Artists Find Unexpected Exposure and Unbridled Criticism on Reddit
Dave Pollot, Glitch, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Ellie Moniz, Swann Fountain, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
If Reddit were a museum, the wall texts would take up more space than the art, the visitors would talk too loudly, and the curation would be a disaster. The website, after all, is known for its eclectic content, DIY feel, and rambling discussions led by a cultish user base. That’s not necessarily criticism. In fact, you could argue that this scenario is better than Instagram—the digital equivalent of visiting MoMA, enjoying the Monet room, and then only seeing Monet paintings accompanied by wall texts that read, “love this!”
While Instagram becomes increasingly homogenous, evidenced by accounts such as @insta_repeat, Reddit remains chaotic and unpredictable. Organized around passionate communities (called “subreddits”) and a voting system that affords any user the opportunity to reach a wide audience, Reddit is fueled by running imaginations and wild obsessions. Depending on your vantage point, it’s a haven for the quirky and the creative, or a breeding ground for the disgusting and deranged.
Lucan Coutts, Sanctuary, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
In recent years, Reddit has developed a reputation as the internet’s underbelly—a place for white nationalists, misogynists, and conspiracy theorists to post. But with millions of communities, Reddit is one of the top 10 most trafficked websites in the U.S., and it is as much about sowing discord as it is about sharing cute photos (r/aww), “showerthoughts,” and even art. For better or for worse, Reddit is a place of unbridled creativity, and those same forces that allow fringe ideas to incubate—the anonymity, the user curation, the small communities—also create opportunities for artists.
Some artists have found lasting audiences and even careers for themselves on the site. After Lucan Coutts’s futuristic image of Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square went viral in 2018, the young photographer found himself making business deals with major brands including The North Face, Uniqlo, and 20th Century Fox. Painter Dave Pollot—whose Pop-inflected portraits will be on view at Guy Hepner in the fall—credits his success, at least partly, to sharing work on Reddit. Ellie Moniz, a watercolorist who uses the site exclusively to share art, said that 25 percent of her 2019 income came from Reddit.
Coutts and Moniz have also used Reddit to connect with their local communities. Coutts takes street shots of Toronto that combine a Romantic sensibility with high-tech cyberpunk aesthetics. He shares them with locals and former residents on the city’s subreddit. Moniz skyrocketed to the top of the largest art subreddit, r/art, in early March, with a painting of her daughter splashing in a puddle. However, she is mostly known in the local Philadelphia subreddit, where she crowdsources painting ideas, shares her takes on the city, and receives commissions.
Moniz came to Reddit five years ago, after her work had received lukewarm responses on Facebook and Instagram. In a few hours, her first post—an image of Pennsylvania’s Keswick Theatre on r/watercolor—got hundreds of upvotes, and Moniz received a slew of messages from users trying to purchase it. Moniz has been shocked by how people will buy work on Reddit that they haven’t even seen in person. “They just seem really impulsive,” she said.
Ellie Moniz, Keswisck Theatre, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
When it comes to artistic feedback, Pollot noted that Reddit’s impulsivity can manifest in one of two ways: “Sometimes you’ll get a lot of praise. Sometimes you’ll get absolutely annihilated.” He said the site is a great place for artists to get constructive criticism, assuming they have “thick skin.”
Justin Leduc, a video artist whose rendering of the grim reaper looming over the Golden Gate Bridge went viral in 2018, noted this as a defining feature of Reddit. “On Instagram, I would dare say 99 percent of comments are not longer than a sentence,” he said, while “on Reddit, people will give you criticism on every single aspect of your art form.”
Since he’s found more mainstream success, Leduc has swapped Reddit for Instagram, where he can connect with big-name collaborators and self-promote freely (Reddit is known for being hostile toward self-promotion). But he still returns to Reddit and said he’s drawn to its “textual aspect.”
This text-based focus makes Reddit feel slower than its peer sites. “Whereas Instagram is more about the rapid consumption of content, Reddit is about taking a second to slow down,” said Coutts. “I think it’s the only mainstream social network that is engineered for valuable discussion.” On Reddit, an image doesn’t just become a flash of pixels in an unending stream of posts. Rather, it has its own page, which functions as an individual gallery. This setup creates an aura of permanence—viewers can sit with the work and give it the attention that art deserves.
The painstaking eye of the Redditor is applied as carefully to writing lengthy feedback as it is to less serious tasks: helping fellow Redditors determine the name of a painting, detecting a Renaissance perspective in an everyday photo, or drawing fellow Redditors’ dogs, for example. The goofy, sarcastic spirit of larger subreddits such as r/showerthoughts or r/notinteresting manifests in the art sphere, too. In r/delusionalartists, Redditors mock artists who sell their mediocre works for ridiculous prices, and in r/ATBGE (“awful taste but great execution”), they feature images where artful quality meets tragically terrible taste.
There’s a place for everyone: Takashi Murakami die-hards, KAWS lovers, Brutalist aficionados, glitch art enthusiasts (155,000 of them!), vaporwave devotees, and DeviantArt nostalgists. If other social sites are echo chambers, Reddit is a series of islands, each governed by its own laws, legends, and languages.
Justin Leduc, END OF SHIFT, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
Dave Pollot, Primer II, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Pollot believes Reddit’s user-curated system allows content to reach viewers more organically than on algorithm-oriented sites like Instagram. And while he has a large Instagram following, he still posts his paintings to Reddit to gauge public taste.
Often, Pollot noted, work with pop-culture references draws wide appeal. He’s painted Chanel logos on a 19th century–style portrait and blended South Park characters into an Impressionist-style street scene. The latter led to so much traffic that it crashed his website. “People have started to use pop culture as more than something that they like,” he said. “It’s become a means of communication in and of itself.”
That is what Reddit is about: communicating through shared reference points. Sometimes, they’re pieces of ’90s nostalgia distilled into memes; other times, they’re 19th-century artworks that suddenly feel timely (see: Edvard Munch with the Spanish influenza).
Dave Pollot, Calorie Composition II, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Pollot’s oeuvre echoes this idea. Reimagining thrifted still lifes to include Pringles, Lucky Charms, and other unhealthy contemporary foods, Pollot treats fast food and fine grapes, the Pop and the traditional, with the same seriousness. Pollot said he is commenting on the indulgences and distractions of the internet. But he stressed that it’s not all criticism.
Distraction, from a different perspective, is just another form of attention. On Reddit, artists can lean into those distractions and embrace the erratic creativity of the internet—whether that manifests as a snack food still life, a cyberpunk cityscape, or a portrait of toilet paper.