July 11th, 2023

Monks Canoeing — Mary Scrimgeour


An opinion piece, written by Ellie LeMonnier: Gallery Intern
To me, this painting (above) is the antithesis to all of the harm I see on social media. Here, two friends enjoy each other’s company and nature, free of all temptation that modern technology and social media tantalizes. Although I note the difficulty of finding solutions to the harmful consequences of social media, participating in actives like these two, cute monks in Scrimgeour’s painting is never a bad place to start.

Throughout my college experience and different art-focused jobs, I have been increasingly interested in the role of social media and how it’s changing the art world. I have a very ambivalent attitude towards social media, having seen its negative impacts on my own mental health and the friends around me. I have deleted most of my social media accounts, doing my best to avoid the mindless scroll that comes with such apps strategically designed to addict me. To justify this decision to others and myself – especially when the addiction’s pull gets too strong – I steep myself in all of the reasons social media is bad, letting the negativity overshadow any benefits. But obviously, social media is not a black-and-white issue. Just because I say social media has no redeeming qualities to convince myself to stay away from an addiction that harms my mental health does not mean it harms everyone.


I wanted to do some research on this issue, especially with art in mind, so I wrote an essay a few semesters ago on the consequences that social media has on art. I used my already existing attitude about social media as a stepping stone, taking the negative stance as a way to provoke questions or resistance as all opinions should be tempered with opposition. For this week’s blog post, I will briefly summarize parts of that essay to maybe spark some questions or thoughts in you. Whether you see it as a problem or a gift to society, the topic of social media is one that cannot be ignored and affects all of us daily.


“In an age dominated by social media, many like to point to literature, music, and art as salvation. People assume that these elements of society stave off technology’s consequences. It becomes a justification; if one reads a physical book every once in a while, then spending three straight hours on Instagram is acceptable. However, this tether to reality and culture is quickly thinning as the snaking tendrils that span the web of social media spread so far that even art is not safe. Social media has drastically transformed how art is made, viewed, and contemplated.”


In many cases social media has changed how people think about originality and creativity. An integral part to social media is trend cycles, waves of the same idea or theme that dictate social media algorithms for a week or so. Like a wildfire, someone posts a unique idea that people think is cool and then suddenly everyone is copying that idea. Doing something that others think is cool brings attention and to social media users, quantifiable attention is everything. Any sense of originality is lost in favor of whatever is the most current and attention-grabbing. Art becomes more about: Who got the most likes? Who got the most comments? Who got the most followers from their posts? The driving force for art becomes attention and competition based rather than creativity, originality, and the need to share. By placing a visible value on art (likes, comments, followers) it becomes monetized, forcing art to become part of the trend cycle which inevitably kills any new ideas. And as soon as everyone decides a trend is cool, “trendiness evaporates because people can not feel the same sense of originality, embarrassed for getting caught up in the trend in the first place. How can any type of art survive under these lethal and circuitous conditions?” Art can quickly become less about the individual and their creativity and more about what everyone else is enjoying, hoping that such trendiness can bring attention while simultaneously killing the trend and “escaping any semblance of originality or longevity.”


A big factor of social media is the importance of personal algorithms and curated feeds for each individual based on their interests. Although convenient for the individual, this characteristic can often make the process of “viewing art calculated and exclusive. All social media users get crafted feeds, meant for them and their interests; usually void of any divergency or diversity. What happens when certain people or topics are excluded from a wider audience on social media?” In my research I used the hashtag #feminstartist as an example. For me personally, feminist art and artists are among the artists that I want to support, hoping that their art can change the harmful views of certain people. However, if all feminist art is grouped under one hashtag, the art cannot spread. It becomes contained to the feeds of other feminist artists without traveling to a sexist someone’s feed who would benefit from such displays. Artists are hurt because their art cannot travel and influence others while viewers are hurt because they are trapped in their own views without expansive art. “Algorithmic barriers and restrictions shrink the room for nuance and artworks that challenge stereotypes or preconceptions.”


Social media also has weak protection of authorship and artist credit. It is tantalizingly easy to screenshot and post someone else’s artwork without including their name or credit. While art can quickly travel on social media, oftentimes the artist themself does not; their name lost to the digital ether. “Social media’s porous and malleable nature makes it difficult for artists to be recognized and easy for users to digitally steal work.”


It is an indisputable fact that social media has intensely negative impacts on mental health, especially in teenagers. Constant comparison and mindless scrolling brings about depression, stress, and low self-esteem. These harmful, yet constant characteristics of social media cannot help but become imbued in art. “Art on social media is overpowered by the other consequences of its use.” Unlike the atmospheres of museums of galleries that are designed for close, slow, and careful contemplation, social media is addictive and designed to be instantly-gratifying. “Social media bars viewers from actually engaging with art how it was intended. Museums are void of distractions while social media runs rampant with other viewers’ likes and comments, other apps’ texts and alerts, and the need to quickly keep scrolling. Art becomes instantaneous. Viewers glance at someone’s work and within seconds decide if they want to keep looking or scroll on and usually, the latter is taken. Not only does this tendency harm the brain by making it unable to pay attention, but it also ruins the experience of art.”


“Some argue that no, making, viewing, and contemplating art on social media takes up a small realm of the social media sphere that is not toxic and can actually help and inspire others. In the face of social media’s addictive quality and the stress and depression it causes, art is a beacon splayed between meaningless posts and drama: salvation, the balm to modernity’s technological mistakes. When really, there is nothing different. The solution has been breached and rotted with the internet. Trend cycles and competition ruin any sense of originality and bleach the desire to create for creation with the monetization of likes and followings. The possibility of statement pieces creating social change is dampened by the hanging threat of lost accounts and calculated algorithms intent on keeping the art that really matters enclosed in a small circle. And if real art actually does enter the global stage, there is a good chance the original artist is overlooked and lost to the ether. The benefits of art’s introspection are similarly lost. Who can really appreciate a masterpiece on a cramped screen squished between pointless posts? The sense of awe and inspiration that museums so carefully craft and display cannot be replicated on social media.


It can’t be all bad. There are artists that actually want to share their originality for the sake of sharing and not for competition infused attention. Beneath the hindrances of algorithms and trend cycles and byproducts of depression is a glittering world of art; untapped and a possible voice for change. Social media is not an industry trapped in time, fixed in its current state. It can be changed if the voices pleading grow loud enough. The change should not just be about art. The systems in place that ruin art on social media are the same systems that harm fashion, literature, music, politics, climate change, equal rights, etc. There are serious problems at play because of social media and art is just one example of its disastrous effects. Change can be made possible.”