Better belated than too soon

He was experiencing one of man’s keenest but least understood drives–information compulsion. –Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities

I devote myself to painting, and then writing about painting, and I deposit any checks that come my way when someone buys one of my paintings, but I’ve never strategized any of it as a career.  I do have a career, but it isn’t the point, that’s all. It seems like a way of warping the whole activity into something it isn’t. A CV resembles a parasitical, invasive life form, imported from the world of business, the way sparrows were brought to North America from Europe. I’m a professional artist, but that term seems almost an oxymoron, and I don’t really think of myself as professional (except for my diligence at the easel) any more than Socrates would have thought of himself as a professional philosopher or Jeremiah Johnson a professional badass. I always think of Van Gogh when I imagine the system in which artists now vie to get onto a career track–prestigious MFA, straight to prominent gallery, applications for grants and residencies, keeping a running tally of awards, all of it as dutiful as the path of a white collar organization man in the Fifties. I keep my CV fresh, I list my awards and summarize my shows and sales. Yet it feels as if I’m applying for a job as a comptroller whenever I submit my CV upon request. Where would Vermeer have found himself in this system? Imagine his exhibition history. After a lifetime of work he’d have had enough for one big solo show at Zwirner, with maybe some other artist to fill out the adjacent space. 

My work always takes more time than I would like, but at that constraining pace I know I’m doing good work. The more I become committed to my best possible work, the less new work I have to show, though I’m starting to find ways to shave a little time from the process and actually do more during a day of painting, which is nearly every day of the week.

This puts me into a bind as far as hewing to the ostensible necessity of building a social media following. (In book publishing, this has become brutal. Publishers more and more have no interest in authors who don’t have a following.) As much as I like it—Instagram is the only social media I really use with any regularity, other than this blog which is social only in its availability to anyone. I recognize social media as yet another “professional” taskmaster even though it’s promoted as a service. If you are already known and have a serious following, it can be extremely useful, as is Twitter, which I don’t use at all. If I were far more famous, I would enjoy posting almost anything that seemed worth photographing on Instagram just as a way of being open about who I am. But I’m not, and Instagram isn’t going to get me there. The companies that own these platforms want you to think they will get you there. It’s a lie to make social media feel compulsory, in both senses of the word. They want people to feel irresistibly drawn to them but they also want the stream of content to begin to feel like a duty, an obligation, a necessity. Social media uses FOMO, the fear of missing out, to drive most users (sounds like “drug user” doesn’t it?) to work harder and harder to build a following and get likes, but all of social media has an inherent Catch-22. You need to have a following already by other means to even get noticed, which means there’s no way to gain followers unless you already have them. There are always rare exceptions as in the case of emergent YouTube stars, but any kind of time devoted to Instagram is better spent in front of an easel.

I like Instagram. It’s a quick way to catch up on what others are doing. And I enjoy sharing art that moves me. But when I really want to work as slowly as I need to work, it becomes a specter. My feed sits there neglected, smirking at me. So this year I’ve decided to post little of my work on Instagram—while continuing to post art-related things, including the work of others—because I’m immersing myself in a long series of paintings, variations on one subject, and each painting will take between one and two months to finish. I may do the same next year as well. If Instagram really worked in bringing me serious followers–which in turn would bring my work to the attention of people who would love it–then I would feel more incentive to reveal what I’m doing as it progresses. Novelists don’t serialize their work anymore, as Dickens did. Why should artists let everyone see what they’re doing before a possible solo show? I’ve never sold anything I’ve posted on social media—almost all of my sales have been through Oxford Gallery at this point. And my sales have been steady enough that it’s actually a challenge to assemble a solo show at regular intervals. So I’ve begun to question why I should show anything from this current project before the entire group of paintings is finished. It isn’t that each individual painting won’t stand on its own, but they will gain considerably when they are viewed together–the consistencies and differences among the paintings will put each individual one into perspective. In other words, I’m working toward a solo show more integrated any I’ve had in the past and I’d like to see most or all of it assembled before I show anyone what I’m doing, as I’m doing it. 

I’m not the only one dubious about Instagram. On Quora, from November last year, there’s a nicely succinct expression of the truth about this platform now. Here is the commentary in full. I notice this is a serious Quora contributor, with 2.2 million views. (Social media, even Quora, is filled with these cues that prompt popularity-seeking behavior, which to me is the opposite of what should be driving a painter.) The question she’s answering is: why do I keep getting new followers on Instagram but the total number of followers on my profile doesn’t go up? The answer to this question demonstrates that for the vast majority of people Instagram, like Facebook, is little more than a way to exchange images and comments with people you already know. If you see someone whose following has risen dramatically over a short period of time, either they’ve just come out of nowhere to be given a retrospective at the Whitney or almost none of those followers are real:

Zoe Larkin, Recovering Instagram addict.

Answered Nov 24, 2018 · Author has 199 answers and 2.2m answer views

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that any new follower you get is a permanent follower that is somehow committed to your account and will be a follower for life.

As an Instagrammer of 3 years, I can tell you that a majority of new followers (maybe even as much as 95% or higher) are just following you because they’ve allowed a bot to follow all accounts that use a certain hashtag, or follow a certain other user (or follow users according to some other parameters they’ve set).

You’re being targeted because you fit into a certain perceived demographic, not usually because this real account has actually seen your work and somehow been so completely in awe of it that they just had to give you a follow.

Whether or not you follow them back, it makes no difference. They are programmed to unfollow everyone they followed within a set period of time, so they can go ahead and follow the next batch of 1,000, 2,000 accounts or whatever. (It just has to be under 7,500 as per Instagram’s limitations).

So let’s say the bot unfollows everyone one week after the initial follow. Your new followers you picked up today are still following you in a week, but followers from last week have now unfollowed you.

These days Instagram has just grown so big, with so many content creators out there, that the days of standing out as a new account by just having informative, engaging, attractive content are gone. The days when you would get genuine comments and new followers from an admiring public are likewise gone the way of the Betamax.

In my opinion, the only way that accounts experience growth is by having absolutely extraordinary content that literally no-one else in their niche is doing, or by follow/unfollow with one of the many bot systems. What worked in early 2018 doesn’t work in late 2018. What works now won’t work in 2019.

The new advice is don’t get transfixed on the numbers. Engagement is meant to be more important, but I agree it’s hard to get high (or even any) engagement when not many accounts follow you, and your stuff isn’t being shown to those that do.

So I’m going to continue to follow the artists I like and click or comment on their posts, but I will be delaying posts of of my own work at least for this project. I’m actually excited about what I’m doing, but I want to keep my powder dry. Meanwhile, I’ll keep passing along, as I do here, anyone else’s work that looks beautiful with the praise so much of it deserves.

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