000 people saw a thing they made, it would be astronomical. It's almost as if the scale of everything has changed, when the platform for your work all of a sudden is all of Instagram.
KURTZ: No, you're not wrong at all. I mean, the scale has changed, and it is really hard to even visualize what that number is.
SANDERS: Is that scary? Do you like that? Does it hurt you? Do you, like, think about that a lot? Like...
KURTZ: Well, it helps that the Instagram only - or the Instagram algorithm only shows my work to, like, one-third to one-half of those people, anyway.
KURTZ: There's so many of these, like, funny little realities that take the edge off of the whole thing, where the algorithm maybe doesn't show the work, or people scroll so fast that they aren't really even looking at it anyway, but it still counts as a view. It's like, what is a view, and also, what's a follower? The whole thing is so abstract; I don't let it impact me too much or maybe as much as others might.
SANDERS: When all of this crazy, new frontier world makes you upset or makes you feel anxious, what is it about it that gets you - like, what is it about making art in this time and on these platforms, when it does upset you, what about it upsets you, usually?
KURTZ: It's stressful because, at a certain point, you understand what your audience likes. I think that the easy thing to fall into is to just be like, OK, well, my audience loves when I handwrite a slogan on a brightly colored background, which, as you sort of, you know, identified at the top of this....
SANDERS: They do like that, yeah.
KURTZ: ...My audience does like that, and I know that. But that's a small part of what I do, and there's more of it on social media. But every day it's like, do I give them what they want, that I know is going to get a lot of likes, get a lot of shares, that's going to help increase my following, you know, in a very direct way? Or do I post photos of me and my husband because I'm a real person, and I think it's worth identifying that I'm a real person? You know, do I want to be just, like, real gay today and lose a couple hundred followers for it, you know?
SANDERS: You lose followers if you're too gay?
KURTZ: Oh, my God, yeah. You know, I'll get a comment or a reaction that's like, you know, I don't think this is OK. Or people don't say anything, but they just check out. And I'm like, who the hell did you think was making this cutie pie stuff? It's not a straight dude.
KURTZ: Like, where do you think this comes from? It's pink. Not that color, you know, is directly - you know what I mean? It's just, I...
SANDERS: Yeah. No, totally.
KURTZ: It's shocking, completely shocking.
SANDERS: It's like, the aesthetic of your work is gay-ish (ph), you know? Like, so why are these people surprised?
KURTZ: It's gay adjacent. No, it's - I mean, I did a neon rainbow for the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
KURTZ: Like, it's - yeah, it's just - it's funny. But I also - I'll lose followers just for posting, like, a picture of my face, which is, I think, the opposite of most people's experience on the platform, is people really aren't here for me and my physicality and my real life; people are here for cute stuff and some inspiration. And so people don't necessarily...
SANDERS: How does that make you feel?
KURTZ: I mean, ugly, I guess?
KURTZ: No, I mean, it's fine. I'm good.
SANDERS: (Laughter) It's fine, it's fine, it's fine.
KURTZ: It's fine, you know what I mean? Like, and oh, my God, it's fine. Like, this is radio. I feel very beautiful right here. I don't know, I - in some ways, it's really nice. It's - I have thought about this before in the context of sort of influencer culture. And, like, how wonderful is it to have a career that does rely on social media but isn't hinged on my physical appearance?
SANDERS: You seem to be very much at peace with the way your art exists in this Internet-forward, -first, social media world. Was there a time in which you weren't at peace with all these platforms and connectivity, and how did you get to peace?
KURTZ: I mean, I'm at peace with this the way I'm at peace with everything in my life, which is to say, like, I'm at peace right now, but I won't be in an hour, you know.
KURTZ: Like, I don't - can you tell that I'm Jewish through the microphone? Like, is this translating? You know, I don't know. I can't complain because it has really transformed my life. I can't complain because the more followers I get, the more money companies will pay me for the exact same work. You know, like, who am I to complain about something like that? And I can't really lament a time when I could make work without the Internet because I never lived that time.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
KURTZ: So I am just grateful for the things that are happening, and I don't think that they're forever, and I don't know what being a career artist, you know - I'm 30 now; will I be doing this in 10, 20, 30 years? I have no idea. So I'm just trying to be grateful and enjoy it.
SANDERS: Zen vibes - I love it.
KURTZ: Yeah. You know, ADAMJK, just what a wellness guru, man. So hashtag inspo (ph).
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SANDERS: Today's episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry and Brent Bachman. Our editors are Jordana Hochman and Alex McCall. Thanks again to the fine folks at The Broad museum in downtown Los Angeles for their help with this episode. And of course, thanks to the artists we talked to in this ep - Pavana Reddy, Timothy Goodman and Adam Kurtz. Also, thanks to Wesley Morris, critic at large for The New York Times.
Listeners, we want to hear from you, as always, all the time. Reach out, let us know how you like or dislike or use Instagram in your lives. Also, as always, every week, send us the best thing to happen to you all week. Record your voice, send that voice file to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. All right, I will see you on Insta. Talk soon.
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