How Quitting Instagram Made Me Appreciate Art Again
Taking pictures of Lena Henke’s exhibition, “Germanic Artifacts,” at Bortolami in New York.
My wife was happily squeezing herself into a cage, and there I stood, just watching, not even tempted to take a photograph and post it online (#brucenauman #momaps1 #doublesteelcagepiece #tightspot). We were at the Bruce Nauman retrospective at MoMA PS1, and I was on a temporary Instagram detox at the time, one that involved a vast amount of self-trickery. Rather than ditching the app entirely, I reasoned, why not just set some parameters? I’m an adult, after all. I’d limit myself, make each Instagram post a curated delectation. Restraining the habit to posting a single image a week, I ventured, would curb my worst impulses. (It’s the same way I’d initially tried, and failed, to quit smoking or drinking: Only five cigarettes a day! Just seven-and-a-half drinks a week!) In the meantime, I wouldn’t keep Instagram on my phone—I’d delete it and re-download it every five or six days, in order to be more mindful. The pointless hassle would change me, open up new ways of being.
This was already a big leap, since I’m the sort of person for whom Instagram-posting had become a tic, the photographic equivalent of logorrhea. By the time I quit, I had posted an astounding 14,479 images to Instagram over the years. On any given day there were so many things I felt desperately needed to be shared with the world: A glamour shot of my cat, Chloe Zola Volcano; a detail from the new Dana Schutz exhibition; a picture of a dirty mattress on the curb, pompously captioned as if it were itself an unsung piece of installation art. I had 6,241 followers, which wasn’t nothing. My brand was irreverence, see? I’d even started, begrudgingly, to dabble in Instagram Stories, mainly because I’d read somewhere that this type of “engagement” was the swiftest way to add new followers.
But overall, I used this social-media platform in a decidedly anti-social way. Rather than scrolling through my endless feed, with its images from the lives of people I probably didn’t know and likely didn’t care about, I would obsessively check the app to see how my own posts were resonating with the community. Why did this shot of a creepy Isa Genzken mannequin fall flat? What was so popular about the accidentally obscene sign hanging outside my local laundromat?
I had long suspected that Instagram was killing the way I experienced art, the way I moved through museums and galleries. It’s easy to scoff at smartphone-wielding tourists at MoMA or the Met, dutifully snapping off-kilter, fuzzy images of masterpieces. Why bother? My own Instagram practice seemed more mature, somehow—a savvy detail shot showed off a refined sensibility. Sure, you could Google the same Grant Wood painting and see it online in glorious, professionally photographed high-resolution, but I was narrowing in on a particular moment in the Grant Wood, because it’s something that my idiosyncratic eye happened to notice, and I hope you like it. Seriously, like it.
We hear a lot about the perils of “Instagram art,” which I generally understand to mean flashy, spectacular stuff that’s meant to go viral on social media. But the problem isn’t just that a certain sort of eye-catching artwork panders to these inclinations. It’s what happens when all art is Instagram art, when even a solo journey through a museum becomes an awkward threesome: you, the art, and your phone, with the whole world supposedly watching.
This creates a lot of cognitive dissonance. I’ve walked into exhibitions recently that left me entirely cold and unmoved, yet I’ve still dutifully snapped my own installation shot; that bland, modular arrangement of abstract, colored panels on the wall might be boring in person, but with the right angle and lighting, it’s thrilling on Instagram. Meanwhile, a painting or performance that’s guttingly beautiful IRL often doesn’t translate into the flat world of the app. Instead of enjoying the experience as it unfolds, I would find myself suddenly irate about the inability to capture and share that ineffable feeling.
My own decision to finally delete Instagram is the culmination of a long year of sloughing off social media. That started in 2018 with Facebook, where I had 5,000 super-close friends, many of whom I didn’t know at all (I miss them each now, like a tiny phantom limb). Later in the year, after one pointless troll-argument too many, I also bid farewell to my approximately 2,000 Twitter followers.
That left Instagram, which seemed more benign—aside from the fact that it’s also owned by Facebook, and played a pivotal role in the Russians’ interference in the 2016 election. But people aren’t sharing their flatulent political opinions on Instagram, really. You don’t have to wade through your ex-roommate’s screed about veganism, or your uncle sharing a debunked story about Hillary Clinton from 2013. What you get on Instagram is people’s enviable vacations, their pets, the silly or serious stuff they see everyday: glorious weirdos on the subway, art openings on the Lower East Side.
The app itself also seemed—at least at first—like a good way to remember things. It wasn’t just an excuse to overshare; it was a personal scrapbook, a collection of visual memos, an archive of what I had seen and enjoyed. Deleting Instagram might be a bit like a self-inflicted lobotomy. Would I ever be able to recall the things that had moved me? Would a visit to Dia Beacon ever feel right again if I couldn’t pose for goofy selfies within Dan Flavin’s light installations or next to Richard Serra’s Cor-Ten steel behomeths?
It’s part of the addictive nature of social media that leaving it behind can be so hyperbolic. (The apps realize this, of course; it’s why quitting Facebook involves jumping through so many hoops, being reminded that all of your precious memories will soon be dust, that you might well die alone and unliked.) Not being tethered to Instagram simply means that your eye recovers, becomes normal again; you’re no longer a scout on the hunt for what might play well in a square format in someone’s newsfeed.
This doesn’t mean the process is painless. During my initial several-week detox period, I visited Lena Henke’s show at Bortolami, which is fairly understated, with one very big exception: an enormous sculpture of a purple pig. If that pig could talk, he’d be oinkily begging to be ’grammed. I still couldn’t resist a picture—one that I texted to my wife, rather than 6,241 acquaintances and strangers—but touring the show without the framing device of Instagram meant that I was simply more engaged. Rather than worrying about which shot to take, and how many of my followers would like it, I only had to care about whether or not I liked what I was seeing. That might seem like a pathetic revelation (and it is), but it’s a freeing one.
Recent visits to galleries in Chelsea and the L.E.S.—my Instagram by then officially defunct, deleted, dead—were literally eye-opening. At Derek Eller, I took in EJ Hauser’s mesmerizing abstractions, which seemed to shimmer and pulse the longer I stared at them. I saw Claudia Comte’s exhibition of woozy, Op art–inspired wall murals at Gladstone Gallery—an experience palpably crying out for selfies. At Lisson Gallery, I admired Van Hanos’s Figure Eight (2018)—a portrait of a nude man and woman on a bed, their image blurrily out-of-focus. The trick, borrowed from Gerhard Richter, seems made for Instagram (where one’s followers would wonder if there was something wrong with the painting or wrong with their phone). But simply spending some time with the work in person, looking without documenting, felt new—an urge to store the image in my brain, rather than immediately share it on Instagram as a marker of taste and refinement, a reminder to the world that I was at Lisson Gallery, admiring a painting by Van Hanos.
There’s nothing more tiresome than the former addict who won’t stop talking about how great he feels now. Finally deleting my account was a leap, of sorts, but a rewarding one. (If you’re considering the same, but are worried about losing everything you’ve posted—there’s an easy fix for that.) I’m certainly aware that there are people who use Instagram and other social-media apps in a discerning, healthy way; who enjoy seeing what their friends and family are up to; who cherish the chance to follow artists and see works-in-progress as they develop in the studio. Perhaps you live in a small town, miles from a decent museum, and find in Instagram an easy portal to see what’s happening in the gallery scenes of New York, Los Angeles, or Berlin. Maybe you just want to post endless pictures of your cats, since they are objectively the cutest cats who have ever existed. (Guilty.)
But ultimately, at least for me, Instagram began to feel like a burden, one that was ruining the way I thought about and experienced the art I was seeing in person. This isn’t breaking news—there’s a cottage industry dedicated to thinkpieces about how Instagram and other social media apps are rotting our brains, mutating our kids, and turning us into an atomized society of giggling zombies. But what it finally took to delete my page was an honest accounting: What was I getting out of Instagram, and what was I giving up in return?
When my wife was inside Nauman’s Double Steel Cage Piece (1974) at MoMA PS1, I felt a strange tension. The work allows for one person at a time to explore its interior, to circumnavigate a rectangular corridor that, even for the petite, is claustrophobic and confining. It took awhile for her to make this awkward journey. I followed her progress through the perforated steel facade, grinning and supportive. What I didn’t do was take a picture—even though the moment seemed to call for it, the sculpture practically begging for a moody, industrial-chic portrait. Afterwards, we went home and dissected what we had seen. We had enjoyed ourselves—been stimulated, frustrated, bothered, moved, amused—and that fact remained, even without the likes.