Oil paintings and iPhone photos: is Instagram the new still life?


It’s mid-June. I’ve just sat my A-levels, and have been whisked away on a family holiday to the world’s cultural epicentre – Florence. Like most tourists, I find myself on a pilgrimage to one of the city’s many cultural trophies: Raphael’s Madonna della seggiola housed in the Palazzo Pitti. What we are confronted with is an Aladdin’s cave of art. But it’s not a cave; we’re standing in one of the 140 rooms of a 32,000-square-metre Renaissance palace. Paintings rise from knee level to high ornate ceilings, separated from each other by merely a few inches. Just the sight – the taking it all in, the rapid visual digestion – makes us feel sick. About to give up on our search for the Raphael, we catch a glimpse of the luminous Madonna, seen through the doorway to another room, inserted in a perfectly-sized gap between non-descript artworks by non-descript artists. The critic John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing (1972) articulates the problem: “Visitors to art museums are…overwhelmed by the number of works on display…Third-rate works surround an outstanding work without any recognition – let alone explanation – of what fundamentally differentiates them…Consequently the confusion remains on the walls of our galleries.”

But why? Why is cultural merit attributed to the volume of artwork, rather than the quality? Why do we leave the world’s most acclaimed art galleries merely confused? Berger attributes this trend to a deeply entrenched relationship between artwork and possession. The critic Lévi Strauss supports this idea, writing that: “It is this avid…desire to take possession of the object for the benefit of the owner…which…constitute[s] one of the…original features of the art of Western civilisation.”

Instagram is drawing upon an entrenched way of seeing created by the oil painting.

This “avid…desire to take possession” produced the oil painting. The term doesn’t refer to a technique, but rather an art-form. It created a certain way of seeing the world. “Oil paintings”, Berger writes, “often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable”. He explains how having a thing painted is not unlike buying it, having it in your house. Lévi Strauss elaborates on this idea, writing: “For Renaissance artists, painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession, and we must not forget…that rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world. The world, then, was objectified, condensed into possessions for the wealthy. As Berger concludes: “the model is not so much a framed window on to the world, as a safe let into the wall, a safe in which the visible has been deposited”.

But this way of seeing not only continues to form our 21st century artistic assumptions, but our cultural ones too. The visit to the Palazzo Pitti illustrates how artistic value still hinges on possession. So what happens when “representing the visible” (Berger) in this culture is not only accessible to the wealthy, but to the vast proportion of the population: roughly 4/5 of Britain’s adult population owns a smartphone (BBC, 2016). Roughly 80%, then, are able to take a photo.

There seems a highly interesting parallel between oil painting and Instagram. Using Berger’s work to gain insight into oil painting’s own way of seeing, Instagram seems a 21st century equivalent to meet the same need. Created in 2010, the app has rapidly transformed into a major cultural phenomenon – by 2017, ‘Instagram’ is used by 700 million people. That’s over 10% of the entire planet in only seven years. So why has this app boomed? It seems that Instagram is drawing upon an entrenched way of seeing created by the oil painting. And both oil painting and Instagram are kinds of art. A school pupil interviewed by Daniel Miller for his study Social Media in an English Village (2016) recalls how they “uploaded a photo of some books…but I rearranged them so they’d look good for the photo…It is a craft, it’s important.”

There is an obvious parallel to be drawn between the purpose of these two crafts – both are used to show off what we own. A good example is food. When we call oil paintings to mind, we tend to think of tables covered with food. Paintings such as Georg Flegel’s ‘Large Food Display’ (1630) objectify the edible. Fast forwarding from the 17th century to 2017, it is almost impossible to walk into a café, bar or restaurant without seeing someone stand over their food, phone in hand, to snap a picture for Instagram. 195 million images are tagged with the word ‘food’. There is a significant visual similarity; we are still capturing images of food-laden tables for observers to see. Just as the Renaissance merchant uses the art form to emphasis his wealth, Instagram users place the emphasis on their aesthetic, rather than monetary wealth, showing how stylish they can be. In other words, the subject is merely exploited by the craft.

However, this development isn’t so simple – it would be foolish to condense the development to an ‘Instagram = oil painting’ argument. If oil painting “defines the real as what you can put in your hands” (Berger), Instagram defines the real as what you can be, what life you can lead. Instagram does more than simply frame possessions. It objectifies experience. As the philosopher Gillian Rose points out: “To understand what a photograph is we need to think about what the photograph is doing”. What photos on Instagram do is depict the perfect life. In terms of teenagers, Miller observes that

Taking a photograph has become rather like holding a drink – a key mode by which everyone acknowledges how much fun they are having.

People at a party for example, respond automatically to the raising of a phone by demonstrating how much fun they’re having. Before being photographed, we are constantly told: ‘Smile!’. But we do not need to be told. Our faces have already changed. And when the camera’s put away, our faces drop. We then resume as normal.

Just as the Renaissance merchant uses the art form to emphasis his wealth, Instagram users place the emphasis on their aesthetic

The manufacturing of the perfect image is designed to elicit envy. As observers of the oil painting envy the owner’s money, Instagram users envy the photographer’s life. This point is illustrated through the vast number of Instagram accounts dedicated to student life at Oxbridge. Interestingly, we do not see many accounts concerning other Russell-group universities. The constant framing of the life of an Oxford student could be seen to play upon the elite nature of our university experience; the idea that ‘I am in a highly sought-after position, and I shall dangle this privilege in front of others’. There is no judgement here – I’ve done it myself. Like everyone on matriculation, I got my picture with a group of friends, all in sub-fusc under the Bridge of Sighs. Our smiles, though, conceal a highly complicated first two weeks. The aesthetically-pleasing image of myself working in the Missing Bean simply masks the reality of a late-night essay crisis, sitting in bed, surrounding by notes trying to plough through Lady Audley’s Secret in a single night. So what these images do is take the grit out of people’s lives, to create a desirable, rosy but false veneer.

The popularity of Instagram, then, is underpinned by a certain way of seeing the world first created through the form of the oil painting. Just as the rich framed their objects, we too objectify our lives. But Instagram does more than this. The photograph objectifies experience to create a perfect representation of life, to stir envy in the beholder. What we need to remember, to use the writer Eudora Welty’s words, is that the “single, entire human being [can]…never be confined in any frame”. Our lives, our selves, cannot be confined to a snap-shot. They are too good for that.





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