"Ways of Seeing Instagram" by Ben Davis
Left: Attributed to Leonardo Alenza y Nieto, Maja Dormida (1867); right: Kim Kardashian post tagged “#TBT day dreaming,” from Instagram.
"Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography. (As for the #nudes, I guess they are going on over on Snapchat.)
Why this (largely unintentional) echo? Because there is a sneaky continuity between the motivations behind such casual images and the power dynamics that not-so-secretly governed classic art. Last year, Slate speculated about how Instagram’s photo-boasting tends to amplify feelings of isolation, perhaps even more so than the more textual braggadocio of Facebook and Twitter. (“Seeing,” Berger writes, “comes before words.”) One expert described how Instagram in particular might accelerate the “envy spiral” of social media: “If you see beautiful photos of your friend on Instagram,” she postulated, “one way to compensate is to self-present with even better photos, and then your friend sees your photos and posts even better photos, and so on. Self-promotion triggers more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and further from reality.””
Berger believed mightily in the power of painting (he was almost a romantic, if you ask me), but Ways of Seeing was, above all, an attempt to demystify its subject. He thought that the preachiness and preciousness around fine art was used, ideologically, to whitewash the past that produced it. In key ways, Ways of Seeing is about the democratic potentials of mass media in making the classics accessible to the average person, by allowing images to slip free of the stilted atmosphere of the museum, and be reintegrated into life. (He was openly indebted to the Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s reverberant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”)
Thus, in Ways of Seeing’s most famous section, Berger set out to illustrate how the conventions of the average European nude, when you stripped away all the mythological rhetoric, were actually quite similar to the conventions of a pinup, with female bodies contorted to appeal to the implied male spectator. And in one long, audacious section, Berger connected the motivations behind European oil painting with the rhetoric of advertising photography (full-color glossy magazine ads were just a decade and a half old at the time Berger was writing). Painting, Berger argued, had not on the whole been about presenting the truth, but aboutadvertising the lifestyle of the rich as fantastic and powerful.
“Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have,” Berger wrote. “It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.”
Of course, he also knew that there are differences between art and ads—the average work of European art, the product of an aristocratic society, was commissioned to glamorize and ratify the power of an elite, while modern consumer advertising is about promoting aspirational desire. Berger just thought that the continuities were illuminating to both, making visible the power dynamics beneath the innocent surface. Making the leap into our own time, you can see the same kinds of continuities pop up in unexpected places.”