Instagram and the Fantasy of Mastery

Instagram and the Fantasy of Mastery

A “look” is a kind of instant style: quickly executed and dispatched, immediately understood and overcharged with incident. It is time for a new view.


“It’s not judgment, but it’s taste. You have to have a certain amount of taste to decide what to do.” —Kevin Systrom, cofounder of Instagram

“I can’t really have a signature style or be bound to a medium. It’s very hard because there’s a style that emerges anyway, or maybe it’s more a feeling than a style.” —Parker Ito, artist

At some point in the slow history of a sensibility, a dim, barely perceptible shift takes place between two adjacent ideas. Think, for example, of the transition from silent cinema, once prized as the purest and noblest expression of the medium, to talkies. And the shift, coming as it does when one traditionally very powerful type of experience is felt to be inadequate to the needs of the time, often feels like an ordeal. Suddenly, every leading idea, in order to remain valuable, demands continuous, imperishable care.

In the arts, the results are typically mutually reinforcing, so that whatever no longer seems definitive or central to a particular form nonetheless retains some of its initial attraction and power. But in our time, it’s not an expanded or a refurbished form but a neglected idea—a tiny, disesteemed thing, pulled from circulation—that accounts for one of the chief realignments of taste in the visual arts: the transition from art, long vaunted as a special, and autonomous, area of sensuous intelligence, to creativity, to which art can only ever be superficially related. And the catchphrase of those cheering on the transition is a meager lexical scrap, drawn partly from commercial advertising and applied unreflectively to painting, photography, cinema, and the theater: the “look.”

Looks are easily seen without being sought out. They are familiar to anyone who has taken and enhanced a picture with a mobile phone stocked with Instagram filters; or who has used a popular program named, appropriately enough, Magic Bullet Looks, with “over 200 brand-new Look presets, designed to match your favorite movies and TV shows”; or who has watched movies conspicuously shot on 16-millimeter film (Young Bodies Heal Quickly, Listen Up Philip, L for Leisure) or with analog video cameras (No, Computer Chess), or that imitate whatever visual trait is thought to be most incidental to an earlier technology, and therefore most evocative (film grain, shallow focus, the artifacts of interlaced video, “milky” or low-contrast images, “flat” or undersaturated colors).

Looks aren’t unique to images. There are live performances with looks (immersive theater, with its prodigal vision of classical Hollywood cinema), just as there are paintings (color fields, all-over abstraction, moiré patterns) and photographs (the hot white of the flash bulb, the contrast of Tri-X, the color of Kodachrome) that are said to have a “good look.” The audience, which sees something of its own viewing habits, and its own tastes, confirmed by the image, is in any case continuously flattered: One can watch a movie like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and very easily single out what its director, David Lowery, calls the “dirty” palette of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, and feel gratified. What underlies the shift to looks is the belief in neutral, impersonal images: Anything can become a picture, and any picture, overlaid with a look, can be customized, shored up temporarily with a borrowed feeling. And that feeling is confused with evidence of achievement. Thus, all looks take the form of a direct address; each image, no matter how depersonalized and routine, always seems “personalized,” made-to-order, and aimed at gratifying an existing idea of what a ’70s movie or a ’60s canvas or an ’80s photograph is like. Nothing about an image with a look is inexplicit or ambiguous.

As the look severs art from the old conventions—of amending insensible habits of looking and listening, of expressing or emptying out a consciousness—art and taste become unintentional, like the weather, extending indiscriminately into the furthest reaches of all human making and doing. Art, in the soft, easy way of creativity, becomes aptitude.

It may no longer be possible to come to the usual conclusions, to go on validating (or discrediting) works of art in the usual way. Viewed strictly as a creative achievement—as evidence of technical proficiency and skill—art resists the familiar terms. A look, however, converts all genuine accomplishments into cut-rate acquisitions; all images disclose, and end up authenticating, an endlessly repeatable technique. To wit, the American artist Petra Cortright: “That’s why I like defaults so much. Also I would never come up with those filters in a million years, so it’s nice to open yourself up to other options that you wouldn’t think of on your own. It’s like if you don’t already know something you can’t search for it.”

Every look implies a fantasy of mastery. The philistine’s old rebuke—“My child could do that”—has been replaced, in our time, by a different expression, unprecedented in the history of sensibility but no less noxious: “I can do that, too.”

* * *

What’s important to stress is that a look is not a style, if by style we mean the involuntary guiding plan of a work of art, or the transmission of an ineffable personal vision or sensibility into form. A look, which deals in part with anonymous visual choices, can never be a style, because an image with a “look” has been scoured of all traces of a sensibility. As Walter Pater rightly said, writing at the end of the 19th century, “The one word for the one thing, the one thought, amid the multitude of words, terms, that might just do: the problem of style was there!” (Pater, had he lived past the age of 54, would have found the “problem of style” intact: It gave the name to a work by Remy de Gourmont, published in 1902, and to a book by John Middleton Murry, published almost 20 years later.) But insofar as the aim of all style involves matching a feeling to a form, a sensibility to a style, art remains useless. And the uselessness of art will always be definitive.

At the simplest level, what possible consensus about the human body, about its physiology and movement and composure, can be seen in images like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 and Gerhard Richter’s Woman Descending the Staircase? Similarly, who would demand that Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Alain Resnais’s Le chant du Styrène should add up to a single, unanimous statement about factory work? Whether or not we respond to Chaplin or Duchamp as artists has less to do with the equivalence or accuracy of their depictions of particular subjects than with Chaplin’s grace and clarity as a performer, with Duchamp’s convulsive handling of multiple planes of vision. The coherence of their art, their “rightness,” depends in large measure on inherent, rather than supplemental or contiguous, standards of vision and sound.

As a source of truth telling, art is a lender of last resort. There are no aesthetic achievements that aren’t in some sense anomalous, opaque, or indistinguishable from whatever crowds the artist’s intricate field of vision. As Jean-Luc Godard once declared: “To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” That is, style can tell us everything—not about the world, but about the work, which insists upon its own standards of verisimilitude. (This is why it’s pointless to accuse filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Eugène Green of getting “unnatural” or “cold” performances out of their actors; it’s also why the smooth, very even intonations of the characters in a Richard Maxwell play cannot so easily be dismissed as “deadpan,” “wooden,” “mechanical.” One risks being uncomprehending, or crude, or both.) But the standards of a given work can be difficult to detect. When artists like Thomas Hirschhorn, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Tino Sehgal produce not objects but situations, in the form of colloquia, lectures, and musical performances that stretch out and repeat interminably, style seems incidental. Or consider Bruce Baillie’s film Quick Billy, which begins in full-color abstraction and ends in mock-western regalia, making any claims about its style answerable to unanticipated shifts in its texture and tone. As works of art, each is a complex, gratifying event with its own time, its own intensive principles of motion and speed. And each demands its own singular forms and uses of attention.

* * *

Style annuls the impersonal. This is what separates style from a look, because looks, hammered out by filters, presets, and templates—in short, by techniques—depend on unanimity: between a fast, evocative image that conjures up other, more established images (drip paintings and blotched monochromes; the color and light of contemporary Hollywood action movies; the “haziness” of certain films from the 1970s, often achieved by “flashing” or exposing film stock prior to processing)and a viewer on whom nothing is ever lost. Looks, to the extent they have any connection to the idea of tradition, treat the history of images as a history of changing qualities of resolution. Each technological feat—analog to digital, standard definition to high definition—­becomes an endorsement of newer classes of “sharper” images, each with its own reproducible artifacts and flaws.

With looks, there is no time for squinting, no time for whatever is, or might be, inexplicable. A look—insofar as it has any resemblance to style at all—is a kind of instant style: quickly executed and dispatched, immediately understood, overcharged with incident. To say that a film, a photograph, a painting, or a room’s interior has a look is to assume a consensus about which parts of a nascent image are the most worthy of being parceled out and reproduced on a massive scale. It means making a claim about how familiar an image is, and how valuable it seems. This is why Beasts of the Southern Wild—one of the most wasteful films in the contemporary looks canon, with its shameless and moralizing bootstraps story connected by analogy to a set of “lyrical” and “naturalistic” handheld 16-millimeter images—­could be commended by anyone. It’s why the “clean look” of so much recent commercial design—­partial to narrow, sans-serif typefaces superimposed on photographs or against stark blocks of color—can be adopted by countless Web designers, independent presses, online journals, and ad agencies.

But the hoarded visual cues of the look—color schemes, film grain, solar flares, assorted lines of resolution—are intelligible only in a time like ours, in which enormous doses of images are being seen, and seen adjacently. The wireless and fiber-optic retrieval system that most of us carry in our pockets, and that can be used to compare innumerable movies, photographs, television series, paintings, and recorded theatrical events at an unprecedented speed, is a source of densely compacted information, one that makes it suddenly possible to “see” the minutiae of an image, whether intentional (“mood” lighting, contrast levels, color palettes) or not (blurred motion, pixelation, film scratches), even as the lines between what is and isn’t intentional in a work of art are continually being redrawn. What we have now isn’t a more sophisticated visual sensibility, enhanced by technology, but a newly sensitized, pernicious way of trafficking in images, from which a look takes its cue.

* * *

Looks come out of a period that began more than two centuries ago, when art and leisure suddenly could become simultaneous experiences. Think of rococo in the 18th century, Eric Satie’s furniture music, Biedermeier drawing rooms, the picturesque, Japonisme—the accoutrements of a moneyed taste culture lavish with disposable time, smitten with accessory, and eager for simulated cultural adventure. A history of looks without an account of leisure’s relationship to images—of the way an industrial or service society grossly restricts the size and quality of leftover time; of the potential conversion of art into divertissement, designed to block out rather than intensify any sense of a work’s duration—risks slighting what may be the look’s closest precedent: the middle culture (or “Midcult”) described by Dwight Macdonald over 50 years ago, which “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” Consider the suburban housewife, who could proudly display Mortimer J. Adler and Robert Hutchins’s “Great Books of the Western World” series—all 54 volumes of it, bound in leather—to the admiring eyes of visitors; or the middle-class businessman just back from Europe, who hoped to raise the level of his dining-room walls with reproductions of Picasso and Matisse. Taste, in either scenario, was largely aspirational.

We may still be living out the conse­quences of Midcult thinking. Like the props of middlebrow taste, the look points uncomprehendingly to what is just outside the frame: not to a panoply of political or moral “issues” waiting to be dramatized, but to an abridged history of recognizable images—recognizable even upon casual viewing—from which the middle gets its marketable repertoire.

But the repertoire has changed. Macdonald’s account of an increasingly clogged intermediary level in our culture, armed with cheap editions of modernist works of art, doesn’t apply as easily to corporate stock photographs, Google Street View images, DIS Magazine, Baz Luhrmann movies, and the George Miller of Mad Max as it can to the Terrence Malick of Days of Heaven, anything by John Cassavetes, minimal art, William Eggleston photographs, and postwar Swiss graphic design. A look takes in a much wider range of images than the Midcult did.

Looks do begin with techniques that are mainly impersonal and end by appealing to a viewer’s private storeroom of visual associations. They do this by taking the artist out of the equation altogether. The result is a catalog of isolated visual qualities, anonymous and interchangeable, that can be applied to any image, any object, and at any time. Macdonald was speaking to a version of this in his own day when he lamented that the Bauhaus now shows up in “the design of our vacuum cleaners, pop-up toasters, supermarkets and cafeterias.” What we have now is a litany of familiar descriptions of presets and filters: “organic,” “epic,” “iconic,” “realistic,” “scrappy,” “minimalist,” “handmade,” “warm,” “raw,” “polished,” and so on. In the words of one fashionable cinematographer:

The look had to be very real…. It has flaws. Things are underexposed, but it feels more organic. In contemporary blockbuster movies where every single black and white level is perfect in every single shot, it can kill the realism to me.

Looks don’t aim to fool the eye. We are not supposed to be tricked into believing that a picture is anything other than it really is: It is not really a Holga snapshot, not really a Betacam recording, but instead a certain combination of gamma and contrast levels, a certain adept handling of sharpness and luminance and saturation, accelerated by software, which a look never pretends to conceal.

Unlike the middlebrow object, done up with the sheen of high culture and produced to endorse respectable taste, an image with a look is its technique, and its ideal viewer (in our time, the qualifications are becoming much easier to come by and much simpler to obtain) takes great pleasure in pinpointing the underlying mechanics. Images with looks are never opaque: One can always see the tools, more reproducible than ever before. Equipped with a glut of competing digital paraphernalia—Fotor, Hipstamatic, Vintager, CameraBag, Tiffen Photo FX, Snapseed, Enlight, Afterlight, Priime, Camera Noir—the consumer and the artist become continuous. One sees the oppressive green-yellow-blue in Michael Mann’s film Blackhat or the exposure value of a Garry Winogrand street photograph and knows how to—in fact, is able to—make something that looks like that. “You don’t need to understand photography jargon or, say, the technical difference between adjusting a photo’s color saturation and its color temperature,” intones The New York Times in an article about Instagram. “All you’ve got to do is turn up this slider, turn down that one, then tap and hold to see how your changes are working.”

In other words, a look needs no notion of composition, of the arrangement of persons and things inside an image. The frame no longer exists. Instead, a look is a disassembling: The most perceptible parts of a given image are loosened and converted into a technique that can be repeated. Knowing what to do with this technique becomes, like shopping, a matter of preference, free from all limits and need.

Not a week goes by in this country without a young filmmaker denouncing the turn to digital images, the collective giving-up of celluloid. (And not a film festival goes by, in this or any other country, without some special emphasis added to those few titles shot on “sumptuous 16mm.”) By now, there is a familiar and solemn stance: against the ugliness of digital images, against the “harshness” of the digital cinema package.

But what the filmmakers defending analog video and celluloid have meant to say, over the last few years especially, isn’t that their own images are more beautiful or more alluring than their digital counterparts. What they mean is that their images are more interesting, in the way one could, for a time, speak of the ruins of antiquity or of the “licked finish” of academic painting as interesting. Something becomes interesting when it can be separated out from an immense crowd of similar objects. It’s the dismal achievement of a squandering and imperial and very modern way of drawing up the world, as though it’s necessary to take an account, in one enormous sweep, of all there is. It’s what happens when art becomes a token of “visual culture,” or is absorbed into the undifferentiating and deathless vertical scroll of digital images. When the eye must, in one critic’s words, “rapidly target relevant data in a noisy stream,” or when the worth of a picture is a function of how attractively it registers on a screen, being interesting is the preferred (and perhaps only) criterion of declarable value. And one way of making an image interesting—the quickest, most seductive way—is by furnishing it with a look.

The task is hardly limited to moving and photographic images. Painters continue to use paint, but in a way that accommodates the bright light of the smartphone’s liquid-crystal display. What’s been called “zombie formalism”—attributed to a number of contemporary painters, like Lucien Smith, Parker Ito, Jacob Kassay, Oscar Murillo, Joe Bradley, Helene Appel, who rely on a recurring stock of archetypes, drawn from action painting, Arte Povera, post-minimalism, and process art—is really just a way of cashing in on the characteristic light quality of our time. (Every period has its reigning policy of luminescence. Ours happens to be brighter, more officious than the rest.) This is what Artforum meant a few years ago when it remarked that the “warm, low-contrast gray-brown tones of these paintings are an ideal foil for the cold colors and high contrast of both the iPhone IPS screen and its simulation via the fluorescent lights of the gallery.”

Zombie formalism doesn’t cancel out or subtract from a painting’s physical presence (as, say, a canvas suspended on a wall), but shows it in a context—that of the gallery, digitally photographed under continuous white light—that makes the work seem credible, compelling. The statement made by Parker Ito—“I think of the production of an artwork intended for physical exhibition or web-based exhibition simultaneously”—is thus of a piece with a feature of much of the new painting (schooled in the accumulation of virtual detritus, the iconography of YouTube videos, GIFs, Tumblr feeds, and MySpace profiles) that has been given the specious name “Post-Internet art.”

“You see and get it fast, and then it doesn’t change,” one critic writes. “There are no complex structural presences to assimilate, few surprises, and no unique visual iconographies or incongruities to come to terms with. It’s frictionless, made for trade.” A thing with a look.

* * *

Looks are founded on a myth—the myth of total creativity. And, like all myths, this one comes with its own stock figure: the young “creative,” thoroughly urbanized, mainly white, typically heterosexual and male, a self-exalted arbiter of 21st-century creative capitals, haunted by the trimmings of the suburban adolescence he left behind. If the provincial middlebrow home could vulgarize the accomplishments of a historically urban avant-garde, the freshly gutted and refurbished cityscape of our period, no longer blighted (when seen from the proper angle) or burning (when seen under the right aspect), can turn any coffeehouse or restaurant, any boutique or hotel, into a replicable visual scenario, done up with chrome fixtures, exposed light bulbs, tin ceilings, pale hardwood paneling, smoked mirrors, walls as white as a gallery’s—in short, with an imported, repossessing vision of what urban life is like.

Nothing is exempt from the creative’s glare. In the filmmaker Albert Serra’s words, “It’s about being sensitive to the atmosphere, because you can catch everything. So this change, from the world in the mind of the filmmaker to the 360 degrees of the world around him, makes everything possible.” Everything is possible, in the hands of the creative. Everything can become material, or “atmosphere,” spruced up by ingenuity. This may be why it seems increasingly difficult for so many people to go on speaking about particular places. The creative, with his pocketful of looks, sees only a “space” (“What a good space!”), ready to be used up, in the way artists now commonly refer to what they do as a “practice” (“in my practice” or “my practice examines…”).

The idea of creativity, which is always parasitical, gives to a look its huge, plundering reach. There are creative writers, creative designers, creative engineers, and, in that sickly phrase, creative entrepreneurs—but this is of an altogether different order from being an artist, which can require certain creative uses or deployments of a sensibility, but which typically demands large rations of vision and talent and intelligence that are, from the vantage point of an audience of consumers, ultimately unresolvable. Creativity, like a look, means rubrics and recipes, which imply varying levels of proficiency. What is thought to be the chief level, virtuosity, is, for the creative, not a matter of mastering a convention—in the way a work of art can be said to be an intensification or thwarting of a convention, born of the artist’s appetite for all that has been said and done—but of mastering the manufacturer’s rules. (All one has to do is compare the images used to market Hipstamatic to anything that appears in a Sundance lineup, or on a Vimeo feed, for an example of what I mean.) The creative stands defiantly outside the history of art, or else ransacks a thin chronology of images (Andy Warhol’s through Christopher Wool’s, Martin Scorsese’s through Quentin Tarantino’s), ready to recover from everything before him the most potentially exciting look—his salvageable loot—that Canon or Apple can engineer.

This delirious pillaging threatens to transform, for all time, every object it finds. We may be reaching a point at which it’s no longer possible to see a work of art, or any image at all, without disaggregating it into its technical miscellany. Worse perhaps, the miscellany may be the only thing that remains. One can now watch John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence just as one watches Joe Swanberg’s recent Happy Christmas: in quotation marks. (Both have “the 16-millimeter look.”) The look and its source become, in the mind of the viewer who knows the corresponding filter, identical.

* * *

A history of the visual arts of the past half-century is a history of at least three controlling ideas.

In the first—call it the Clement Greenberg idea—art is always a given art, a statement of first things: A painting is a painting is a painting, never more or less, because the “ineluctable flatness” of the picture plane—an optical event, unique to painting—leads not to an illusion, staged in depth, but to the utter fact of paint and its support. The exemplary work will, in Greenberg’s words, “confine itself exclusively to what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in any other order or experience.” Art extends into space, not the other way around. It does this by recognizing limits (say, the formal limits of the canvas), which the artist can only refine. (Impressionism leads to Cubism leads to Abstract Expressionism leads to the post-painterly abstraction of Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, Frank Stella, and others.)

In the second—call it the post-Greenberg idea—art is not, strictly speaking, seen: It can be read, stepped into, touched, completed by the viewer, thrown away, disassembled, given over to chance operations and to conceptual problems, or else (and maybe above all) diminished by “critique.” The idea of a medium with its own regulating terms of conduct, with its own limits (whether set by canvas, stage, celluloid, or video technology), becomes much less tenable. Art, in this view, finds itself almost entirely spent. “All there is at the end is theory,” Arthur Danto wrote in the 1980s, “art having finally become vaporized in a dazzle of pure thought about itself, and remaining, as it were, solely as the object of its own theoretical consciousness.”

And then there’s the third idea: our own. We may only now be coming to terms with what happens to a work of art—indeed, to the notion of art altogether—when a fantastic number of images can be circulated, reproduced, amended, swapped, and joined to­gether effortlessly as data sent out for processing. The critic David Joselit recently remarked that art is now akin to an immense content-management system, devoted not to the creation of new objects, but to devising “new formats” that the artist uses to manipulate (or document, or record) existing “populations of images.” In our time, the work of artists like Petra Cortright, Guthrie Lonergan, and Seth Price consists of digital paintings, webcam videos, Google search results, PDF files, printed books, computerized 3-D graphics, Getty stock images, and fashion lines. As our ability to look at works of art becomes less and less fixed by the gallery visit, and therefore less intentional than ever before, the value of the viewer—no longer in a position to distinguish between different classes of things—becomes grossly overestimated: Too many images chasing too few eyes. In this setting, as Boris Groys has pointed out,

The traditional relationship between producers and spectators as established by the mass culture of the twentieth century has been inverted. Whereas before, a chosen few produced images and texts for millions of readers and spectators, millions of producers now produce texts and images for a spectator who has little to no time to read or see them.

Of course, an artist could defend a vocation threatened by the encroaching aesthetic adventurism of our period. But the task seems unbearable. Thus, artists are now inclined to describe what they do with a sense of general antipathy, even embarrassment. Alas, Tania Bruguera: “I want people not to look at it but to be in it, sometimes without knowing it is art.” Alas, too, Josh Smith: “It’s all about the perspective. The viewer can make things as precise or as open as they want.” And alas, the new descriptions, meant to console: no more artists, but rather “archivists,” “explorers,” “documentarians.” No more art, but “content.” No more styles, only looks.

* * *

“It is my belief that we are approaching the point where there will be no vi­sual arts at all of a serious kind. On the one hand, the ‘advanced’ gestures, the project-foolery, will become stabilized; on the other hand, something like the Royal Academy will survive.”

That is the British painter and critic Wyndham Lewis writing in 1955, near his end. Lewis was right. Something like the Royal Academy has survived—in the form of a new establishment of computer programmers, graphic artists, DSLR video-makers, cinematographers, film-festival programmers, and Web designers, all of whom promise to reward our vision in the way that an image with a look intends to: by assimilating it to a lifestyle.

A lifestyle is what makes a look possible at all, because every look is a kind of amenity—­the amenity of an image—that goes hand in hand with a taste for extreme sports, summers at Coachella, and 1,200 square feet with a view in Williamsburg. And a lifestyle, like a look, is available only in an affluent, wasteful, appetitive society such as ours, committed to reckless uses of limited energy, built upon extravagance and speed, crammed with unremitting secondhand desires that are hugely disproportionate to what most of us are capable of ever achieving.

The setting that’s given us our excess of looks needs to be better understood. It’s the situation that allows any person to want, in the words of one GoPro copywriter, “more of yourself and your surrounding in the shot,” more “captivating” and “ultra-engaging footage of every adventure.” How much longer can such monstrous adventurism last? The perpetuation of looks may well continue, but only as long as it’s possible to go on despoiling and wrecking and depleting whatever is most necessary to us, and most perishable.

From a recent interview with the American filmmaker Antonio Campos:

One of the things that attracted us to the neighborhoods we shot in, in Pigalle, it looks like how Times Square looked in Taxi Driver. That really excited us. It set the tone that we felt like we were shooting a New York movie in Paris. We had the approach like it was a New York ’70s movie and that’s what we embraced. We made the decision for people not to look into the camera, but we wanted that life. So we did a lot of shots across the street looking into the cafe, we kind of let life play out.

It is time for a new view. What will it be?

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