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visual art

How social media is driving the culture of public art

From graffiti to the gallery, art has always been political, inventive, invasive. But in the age of Instagram, the latest mural is just another way to market

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013.

If you live in a major metropolis, you've most likely seen those aggressively colourful walls cropping up near coffee houses, gastropubs and boutiques, some with a riot of pastel hearts, others with stencilled angels' wings to be "worn" by anyone who positions their shoulders underneath. There are graphic walls, too, with feel-good aperçus such as "Love Life" and "You Are a Goddess Living in a City of Angels." These walls are Grandma's corny crochet pillows writ large, yet people by the thousands flock to them every month to snap photos. In my neighbourhood, one such wall – full of iridescent pink, orange and blue hearts – can be found kitty-corner to a high-end coffee house, but you can barely see the wall for the crowds that gather like selfie supplicants making pilgrimage.

This is not guerrilla street art, or murals commissioned by local government. This is Instagram art, which exists solely to be photographed and posted to social media. Which means that even if you do your level best to avoid the oversharing culture of the web, you can still come across these Instagram-ready murals, which have become some of the most popular landmarks among the service's 600 million or so users.

Social media isn't just changing the way we interact with each other; it's driving the culture, especially in cities full of tourists eager to beef up their photo feeds with dispatches from elsewhere. At the same time, it is redefining the nature and intent of public art.

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Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field (Floor Show), 1965/2016.

There are, of course, many examples of great public art that function as tourist bait. Millions of people have snapped photos of themselves fake "reclining" in Claes Oldenburg's Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture-cum-fountain at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., or turned a corner in London or New York and stumbled upon one of Banksy's sardonic stencils.

In both cases, passersby are regarding work that is intrinsically artistic. Instagram walls are something else entirely. When posted and geotagged online, the walls become advertisements for the retail businesses – those coffee shops, gastropubs and boutiques – that commission them. Call it postsocial culture.

But it's not only street art that is being co-opted by Instagram; museums are doubling down on social media as well. The Broad in Los Angeles has attracted a disproportionate number of young patrons primarily by marketing itself as a social-media-friendly purveyor of bright, shiny objects such as Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, which can be seen in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario through May 27. The Infinity Mirrored Room, a chamber lined with mirrors and populated by thousands of colourful LED lights, is a spectacular example of immersive art, a meditation on sensory derangement and loss. But to absorb Infinity Mirrored Room takes time. You have to wander around, ruminate, delight in the giddy inventiveness of it. Unfortunately, the Broad limits its patrons' visits in the installation to about a minute – just enough to snap an Insta post and leave.

Infinity Mirrored Room – Love Forever, 1966/1994.

The Museum of Ice Cream, a pop-up that was massively popular when it was mounted in New York and Los Angeles last year, is a bubblegum-pink shrine to empty calories whose main attraction is a "Sprinkle Pool," a rumpus room for grown-ups filled with faux rainbow sprinkles and plastic balls. Hundreds of thousands of photos of the Sprinkle Pool have been posted to social media, making the Museum of Ice Cream one of the most Instagrammed cultural institutions in the world, right below the Louvre in Paris.

Prior to mobile phones, guerrilla street artists operated underground and functioned as agents of social change. There's a rich history of provocateurs armed with spray paint, glue and poster board, plastering garish caricatures and politically charged slogans across the urban landscape. The New York artist Robbie Conal carpet-bombed lampposts and phone booths in the dead of night with Boschian grotesqueries of politicians and disgraced celebrities from the Reagan eighties. Another New Yorker, John Fekner, placed stencilled signs reading LAST HOPE and FALSE PROMISES right at the source of his rage: the neglected, burned-out buildings of early-eighties South Bronx. It would be hard to imagine tourists smiling for their Instagram followers in front of such challenging tableaus.

In Los Angeles, where I live, there is a compelling reason for the sudden explosion in Instagram walls: A law in place since 2002 that had prohibited businesses from commissioning murals was overturned in 2013, leading to a surge of silly painted hearts all of the city.

Infinity Mirrored Room – All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016.

For the walls' underwriters, it's remarkably efficient marketing – totally free and sponsored by unpaid, unsolicited civilians. Even as Instagram users complain about the commodification of their feeds, and targeted ads appear with greater frequency, those same users are also nudging their posts toward commercial exploitation – becoming essentially roving publicists armed with GPS and social-media accounts, snapping thousands of photos of our cities' compromised public "art."

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I suppose it's churlish to harp about the proliferation of art that advocates life, love, angels, ice cream and big red and orange hearts. The danger lies in substituting a simulacrum of art for the real thing, especially given the premium on public space available for work that is divorced from commercial exploitation. Case in point: The warehouse murals by 21 New York-based graffiti artists that were whitewashed in 2013 by developer Jerry Wolkoff, who intended to raze the building, known as 5 Pointz, for condominiums. Last week, after years of litigation, a judge found Wolkoff guilty under the Visual Arts Rights Act, a 1990 federal law that protects certain public art.

Alas, the building and the art are both gone.

The 5 Pointz ruling could be a game-changer for public art in the United States; most likely it will be anomalous. The unfortunate reality is that if developers can't monetize public art, they have little use for it. Eventually, you end up with a world that's ever more willing to sacrifice genuine engagement for a photo op. And when a culture starts organizing itself around endless, meaningless documentation of advertising disguised as art, it blurs the lines between art and art for latte's sake.

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