White walls have made way for white screens as Instagram has replaced the art exhibit or high fashion store as the public’s primary mode of art consumption. While at one time the art consumer was forced to move from one work to another in clockwise fashion around a room, the Instagram user can take any number of paths from one item to the next through tags, likes, follow suggestions, etc., in a never-ending loop of promotion. In this way, the art consumer is never independent of the material consumer.
One man who was cognizant of this long before the days of Instagram is Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (@takashipom). Throughout his career, Murakami has taken elements of traditional and contemporary Japanese pop culture and incorporated them into his recognizable cartoon-style graphics (you may recognize his work — it first came into American consciousnesses through Kanye West’s Graduation cover art). These graphics have been produced and reproduced in so many contexts over the years that one begins to question where one draws the line between art and commodity. The only thing that outpaces Murakami’s art is his Instagram. He’s now made over 7,000 posts, and it doesn’t take much scrolling to find similarly inclined artists on his feed.
One such artist is Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White and now creative director of Louis Vuitton’s ready-to-wear menswear collection. “My brand started in the alleys of the internet,” Abloh told The Guardian in 2018. Unlike Murakami, who came to adapt to the newfound power of social media, Abloh’s success is solely dependent on its capabilities. Abloh’s trademark creation to date is the addition of bold, all-caps Helvetica Neue words in quotation marks to clothing, furniture and art for this brand Off-White. While the point of this was to highlight the deceitful nature of marketing and the superficiality of consumerism, the internet has powered these items to never-before-seen levels of hype and blind consumption. With nothing but a knack for popular culture and a bad social media habit (plus possibly a masters in architectural design), Abloh rose himself up through the ranks from being an intern at Fendi to being the head of menswear at what could possibly be the world’s “it” fashion brand. Though he may be 38 and married, Abloh now flies nearly every day to and from offices, DJ sets (you get paid to have the aux when you’re head of Off-White and Louis Vuitton), and fashion shows as one of the many entrepreneurs of our generation’s catered interests.
To supplement this interconnected online market of fashion, art and music are companies like Complex and Highsnobiety, who make their money hiring 20-somethings to follow the daily activities of influencers like Abloh and Murakami (seriously, what must their employees do all day?). On top of their main Instagram accounts, which tally 3.8 million and 2.6 million followers respectively, each has a variety of side accounts like @highsnobietydesign and @complexsneakers that tally upwards of a million followers each as well. These pages maximize the likelihood that you will find these companies through some path on the internet (like sports? Find @complexsports on your discover feed) and view their posts. It doesn’t matter whether Instagram indicates that these are ads or not.
No matter the reason we follow these pages, each and every post makes some sort of plug that at the end of the day aims to have us buy something. Yes, there’s always been a tension in art between design and commodity, but never to the extent that we see it today. While the exchange of art and high fashion was once an activity reserved for the elite, it now permeates all levels of society. Although it seems that creators like Abloh are genuinely invested in their designs, we must always question the sincerity of companies that solely produce and share products catered to the masses.