Having just moved into a new building and in need of art for my walls, I reached out to my friend who’s more involved in the local art scene for something interesting and relatively cheap. She immediately sent me eight different Instagram profiles of local artists, selling and promoting their art via the app. Not only did I find art to buy, but I followed some of the accounts and even went as far as saving one of the girl’s pictures to use as a reference for what colour I wanted to dye my hair next. This took me a total of ten minutes.
Currently, all over Europe, notable and famous museums and art galleries have been desperately attempting to change the demographics of their visitors to be more diverse. Those who consistently visit these museums and art galleries tend to be older, whiter and richer than the average resident of a city. What in fact seems to be engaging a larger and more diverse group of people is the impact of social media on all aspects of the art industry. In today’s art world, an artist and whatever works they post online are exposed for all, accessible to those interested and measured plainly in metrics of likes, follows and comments. It is evident that Instagram can be an incredible tool for well-established artists to spread their art, and create a sense of connection through online communities. An obvious example of the ‘FOMO’ induced, influencer-esque visual omnipresence is Yayoi Kusama’s exhibitions, which over the last few years have been travelling globally and have littered social media sites with images of her famous infinity rooms. But is this type of accessibility good news for the art world, and more importantly for younger emerging artists?
OnBuy.com found that the online art market has grown 20-25 percent in the past few years, and it’s estimated that this online market will grow at a rate of 15 percent per year, if not more. It seems as though there is no going back, social media, artists and galleries are becoming increasingly integrated with one another to appeal to this new digital age and new art fans. Dealers are increasingly reporting sales from collectors who discovered pieces using Instagram, and galleries and museums are beginning to heavily use and invest in social media sites to better understand art fans and promote events, shows and artists. It is easy to understand and see why well-established institutions and artists are benefitting from this new digital age. The real question is assessing how these technological changes are affecting emerging artists.
From an immediate glance, it’s obvious that practically everything has changed in terms of artists attempting to break into the industry. The traditional routes of needing representation, a gallery, or an agent are no longer necessary. Artists are creating partnerships and collaboration through Instagram direct messages and buyers are finding their next million dollar investment by simply scrolling through their timeline.
And while interactions within the art industry have changed completely due to technological structural changes, at its core, not much has changed about the art world. Buyers and followers of the art industry have always been obsessed with the artist and their lifestyles, not just their works and pieces. Social media provides a platform for more followers to inclusively watch and obsess over what they deem to be an “artistic lifestyle,” as well as observe the creative process itself. Anyone can like, comment, message, save, share and frantically consume content through the ease of their phones.
The sense of connection developed between interested buyers and fans with artists is stronger than ever before. Where the physical art world of several years ago had barriers of entry for buyers with money and social status, geographic region and privacy, the online sharing community of artists is for all to access. Art and the interest in it online are all about curiosity and education because the pressure of buying isn’t as heavily present. Nothing is stopping you from following and possibly, one day, buying.
Though there is an evident benefit on the buyer side, do these follower counts and Instagram metrics actually demonstrate success for emerging artists and their online efforts? Social media has solidified the importance and money in careers of being an “online influencer,” and interestingly enough the similarity between influencers and artists on Instagram is at times uncanny. Mediakix has estimated that in 2017 $1.7 billion was spent on influencer marketing and that this would rise to $2.38 billion by 2019. As the career aspirations of many around the world is to become an influencer, globally have career aspirations of simply being ‘influencers’, and with that, millennial artists are often seen as ideal influencers for many companies around the world. Successful emerging artists tend to be followed by many and liked because of the time evidently invested in curating an interesting online profile. In doing so, these artists are not only creating art they can promote, but they are creating a brand they can promote. They partner with streetwear companies, magazines, and other important online influential players. The young artists of today will have the best chance at succeeding if they are talented in whatever fine arts they chose to specialise in, but more importantly if they are able to curate a social media following that fits an attractive artistic aesthetic while aggressively marketing their lives.
Recent technological changes in the art trade industry have been disruptive and impactful as they seemingly create a shift in who has the power to promote, create and sell their art. The impact of technology, social networks and third-party applications has created a seemingly more decentralised art world, giving more power to artists, and more visibility and opportunity to those around the world who want to view, explore and understand art. As in all industries though, there must be a weariness moving forward and a call for hesitation that maybe relying solely on these virtual infrastructures can be dangerous and less freeing in the future.
Beauty gurus are highly influential in today’s cosmetic world, with platforms like Youtube and Instagram democratising and disrupting the beauty industry. How and what is selling is no longer only up for the teams of cosmetic companies but influenced by online makeup tutorials; more subscribers for them means brands will take notice. For example, as many have rightly called out brands for a lack of foundation shade ranges it was partially thanks to these YouTubers that the world of makeup has finally listened and is in turn diversifying.
But beneath the ‘Boyfriend does my makeup’ and ‘Which brushes do I love right now’ lies a murkier world of rival fan groups, scandals and racism. I’m sure we can agree a lot has changed since beauty YouTubers just did makeup tutorials. Online beauty gurus are being abandoned by followers in the thousands as online archives are being unearthed and leaked by some of the youngest generation of subscribers on YouTube. Using the follow and unfollow feature as a form of currency and amusement between rival groups, these digital tribes have very few restrictions and rules when it comes to expressing their views online. While the freedom to use this feature is a user’s prerogative, in mass it can lead to an aggressive form of mob mentality and cyberbullying when taking justice into their own hands.
The latest target Laura Lee, thick Alabama accent and heavily contoured face, had gained herself just short of 5 million subscribers for her channel. Lee was starting to be a real force in the industry, having her own line of cosmetics ‘Laura Lee Los Angeles’. But after a series of racist and fat-shaming tweets were uncovered from six years ago, she lost over 400,000 followers while many brands started to drop her and she has not been able to bounce back since. Another high profile instance involved YouTuber Jeffree Star, who has a 10 million follower count and loyal army of ‘stans’ (stanning meaning a very intense way of following somebody online). Star has a successful cosmetics line but for older fans he’ll be remembered for his music and famous Myspace persona. However in the hight of his career, rival fans found an old video from his early Myspace years where he talked about throwing battery acid on a black girl’s face to lighten her skin so that her foundation matches. Star was forced to confront his past and shared a lengthy apology video were he corrected his mistakes, leading to a debate around whether fans can forgive such behaviour.
You see YouTube drama is big business and channels like ‘Tea Spill’ are dedicated to getting to the bottom of scandals with an extensive collection of screenshots, past posts and fan conspiracy theories. The same type of drama and gossip that once sold magazines is now being echoed in a very particular sect of YouTube culture.
It seems that in the world of beauty influencers on YouTube, no one is immune to controversy, with rival fans on either side finding old videos or tweets that expose offensive or racist content. But the stans can be forgiving at times. At this point apology videos are a right of passage for any YouTuber; say something problematic and then respond with a sincere and heartfelt video and you’re as good as new. How well this is performed seems to determine whether the fans will buy it or not. The admired frankness and will to share personal details about their lives is what draws these fans in and it is the relationship to these creators that seems more intimate and personal than any other celebrity fan base before, perhaps because of the perception of authenticity through the journey of the self-made YouTube star from humble beginnings. The question we should be asking however is just how authentic are they?
YouTube is an expansive and diverse community and being a role model for millions of kids on the platform, who spend their time obsessing over these videos, surely means accountability is a must. These feuds also bring up questions about what online archives mean, with every thought documented and stored from our past online selves, can we forgive these transgressions or should the creators be forever cancelled like in the case of Laura Lee?
Perhaps another more important question is how much time are brands and sponsors willing to spend doing research into the YouTubers’ pasts before they thrust them into the spotlight and does this fall under brand responsibility? Beauty influencers today are changing what it means to be a public figure, their income relies on how many subscribers they have gained for their channels and once the transitions are made to full-time professional YouTuber, surely they must be subject to the same rules of working within any industry, which involves being held accountable and learning from past mistakes. Sometimes we forget about that part; that while these YouTube influencers should be held accountable for offensive behaviour, the brands that sponsor them should be equally charged. And in fighting against oppressive behaviour with a twitter witch hunt of cancelling and shutting down discourse, we may end up replicating the same harmful cycles without any real sign of progress within these platforms.