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On Art and the politics of the Image

Susan Sontag begins her seminal work On Photography by describing the relevance of Plato’s cave and the bemusement of mankind with images. Jacques Lacan theorized the self in the incomplete creation of the mirror image. The construction of the image became the hallmarks of archival history. Edward Said writes about the creation of the orient in the paintings of the west and the ways in which the colonies were captured within the consistent production of these narratives. Susan Sontag sums it up perfectly- “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.” 

However the change in mediums, the accessibility of content creation to the public not only throws up new challenges it radicalises the space of the image and the photograph in more ways than one. No longer is the act of taking a photograph something that is an extraordinary task undertaken by an expert– it is now in the hands of anyone with a decent smartphone and an internet connection. This podcast looks at the ways in which content creation on instagram has had an impact on ideas of consistency and more importantly, how does it begin to unravel the image– the image that created some of the most interesting existential questions. 

Aryan Nair lives in Moscow and his content is mostly cataloguing the mundane– There is an entire string of videos where he just shoots the streets of Moscow. He also tells stories about his old microwave, his friends and football games that he has invented. Here is where this instagram journal becomes an important part of how we understand the mundane and the banal. Aryan mentions that ‘consistency’ becomes the key to whether or not you can cultivate a sustainable brand on instagram. No one likes to see you grow there– not in the ‘Oh there should be no improvement’ but in the ‘these videos need to have a certain identifiable style to it’. This  becomes an integral reason in understanding the way content is created and understood on social media. 

Perhaps there is something to be said then about the way in which a consistency of production could be understood as a way to understand what audiences respond to most. Andy Warhol an American Artist who led the movement in pop art in America consistently made art that would capture normal and boring things like the famous Campbell soup cans. His understanding of pop art was creating prints that would consistently repeat the same picture over and over again– almost like a sticker sheet of sorts. Patterns create rhythm, the lyric or syncopated visual effect that helps carry the viewer, and the artist’s idea, throughout the work. What are patterns then in social media, especially instagram which has relied on being an only visual medium? 

Aryan mentions an instagram account that solely posts pictures of bald heads with the only change being that the background changes. The account boasts of thousands of followers with an engagement rate that is perhaps much higher than that. There is something to be said about the novelty of repetition and how that can aid when one is building a sustainable brand through these instagram accounts. 

The presentation of this art, the engagement you have with the people who are interacting with it all become integral to understanding not only the art but also the artist. 

In this, the artist takes centre stage and we once again reach the complicated question of whether the author can ever really die in this case? Barthes would argue that the artist is a capitalist construct who never really has control over the art that is being produced, but then Barthes probably never had the opportunity to scroll through carefully cultivated instagram profiles that offer the viewer a certain aesthetic. When consistency begins to mark the art then the individual in question becomes more relevant than ever. Take the case of Banksy– a street artist who paints graffiti over walls in and around London. These almost always have political overtones but till date no one has actually figured out who Banksy is. In this case Banksy’s art becomes important but perhaps more important is the question of who Banksy is. His presence as the mysterious graffiti artist adds to the overall understanding of what Banksy’s aesthetic is then. 

The understanding of art as being indistinguishable from the artist is even more pronounced when the artist is available to you. When you can at any given point, search the artist and find ways to contact them.Or even listen to this podcast. The artist is a live breathing figure and the art is something he owns. Which is rather ironic given that social media becomes a mass media platform where if there is one thing that is accorded to someone that is the promise of anonymity(at least in theory). So then how do you understand this innocuous relationship between the art, the artist, and the image of the artist, all three separate categories coming together to aid in the creation of a consistent brand that we see and consume on a daily basis. 

The interviewer is Prerna Vij who is currently a third-year undergraduate student of Political Science and English Literature at Ashoka University.

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