Waves and Paths
Edited by Laurine Heerema
New Paths for Arts Engagement through the Emergence of the “Artfluencer”
In the 1920s in the United States of America, the nephew of psychologist Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, invented the profession “public relations”. (Curtis, 2002) Applying his uncle’s theories of the “Self”, he utilized the human mind by playing on its fears and dreams instead of rational thoughts. The idea was that the subconscious mind would identify with certain ideas and products, so that one would consume things to define one’s self-worth. (Curtis, 2002) In Adam Curtis’ documentary The Century of the Self, it is explained how companies began hiring psychologists in the 1920’s to advise them on their public relations so that they could connect their products with people’s “hidden desires” through focus groups, advertising campaigns and slogans. (Curtis, 2002) Herein lies the question: if this can be done to encourage consumption of commercial goods, can this also be done to encourage the consumption of art and culture?
The history of public relations and marketing shows that the aim of these tactics was to encourage consumerism and influence the masses to purchase various goods. This can move into dangerous territory, for example through the use of propaganda and control, something which is outlined within the documentary. Edward Bernays wanted to encourage the “American Way of Life”, (Curtis, 2002) whereas I advocate for an increased engagement with art and culture. However, if one were to implement Bernays’ method and attempt to control the masses by manipulating their subconscious, the freedom of choice would be revoked, and that would no longer be democratic. On the other hand, if society has been conditioned, at least since the 1920s, by psychoanalytical tactics that encourage them to identify with products, their freedom of choice of what they consume has nonetheless been manipulated. Thus, it could be argued that the system in which society currently functions is not necessarily a democratic one. Would it be considered undemocratic to implement the methods used in public relations to attempt to change the way society links their self-worth with consumption and direct it towards an increased involvement in the arts? A pertinent example is the fashion industry, where the methods of psychoanalysis have arguably been implemented the most, instead of beguiling consumers to buy the latest mass-produced handbag, they should be encouraged to shop second-hand, which is better for the environment in an age of global warming and climate crisis. For the arts, rather than going to see the latest Hollywood film or watching a movie on Netflix that has already been streamed a dozen times, consumers should be motivated to go to the theater or visit a museum. One form of consumption need not fully replace the other, but a balance of “high” and “low” within everyday life could mean that the general quality of life improves through intellectual stimulation and the gap between these two dichotomies of the arts will begin to close.
A form of marketing that has developed from 1920s American public relations is social media marketing. So-called “influencers” have been able to earn a living by building a large following and threading in advertisements for products they enjoy and recommend. In recent years, there has been backlash because followers, or content consumers, began to doubt the legitimacy of these recommendations. (Akar et al., 2011) Consumers began questioning the fact that, if the payment was high enough, their favorite content creators would recommend products and make statements they themselves didn’t truly believe. Not only has this factor been impactful for users, but also the dopamine hit provided when posting or viewing posts on social media has played a large role in increasing the use of apps. (Hilliard, 2021) A form of instant gratification ensues when social media is used, whereas when viewing art, gratification and intellectual stimulation comes after taking more time to engage with it. With social media marketing being used in mainstream media contexts, the arts and cultural sector began to utilize social media as well, and as a result, the “artfluencer” emerged.
An example I will explore within the scope of social media and art is the work done by curator, writer and art historian Katy Hessel. It is not necessarily Hessel as an “artfluencer” that is the most interesting factor for this discussion, although she has over 25,000 followers on Instagram alone. (Hessel, 2022) Instead, I wish to discuss the Instagram page she started in conjunction with her podcast The Great Women Artists, which currently has over 280,000 followers. (Fig. 7) Instagram is a prominent and highly used platform when it comes to online marketing, and according to studies conducted by Facebook, who has owned Instagram since 2012, the platform drives sales: “54% of people surveyed say they made a purchase either in the moment or after seeing a product or service on Instagram”. (Facebook for Business, 2019) The focus here lies in “service”, as the services Katy Hessel offers are not only access to her podcast, but also to her expertise as a curator, writer and art historian. According to that same survey, 87% of people said that they took action after seeing information on Instagram, for example following the account or visiting the website. If this is the case for Hessel and The Great Women Artists, she is achieving a higher engagement with art and culture through the content she produces. Simply accessing the link brings a consumer to her podcast on a streaming site, which encourages them to listen. If a consumer does decide to listen, they may engage with a female artist they had not known before, thereby assisting Hessel in widening her reach and making a greater impact. If Hessel curates an exhibition, although her personal account has less followers than the GWA account, it is still a large reach that could motivate people who encounter posts about her show to come and visit the exhibition. I am not claiming that those who do not engage with the arts on a regular basis would then be motivated to attend the exhibition after seeing Hessel’s Instagram post, although they may be more likely to listen to her podcast. I do argue that it is a form of further encouraging engagement, which breaks down barriers of access through the casual presentation of artistic information.
Fig. 7: Screenshot, The Great Women Artists (@thegreatwomenartists)
on Instagram (taken on 18. June 2022)
In the United Kingdom, 83% of adolescents have a smartphone and 99% of them go online for at least 21 hours per week, which, when broken down, is nearly a third of their free time. (O’Reilly, 2020) It is common knowledge that social media can have a negative impact on attention spans, self-esteem, anxiety and more, but others argue that social media has positive impacts relating to stress relief, social interaction, as well as the development of useful digital skills. (O’Reilly, 2020) Young people feel the pressure to be online, and being part of a community and connecting with friends can be beneficial for them, but photoshopped images perpetuating unrealistic lifestyles and beauty standards are creating false narratives in the minds of the users. On the contrary to this, higher engagement with culture is proven to have positive impacts on education, particularly when it comes to developing social skills, confidence, and motivation. In addition, culture has shown to improve attendance records and academic performance in students who have the opportunity to engage with it. (Brook et al., 2020)
If not only adolescents but adults on social media follow someone like Kim Kardashian, for example, or well-known influencer and playboy Dan Bilzerian, it is not surprising that their mental health deteriorates. Bilzerian, who has over 32 million followers on Instagram, is known for posting about his lavish lifestyle and large parties, often surrounded by nearly naked women (who all conform to the ideal beauty standards of today’s society), alcohol, weapons, or yachts. (Bilzerian, 2021) Bilzerian’s account promotes unrealistic standards that become goals for consumers, leaving both men and women feeling pressured to conform to the roles presented on the account because that is what is perpetuated as the “dream lifestyle”. (Fig 8)
Fig. 8: Screenshot, Post by The Great Women Artists (@thegreatwomenartists)
on Instagram (08. June 2022)
Fig. 9: Screenshot, Post by Dan Bilzerian (@danbilzerian)
on Instagram (25 December 2021)
Katy Hessel and The Great Women Artists has 0.7% of the number of followers of Bilzerian’s account. (Fig. 9) However, this is an example of a person and account which may benefit social media users who consume her content. Not only is the account less narcissistically centered around one person living an expensive life, but the content is visually and mentally enriching through the variety of artworks accompanied by well-researched and informative captions. The account is empowering to women viewing the content to engage with their own creativity as well as that of other women through its focus on female artists. It also makes strides in re-defining the canon of the “male genius” within art historical discourse, serving as a useful and didactic source of inspiration and information. These factors will have a more positive impact on those interacting with the account in comparison to anyone who comes across an overly glorified post about sex and money by Bilzerian. In a way, these two influential accounts are examples of two subcultures, one that is focused on lavish living and parties, and another with a focus on art and education, but both so substantially specific to each group that they diverge slightly from the main western culture to which they both conform. The sheer volume of people following Bilzerian could serve as an argument that his content is informing mainstream culture, and Hessel’s contribution remains on the periphery – a large indicator that western society’s priorities are in need of change.
What Bernays set out to do in the 1920s in the United States with the enticement of the “American Way of Life” is questionable in its morals , however, unlike Bernays, the argument I am making to increase more arts engagement is not about supporting the consumption for pecuniary reward. Instead, engagement with the arts is encouraged due to its beneficial impact on mental health, education, social and cultural interactions and more, something that has been proven on multiple occasions through research in the sector. (Brook et al., 2020) As aforementioned, this is not to force people to entirely shift what they consume; however, increasing participation in the arts will improve wellbeing and intellectually stimulate consumers instead of motivating them to purchase certain goods in order to ensure financial gain.
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Bilzerian, Dan, (@danbilzerian}, ‘White trash summer’ published on Instagram (11. July 2021) available online at <https://www.instagram.com/danbilzerian/> (accessed on 08. July 2021)
Brook, Orian, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor, ‘Who Consumes Culture’ in Culture is Bad for You (Manchester University Press; 2020)
Curtis, Adam, The Century of the Self (full documentary) (2002) video, available online at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s> (accessed on 03. March 2021) 00:05:38
Hessel, Katy, @katy.hessel on Instagram available online at <https://www.instagram.com/katy.hessel/> (accessed on 18. June 2022)
Hilliard, Jena, Social Media Addiction, published by the Addiction Center (15. June 2021) available online at <https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction/> (accessed 31. July 2021)
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The Great Women Artists @thegreatwomenartists on Instagram available online at <https://www.instagram.com/thegreatwomenartists/> (accessed on 18. June 2021)
[no author], How Instagram Boosts Bands and Drives Sales published on Facebook for Business (06. Feb. 2019) available online at <https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/how-instagram-boosts-brands-and-drives-sales> (accessed on 07. July 2021)