Instagram lends itself to sharing art in some pretty obvious ways. These days, having a profile is more like a requirement than an option. Artists on Instagram use their accounts as their CV and portfolio, all rolled up in one. It’s the new standard way to share your art, gain exposure and even connect with buyers, collectors, curators and journalists, like yours truly. When I come across an artist who isn’t on social media, a part of me starts to question if they even exist.
This gets you wondering: what kind of online presence would artists of the past have today? Who would’ve been strict about posting just art? Who would’ve thrown up drunk selfies at 3am? Who would’ve tried really hard to maintain a super “aesthetic” feed? Who would’ve tried really hard to look like they’re not trying at all?
Maybe a simple IG poll could’ve saved van Gogh’s ear. We’ll never know. But we can definitely speculate. Here’s what we think would’ve happened if these famous artists had been on IG.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), c. 1500.
Bosch was basically a monk on acid, which lends itself to a pretty colorful feed. With the imagination he had, he totally could’ve been a famous memer. I’m imagining @textsfromyourexistentialist, early Christian edition. Lots of content about the temptations of the flesh with punchlines about eternal damnation.
Then again, this only holds up if we assume he had a sense of humor. Looking at his work today, it seems impossible that he didn’t. Who could paint a pig in a nun’s habit snuggling up to a man in hell without a hint of irony?
But we have to remember that late Medieval Christianity is the most un-funny society in the entire cosmic space-time continuum. Assuming Bosch was 100% serious about his work, we have to adjust our speculations. I’m thinking an entire profile filled with extremely un-ironic all-caps quotes. Or one of those “woke” accounts sharing “ancient wisdom,” a clusterfuck of random facts about Egyptian mummies, chakras and microwaves. Bosch’s IG aesthetic: doomsday preacher with megaphones and neon yellow signs with ugly Impact font proclaiming judgment day.
Death and the Abbott, c. 1538.
If Hans Holbein the Younger had ‘Grammed his portraits, you probably would’ve mistaken them for photos. That’s how realistic his realism was. Still, we wish he’d had IG, if only to see his squad selfies with Erasmus, Thomas More, Martin Luther, King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.
Being the forward-thinking Reformist that he was, maybe Holbein would’ve embraced photography as his medium of choice. We could see him getting really into portrait photography: dramatic lighting, stern, pale-faced Europeans draped in silks and furs, some allegorical props scattered in the background. Would he have embraced digital for its precision, or stuck to film? Since he embraced the Reformation, he clearly was no purist, so my vote is for digital.
If Holbein had had a DSLR, maybe it would’ve freed him up from painting all those portraits. He could’ve devoted more time to his satirical Reformist (pro-Lutheran) woodcuts, like his Dance of Death series. Think of them as the OG existentialist memes—another clue of what we could expect to see on Holbein’s IG feed.
The Swing, 1767.
If sex, kittens, cupcakes and doilies had an orgy that resulted in an illicit love child, that child would be Fragonard. The favorite court painter of the notoriously decadent and debauched court of Louis XVI, Fragonard painted what his clients asked for. And what they asked for was frilly and frivolous pictures of love, usually the forbidden kind.
But even the purest of Puritans can’t deny that Fragonard had a killer sense of color. I’d bet a Banksy that his pastel palette would carry over into his IG feed. By now, the pale, soft-grunge Insta has become a cliché, the standard art hoe aesthetic. And, well, Fragonard was nothing if not an art hoe.
The Death of Marat, 1793.
And then we have David, the anti-Fragonard. While the French Revolution spelled “end of career” for our favorite Rococo rascal, David is known for his stern, academic style that developed in reaction to the loose style (and loose morals) of the preceding period.
Things David was big on include Republican values, gender roles and classical culture. Things David was not big on include losing. He was the kind of guy who goes on a hunger strike when he loses a painting contest—true story.
He was also big on morals, an ardent supporter of the French Revolution even though the regime change meant fewer commissions for him. In his famous, unfinished The Oath of the Tennis Court, he tried to capture the Revolution in real-time. Unfortunately, he was born 200 years early for camera phones.
Today, David would probably be either an Edward Snowden or a Bernie Sanders-type figure, if either of them made art. His feed would, duh, include a ton of political content, like info-graphics about corporate tax evasion and some semi-hysterical late-night IG stories about the decline of democratic values in society.
Roosters, date unknown.
Meanwhile, in Japan, things were still quite Zen. As anyone who’s ever disappeared into the woods for a week or two, Thoreau style, knows, cutting yourself off from the outside world is a pretty good way to create calm and stability. That’s exactly what Japan was doing during the Edo period. All that time spent not fighting wars and revolution freed up Japanese artists like Jakuchū to do things like observe chickens for hours, paint them onto stunning, precise scrolls and donate them to the local Buddhist monastery.
Jakuchū, whose name literally means “like the void,” was a committed Buddhist. But the Buddhist void isn’t a scary, existentialist void; emptiness is a good thing that leads to peace, compassion and understanding. Knowing this, we can hazard a guess at Jakuchū’s IG vibe. Living the life of a monk, he wouldn’t care too much about likes and follows, but we’d all follow him anyway for his gorgeous, serene nature pics and simple, carefully curated quotes on life and spirituality. No sponsored content, no show-offy yoga poses, just pretty shots of rivers, flowers and chickens.
Light of Iris, 1924.
Another legendary hermit, Georgia O’Keeffe was famous not just for her so-called flower vagina paintings, but also for her pictures of her beloved New Mexico landscape. After her husband’s death, she lived full-time in near isolation on Ghost Ranch near Santa Fe. But if you’re worried that she got lonely, don’t—she had some pretty entertaining visitors, like Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg. Who wouldn’t love to sit in on that dinner party?
Considering her obvious appreciation for nature, I’d expect lots of dreamy landscape shots, artfully cropped close-ups of cacti, and maybe the occasionally moody black and white selfie with a deep caption like, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” That’s a quote.
Things you wouldn’t find on her IG: belfies or duckface. Although Alfred Stieglitz’s sensational nude photos of O’Keeffe definitely fueled the fire of the vagina interpretation of her flower paintings, she fought against the sexual reading her whole life. As it turns out, her flowers are… drumroll, please… just flowers. A matter that a simple IG story could have laid to rest, once and for all.
“I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.” If that’s not an Ivy League-trained curator’s IG caption announcing a new show, then I’m a urinal. The godfather of contemporary art who rejected what he called “retinal art” for something a little more cerebral. Instead of just delighting the senses, Duchamp wanted to tickle your brain, and he did it by signing a urinal and sticking it in a museum.
On IG, he would’ve stuck to this mission. He would’ve had one of those accounts that consist entirely of blurry, pixelated zoomed-in photos taken on square. Likely subjects? Trash on the street, storefront signs, weird sayings he spotted on people’s clothes on the street, chess boards, and maybe the occasional page out of Heidegger. And, obviously, toilets.
As the artist behind one of the most controversial (read: hated-on) works of modern art, Duchamp would have his fair share of Internet trolls. That’s why we think that he should disable his comments if he knows what’s good for him. But being the intellectual that he is, maybe he would enjoy a theoretical scuffle in the comments—who knows. Either way, it’s a pity he didn’t live to ‘Gram the iconic photo of him playing chess with Eve Babitz.
History as a Planter, 1961.
If Ed Kienholz had Instagram, it would surely be a macho feed of a macho man doing macho stuff.
Co-founder of the Ferus Gallery in L.A., which became synonymous with easy breezy Cali cool, Kienholz had humble, folksy roots that came out the easy undulations of his voice. If you met him at a car dealership, you’d think he was a car dealer.
As he was training to become an artist, he moved around the West coast, supporting himself with odd jobs. A 1961 documentary shows Kienholz shirtless, beer belly out in all its unabashed glory, puttering around his grungy studio, which looks like and probably is a garage. He’s sawing the head and limbs off of a mannequin, mumbling a monologue that goes like this:
“When I was young and very naïve I saw a movie, and this movie had an artist living in a big city in a penthouse studio. And on the balcony below was this beautiful blonde chick, and she was sunbathing, and by the end of the movie, the artist had the blonde. I thought, that’s a cool way to live. So when I finally ran away from the farm in Washington, I bought myself some canvas and an easel and oils, and I started painting.
“I kept watching over my shoulder waiting for the chick to walk in, which of course she didn’t, at least at that time. And when she finally did walk in, it didn’t matter too much because I was too much involved in what was happening there on the canvas” (1961).
In the next scene, he trades a gun for a motorcycle and rides it all the way to the beach. Keep watching a few minutes longer and you’ll hit a bit where he describes his creative process, except it sounds uncannily like Hemingway on fishing. Did I mention Ed Kienholz is a man?
Ladies and gentlemen, the man has said it all. Translated for the Insta-sphere, this boys’ boy philosophy would take the form of lots of bro squad pics with the Ferus Gallery gang, pics of him on his motorcycle, and, because he has a sweet side, selfies with Jenny, his baby girl, pressed against his beer belly. Interspersed with paradigm-shifting assemblage that would help him gain the status of one of the top artists of the century. Oh, and definitely the occasional cheeky nude that gets reported and taken down.
He might also post stories advertising shares of himself, because selling shares of himself was a thing he did. In exchange for patronage, buyers would get one work by him a year. Sounds like standard patronage with a slight twist: it’s made to sound like prostitution, because, ha ha, sex.
Marilyn Monroe, 1967.
You can’t leave Andy off a listicle about Instagram. He didn’t invent the platform, but I bet he’s turning over in his grave, wishing that he had. His notorious 15 minutes of fame basically made him a prophet for the Insta-age—everyone knows the first 15 minutes of a post either set it up as a record-breaking like collector or doom it to death by algorithm-induced obscurity.
Being the enigmatic creature that he was, it’s hard to say what Andy Warhol would’ve posted on his own account. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he wouldn’t have one. I know, I know. The man who invented Insta-fame not having IG? Blasphemy. But it’s precisely for that reason that I believe that he would have abstained. After making a career out of painting fame, Andy learned a thing or two about its mechanics. IG might be a great way to get famous for 15 minutes, when you hit the popular page, but as per Newton’s law, everything that goes up must comes down.
Like the Olsens, Andy knew that the way to lasting fame is through carefully controlled withholding, not letting it all hang out. But, assuming that he did make an account, it would be at the height of his career, once he had already carefully crafted his image and attained cult status. He would have millions of followers and follow under 30 very deliberately chosen people, including all of the Kardashians. He would post approximately once every two years. But you better believe that when he did post, it broke the Internet.
Here’s a question I like to ask at parties and museums: if you could live inside one artist’s paintings, who would it be? It’s surprisingly hard to answer. You can steal it if you want.
From this list alone, the hippie in me would say Jakutchū or O’Keeffe, but the not-so-closeted art groupie would insist on Elizabeth Peyton. What heterosexual female who went through a rock star phase wouldn’t want to spend her days laying around on couches with Julian Casablancas, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie?
If you’re talking to Millennials or younger, maybe it’s best to reframe the question to whose IG feed you’d want to inhabit. Some days I’m not sure if people younger than 15 even know what a painting is. Speaking for myself, my answer still stands: an emphatic Elizabeth Peyton from me!
From her work, we know that she has a lyrical, romantic style and hangs out with culture icons all day, every day. But given that she’s a sensitive spirit that loves culture and people who make things (and hates words that begin with “en”), I bet she’d also post a fair share of aesthetic-y, slice-of-life pics of flowers, clouds, her bookstand, some bananas on the counter caught just right in the light. And since she works from photographs, some her own, hopefully she’d give us a peek into her treasure trove. Elizabeth, if you’re reading this, please make an Insta!
Text by Katya Lopatko
Images via WikiArt, Artlistr, Tate, TopsImages, MoMA.