Sometimes, on a good day, our lives cross paths with a compilation of visuals so satisfying—complex in allowing desire to wrap around the fading ordinary—that we cannot help but feel some sort of way at the sight of calculation: the glowing arch of a city-line at night; a ’70s bungalow’s muted yellows; the colour-coordinated sugar packets at your local breakfast joint: brown, white, Sweet’N Low.
I’m prone to this when I’m at the car wash watching the swirl of soaps take on a rainbow, or when my coffee looks just right. Sometimes the world is so brilliantly beautiful, so aesthetically pleasing, that it inspires in us the idea that there are pieces of the puzzle yet to be solved, symmetry not yet seen, milky pinks and desert yellows waiting to be smeared onto canvas. And it’s our appreciation that motivates us to keep up these applications of thought—expansions of natural design made to complement the already existing landscape—that evokes in us a feeling that is simultaneously learned and visceral. As a result, we evolve something with purpose into something purposefully beautiful and are left with a quilt that is warm and easy on the eyes.
Sometimes the world is so brilliantly beautiful, so aesthetically pleasing, that it inspires in us the idea that there are pieces of the puzzle yet to be solved.
But what about everything curated to stay formless, sometimes without purpose, inexplicably and perfectly in place? Without the constraints of form, Instagram makes for boundless territory, and has, above other social media sites, become the chosen land for aesthetes.
Instagram allows brand growth and idea sharing, which might otherwise remain wedged somewhere in the abyss. It can bring amazing content and participation. But what’s problematic is its budded emphasis on aesthetic beauty—which can be achieved without necessary application to our physical lives—and how carefully crafted visuals have become an easy, half-hearted response to the convoluted question that is, “Who am I?”
Social media, as a whole, depends on our need to self-identify and represent, and Instagram does this both instantly and flawlessly. It screams at us to “look no further than my feed, than my filters, than my thoughtfully bordered snapshots of who I am.” Although this might contribute to our personal brand identity, it’s important we separate it from us and not confuse them. Advertising is a manipulator of truth, and personal advertising is no different. It looks at who we are and finds ways to capitalize on our identity.
The same is true of Instagram, only the exchange is more personal, because, in place of money, you’re collecting self-worth. You’re selling to others, and the proceeds are going to a version of yourself you sometimes feel you fail to live up to: richer, prettier, artsier, smarter, the list goes on. You’re left hungry for validation, in need of something you can’t pinpoint, and ultimately confused by the whirlwind romance that is your relationship to this manufactured product.
Advertising a version of yourself can leave you hungry for validation.
What is also worthy of our consideration is whether the phenomenal aesthetics of Instagram translate into any meaningful cultural identity. While the vibes and simulations our feeds hang with might emulate feeling, arguably they don’t evoke it. In fact, it’s possible that aesthetic culture never has. György Lukács, a Hungarian philosopher and founder of Western Marxism, wrote that in every instance of aesthetic culture coming to the forefront, more specifically where aesthetics are a primary goal, and not a result of purpose, “there is no architecture, no tragedy, no philosophy, no monumental painting, no real epic.” What we’re left with is only mood, which cannot be a result of any profound cultural presence.
Lukács goes on to say that “genuine, unified form appears only when the artist actively struggles to overcome the powerful resistances of life to being contained within the forms of art,” implying that aesthetics are but seamless and cannot translate into any real truth. He writes this in 1910, but his words are perhaps even more pertinent now. While Instagram can be a powerful platform for the world to embrace differences and demand attention for under-represented issues, its aesthetic inclination also poses the threat of cultural seamlessness and the question of whether wrinkles in our societal fabric will go unnoticed.
The fact is, neither our singularity nor our collective diversity can be framed in a 1080 by 1080 box. Instagram can represent us, but we should be able to recognize ourselves beyond how it appears on the app. Like in a building, aesthetic design should exist as a house for character, before its rooms get decorated.
Elena Senechal-Becker, an artist and fellow Instagrammer, says it well: “I think Instagram can be an extremely useful tool… but a tool is all it really is. Instagram doesn’t exist in a vaccuum; it isn’t its own planet or anything. It’s still just a platform that eventually ties us back to the real world.”
The question now, as ever, is what it ties us to.