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Pop Stuff: If Van Gogh Had Instagram

Maybe an image of ‘Starry Night’ posted on @therealvangogh would have found its way to a renowned art dealer and granted Van Gogh fame in his lifetime

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Soleil Nathwani Jun 10, 2016
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Self-Portrait (1889) by Vincent van Gogh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.)

Self-Portrait (1889) by Vincent van Gogh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.)

It’s spring in New York and as I stand at the Met Museum before Van Gogh’s ”˜Irises’, a single brush stroke trumps all the images on an endless feed of snapshots heralding the season. Van Gogh produced over two thousand works of art in the latter years of a short life. He took a revolver to himself in 1890 and died poor and largely unknown. Today he is considered a genius of unparalleled influence whose single paintings fetch millions.

If Van Gogh lived in the age of Instagram, he might well still be mentally plagued but the lugubrious emotion of his paintings would not have gone unnoticed. An image of ”˜Starry Night’, an oil on canvas of the view from his asylum window, posted on @therealvangogh would have found its way to renowned art dealer Larry Gagosian. He would catapult to fame in a manner similar to today’s Instagirls, models Gigi Hadid, Karli Kloss and Kendall Jenner. If you have a visual currency, whether defining brushstroke or camera ready face, you create your destiny, snapshot by curated snapshot.

Instagram has challenged creative norms and demystified discovery. Entire companies are devoted to finding the next model, photographer or artist on a platform that is about putting yourself out there. It’s also a place for amplifying celebrity – Beyonce is my personal celebrity Instacrush; building a brand – nothing made me nostalgic for the after school Frooti sugar rush like the images on @thefrootilife; and meaningful journalism ”“ the @humansfony feed, that has spawned emulators everywhere including @humansofmumbai, has become an essential part of my daily read.

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On the flip side Instagram has been the building block of a selfie culture ironically lacking self awareness. The Pied Piper effect of the stream of perfect squares is only occasionally representative of true talent. Artist Amalia Ulman [@amaliaulman] amassed over sixty thousand followers in a recent Los Angeles summer with a series of masterfully constructed images that captured the zeitgeist of what people are drawn to, in this case a pretty face trying to make it in Tinsel Town. She showed that the Instagaze can allow anyone their fifteen seconds of fame.

A moment in the sun seems harmless. I’d like to believe that doe eyed selfies, trends and memes don’t make lasting impressions, that Instafame isn’t real and that without the talent to back it up the gaze turns to the next shiny thing leaving a trail of unwitting narcissists in its wake. But I’m confronted with the fact that @KimKardashian has as many followers as @natgeo. Famous simply for being famous, Kim attracts as many eyeballs as the Wonders of the World, more than 72 million. Yet, if Kim Kardashian lived in the age of Van Gogh, without a visual loop to engage an audience, she would be fodder for local gossip but fame would elude her.

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Instagram serves up ”˜celebrities’ faster than ever but if prominence has become matter of minutes, eminence is still defined by decades. So in a future when Kim Kardashian’s wax work in Madame Tussauds collects dust, people will still be gazing at ”˜Irises’ in the Met. Talent will remain the true leveler of who is followed well after the feed has ended.

The author is a former hedge fund manager-turned-film producer and magazine writer. Twitter: @whats_cutting

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