My mom is an art teacher, so I’ve had no choice but to be surrounded by art my whole life. Every family vacation, my mom made a point of scoping out the nearest art museum and marching me and my brother through the exhibits. She spent hours quizzing us on the likes of Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, explaining the differences between realism and surrealism and putting museum tour guides to shame. She skipped the whole Disney princess nonsense and instead taught me to idolize Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe. When I was in the fifth grade, my mom opened her own art studio and started a small business teaching art classes and hosting workshops. The majority of my weekends during middle school were spent shuffling in and out of her studio, watching her teach other little girls about Kahlo and O’Keeffe. I felt proud to tell my friends that my mom owned her own business; having that space to entertain my creative spirit while spending time with my mom was a true blessing. I quickly grew to love the way her studio always smelled of turpentine and constantly hosted a gaggle of high-pitched, tiny artists-to-be.
A year passed, and as the aches and agonies of adolescence commenced, my mom’s charming little art studio didn’t seem so charming to me anymore. It was at this same time that Instagram was created and every middle schooler became a content creator overnight. Like every other brace-faced girl in my sixth grade class, I was quick to subscribe to this new age of digital art. I began to discover the difference between what signifies “art” versus what can be deemed as “artsy.” It’s those two little letters that draw the distinction between da Vinci and the dreaded VSCO girl. Suddenly, art shifted from being a central pillar of my relationship with my mom to being a vehicle for what every adolescent strives to do during those hellish years: relate to her friends. Overnight, there was this new thing on our phones that would allow us to fabricate and broadcast the lives we wished we had. We finally had a way of escaping our sad, middle-schooler existence. We could be popular, we could be artsy, as long as our Instagrams made us look that way.
Once my friends and I made our respective Instagram accounts, we began our honorable pursuit of artsy excellence measured in likes and followers. We would make an event out of “getting cute,” which usually meant sporting something neon from Target and going out to exploit what little our suburb in central Indiana had to offer resembling an arts and culture scene. We would spend hours weaving in and out of our downtown’s brick streets, exploring a boutique, then an antique store and then another boutique, searching for anything that sparked our inner artsy. Once that got old, we would venture beyond the suburb’s Main Street to museums in Indianapolis. We made a habit out of going to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, not to actually look at the art, but to pose in front of it. We would stand in front of countless paintings and sculptures, hand on hip, maybe make a kissy face and take Instagram pictures. This was all in the name of converting enduring, exceptional pieces of fine art into something we deemed insta-worthy — of making art artsy. The same pieces I saw in my mom’s textbooks and heard about over and over again in the lessons she taught at her studio became nothing but background visuals to me.
Over winter break, my two best high school friends and I returned to the same art museum and, luckily, we didn’t totally revert to our old habits. No kissy-faces were made. We saw all the art that we could in the 45 minutes before the museum closed, taking the occasional picture of new pieces we saw. We came across the same Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit we had been going to since middle school. We only then realized that maybe there’s something more to all those flowers and pelvis-shaped “animal bones” she painted. We let out some embarrassed giggles as an old couple nearby glared at us. The vulvic imagery was suddenly screaming at us from the walls of the museum. We were seeing her art in a whole new way. We were seeing it beyond the limits of the Instagram filters that had once dominated our perspective in middle school.
I’d like to think that moving away to college and gaining some more life experience allowed me to ditch the idea that artistic merit and life’s value were measured on scales of insta-worthiness. But if I know anything for sure, it is that while art and artsy-ness may carry completely different connotations in society, both ideas have been steadfast in their ability to connect me with the people in my life whom I love most— my mom, my friends and Georgia O’Keeffe included, of course.