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Nov 17, 2017
20 Min read time
The modes of perception and living that we attribute to Instagram are rooted in a much older aesthetic of the picturesque.
Audio by curio.io
While touring England’s Lake District, poet Thomas Gray suffered what Jen Rose Smith astutely identifies as a selfie-induced injury. While looking more intently at the reflection of the setting sun in his outstretched hand than at the ground beneath his feet, Gray reports, “I fell down on my back across a dirty lane . . . but broke only my knuckles.” In case his reader was worried, Gray adds that he “stay’d nevertheless, & saw the sun set in all its glory.” Although Gray’s injury took place in 1769, during the rise of the picturesque, his accident resonates in the age of Instagram—a time when clickbait articles regularly report people falling off cliffs, stepping into traffic, and crashing into precarious artworks, all in pursuit of that perfectly Instagrammable moment.
It is tempting to believe that we live in a time uniquely saturated with images. But the trends, behaviors, and modes of perception and living that we attribute to smartphones are rooted in the much older aesthetic of the picturesque.
It is tempting to believe that we live in a time uniquely saturated with images. And indeed, the numbers are staggering: Instagrammers upload about 95 million photos and videos every day. A quarter of Americans use the app, and the vast majority of them are under 40. Because Instagram skews so much younger than Facebook or Twitter, it is where “tastemakers” and “influencers” now live online, and where their audiences spend hours each day making and absorbing visual content. But so much of what seems bleeding edge may well be old hat; the trends, behaviors, and modes of perception and living that so many op-ed columnists and TED-talk gurus attribute to smartphones and other technological advances are rooted in the much older aesthetic of the picturesque.
Wealthy eighteenth-century English travelers such as Gray used technology to mediate and pictorialize their experiences of nature just as Instagrammers today hold up their phones and deliberate over filters. To better appreciate the picturesque, travelers in the late 1700s were urged to use what was known as a gray mirror or “Claude glass,” which would simplify the visual field and help separate the subject matter from the background, much like an Instagram filter. Artists and aesthetes would carry these tablet-sized convex mirrors with them, and position themselves with their backs to whatever they wished to behold—the exact move that Gray was attempting when he tumbled into a ditch. The artist and Anglican priest William Gilpin, who is often credited with coining the term “picturesque,” even went so far as to mount a Claude mirror in his carriage so that, rather than looking at the actual scenery passing outside his window, he could instead experience the landscape as a mediated, aestheticized “succession of high-coloured pictures.”
Connections between the Instragrammable and the picturesque go deeper than framing methods, however. The aesthetics are also linked by shared bourgeois preoccupations with commodification and class identity. By understanding how Instagram was prefigured by a previous aesthetic movement—one which arose while the middle class was first emerging—we can come closer to understanding our current moment’s tensions between beauty, capitalism, and the pursuit of an authentic life.
• • •
Until the mid-1700s, most Europeans wanted art that was beautiful in the classical sense: pleasurable, symmetrical, rational, and morally edifying. But spurred by philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, a new notion began to crystalize around aesthetic experiences that fell outside this category. Onlookers, for instance, who were accustomed to staring at symmetrical Greek busts responded differently to an alpine chasm: the latter elicited a sense of astonishing scale fraught with danger, an aesthetic and emotional experience which came to be categorized as “the sublime.” Between these poles of beauty and sublimity hovered the picturesque, a term used by Gilpin, Gray, Uvedale Price, Henry Walpole, and others to describe the natural, time-worn scenery of the English countryside.
Wealthy eighteenth-century English travelers used technology to mediate and pictorialize their experiences of nature just as Instagrammers today hold up their phones and deliberate over filters.
While the word “picturesque” came into circulation in the early 1700s to describe anything that looked “like a picture,” it solidified into a stable aesthetic by the late 1700s, when travelers began recording their trips through Europe and England with sketches, etchings, and the occasional painting. The method for circulating their images was more cumbersome than ours, but largely followed the same formula as today. A wealthy traveler trained in draftsmanship (whom we would now call an influencer) would take a months-long journey, carrying art supplies to record picturesque scenes. When he returned home, these images were turned into etchings, which could then be mass-produced, sold individually or bound together to create a record of his travels for his friends and family to peruse.
This practice had its roots in the Grand Tour, a rite of passage for young male aristocrats entering government and diplomacy, in which they roamed the continent for a few years with the aim of accruing gentlemanly knowledge of the world. But the picturesque travelers of the late eighteenth century were a new type of tourist, men and women born during a period of rapid economic and social change. This was the world of Jane Austen, in which a burgeoning middle class sought to solidify and improve its position in English society by adopting practices that signaled prosperity and refinement.
By the time Gilpin started using the word “picturesque” in 1768, Britain’s industrial revolution was roaring to life and the British countryside was being surveyed with the goal of building a new system of roads adequate for an age of rapid transit. As Ron Broglio argues in Technologies of the Picturesque (2008), these initiatives opened up huge swaths of the country that had previously been inaccessible. Simultaneously, Britain’s enclosure movement reached its height, ejecting farmer tenants from what had been commons and was now the private property of wealthy landowners. With lands consolidated, a system of industrial agriculture and labor emerged to more fully extract profit from the earth, helping to produce a middle class that replaced the aristocracy as the new base of English tourism. And yet, just when this new class of wealthy people would have left England’s shores to explore the rest of Europe, the Napoleonic Wars erupted in 1803, forcing the English to spend their leisure time traveling within their own newly mapped countryside.
Instead of rendering classical architecture or the gods and saints of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, picturesque artists favored images of wild landscapes with stolid boulders, crumbling castles, and stooped peasants. They prized rough texture, mottled shadows, and a general feeling of authenticity. In his Essays on the Picturesque as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful; and on the Use of Studying Pictures for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape (1798), Price sums up the difference between the old-fashioned interest in beauty and this new Romantic aesthetic: “A temple or palace of Grecian architecture in its perfect entire state, and with its surface and colour smooth and even, either in painting or reality is beautiful; in ruin it is picturesque.”
The Instragrammable and picturesque aesthetics are linked by shared bourgeois preoccupations with commodification and class identity.
For Gilpin, the picturesque was not just an aesthetic, but a mindset that projected compositional principles onto a landscape while constantly comparing that landscape against previous trips and pictures, a kind of window-shopping of the soul. But the direct experience of picturesque nature is really secondary to having recorded it, either on paper or in memory. “There may be more pleasure in recollecting, and recording,” he writes, “from a few transient lines, the scenes we have admired, than in the present enjoyment of them.” Only recently catching up with the insights of our forebears, the pleasures of recording and archiving have been rediscovered by digital media theorists, such as Nathan Jurgenson, who calls this preoccupation “nostalgia for the present.” Typically, this condition is associated with photographic image-making, and especially with digital technology, but these preoccupations obviously preceded the advent of the camera.
The relationship between image and nature became more complicated when the picturesque traveler, laden with drawings, returned home to his estate. The picturesque images and writings of Price, Gray, and Gilpin not only ushered in a new era of tourism, but also a new way of designing the built environment. For more than a century, English gardens had been constructed in the French style, in imitation of Versailles or the Jardin du Luxembourg: highly systematic and intricate arrangements of hedges and fountains that looked as far from nature as possible. The picturesque upended these ideals, proffering the “unvarnished” natural landscape as the proper subject of fine art. This led the wealthy to design their properties according to a new set of aesthetic criteria, a kind of artificial naturalness.
Humphry Repton, one of the most prolific and influential English landscape architects, became the leading practitioner of this new trend, even receiving a mention in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814). Repton’s renown was in part due to the popularity of his instructional manuals, which promulgated painterly concepts such as “foreground,” “middle ground,” “background,” “contrast,” “variety,” and “novelty” to construct a more visually pleasing environment. At the same time, Repton emphasized that the landscape architect must erase his own artifice to better cast the illusion of a natural, picturesque space. “In landscape gardening everything may be called a deception by which we endeavour to make our works appear to be the product of nature only,” he writes. “We plant a hill to make it appear higher than it really is, we open the banks of a natural river to make it appear wider, but whatever we do we must ensure that our finished work will look natural or it would fail to be agreeable.”
This foundational principle of landscape architecture is carried straight on through into the nineteenth century in the great public works of Frederick Law Olmsted. Following Repton’s lead, a legion of landscape architects theorized their clients’ land as a series of pleasurable vistas, employing groves of trees, riverbanks, and even farm animals to draw the eye into the landscape and create visually striking compositions. Though Repton liked using sheep to show scale, he called for the removal of working farms from estates because he believed they spoilt the scenery. Old barns, however, abandoned by cottagers who had been forced off their land by enclosures, were ideally suited to picturesque designs.
The world of the picturesque was the world of Jane Austen, in which a burgeoning middle class sought to solidify and improve its position in English society by adopting practices that signaled prosperity and refinement.
To give their clients’ estates the appearance of age, some landscape architects even built sham ruins called “follies.” These buildings often bore little relation to the main house’s architectural style, and if they had any function (as a teahouse or greenhouse, say), it was secondary to their principal purpose as simulations of lost time. Across Great Britain, one can still find these strange structures dotting the grounds of famous estates: Greek temples, medieval towers, fallen walls, and fanciful relics combining elements from various periods and styles to create an amalgam of anteriority. At the same time, efforts were undertaken to shore up actual antique ruins—for example, the collapsed Scottish abbeys of Dryburgh and Melrose—so their wrecked splendor would be preserved and remain safe for tourists to enjoy. One of the leaders of such efforts was the Romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott, who is buried in Dryburgh. Soon the picturesque was swept up in the larger Romantic movement, playing handmaid to an aesthetic of a naturalistic built environment that ultimately had very little to do with the natural world.
• • •
Today you can still find echoes of the picturesque in travel photos on Instagram. A friend’s recent trip to Cuba, for example, will feature leathery old men smoking cigars among palm trees and pastel junkers. Or simply search #VanLife to see an endless stream of vintage Volkswagens chugging through the red desert landscape of the American Southwest. But rather than concentrate on generic similarities between the picturesque and images one finds on Instagram, it is more illuminating to think of how both aesthetics arose from similar socioeconomic and class circumstances—manifesting, according to Price, as images filled with “interesting and entertaining particulars.”
Price’s use of the word “interesting” is significant in understanding the relationship between the picturesque and the Instagrammable. In Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012), philosopher Sianne Ngai positions the picturesque as a function of visual interest—of variation and compositional unpredictability—which she connects to the enticements of capitalism. For a scene or a picture to be interesting, she argues, it must be judged in relation to others, one of many. According to Ngai, this picturesque habit began “emerging in tandem with the development of markets.” Unlike beauty, which exalts, or the sublime, which terrifies, Ngai suggests that the picturesque produces an affect somewhere between excitement and boredom. It is a feeling tied to amusement and connoisseurship, like letting one’s eyes wander over a series of window displays.
And so, too, is the Instagrammable, a mode that is inseparable from listless scrolling. The pleasure comes when your eyes alight on that special something, which seems to pop out from the rest. This twinning of artistic and mercantile rapture is best encapsulated by a remark that a young Walpole made to Gray when the two were touring Europe for the first time: “I would buy the Colosseum if I could.” Likewise, there is no point in putting anything on Instragram that is not, in some sense, for sale—even if what is for sale is an abstract possibility unlocked through class belonging.
If we allow that the rise of the picturesque was in part a product of England’s material circumstances in the eighteenth century, then it follows that our own tumultuous economic and technological moment has helped produce the Instagrammable. Broadly speaking, I am talking about neoliberalism, defined by David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade . . . which seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.”
The picturesque was ultimately about situating oneself within the class structure by demonstrating a heightened aesthetic appreciation of the natural world, during a period when land was becoming increasingly commodified. By contrast, the Instagrammable is a product of the neoliberal turn toward the individual. It is therefore chiefly concerned with bringing previously non-commodifiable aspects of the self into the marketplace by turning leisure and lifestyle into labor and goods. Though the two aesthetics share a similar image-making methodology and prize notions of authenticity, the Instagrammable is perhaps even more capacious than its predecessor. Through the alchemy of social media, everything you post, whether it is a self-portrait or not, is transformed into a monetized datapoint and becomes an exercise in personal branding.
There is no point in putting anything on Instragram that is not, in some sense, for sale—even if what is for sale is an abstract possibility unlocked through class belonging.
It almost goes without saying the selfie is by far the most popular kind of image on Instagram. Photos of faces receive 38 percent more engagement than other kinds of content. Indeed, one could argue that all images on the platform are imbued with the selfie’s metaphysical logic: I was here, this is me. Following this structure, mirrors and shiny surfaces on Instagram abound, with the photographer reflected in still ponds, shop windows, and Anish Kapoor sculptures. Sometimes a body part or an inanimate object will stand in for the self: fingers cradling a puppy, hot-dog legs by the beach, a doll in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Other times, the presence of the Instagrammer is suggested through a shadow cast against a scenic backdrop, or merely implied by the very existence of the photograph itself, which says, This was an Instagrammable moment I recorded. Although rarely figural, picturesque images could also be said to have possessed the qualities of the selfie avant la lettre, given what they were often meant to signal: I went here, I am the kind of person who has traveled and decorates my home with this kind of art.
This all-encompassing logic of the selfie clarifies itself when you type “#Instagrammable” into the platform’s search bar. Foamy lattes, tourist selfies, old jeeps, women in teeny bikinis, and the phrase “namaste bitches” written in neon lights. On first glance, these photos seem to share nothing but a hashtag, yet when taken together, they represent an emergent worldview. Whereas British travelers of the picturesque era set their newly trained gazes upon rugged vistas and ruined abbeys and then recreated them on their own properties, Instagrammers are instead retooling their own lives—the most obvious medium of our neoliberal age. In short, the project of the Instagrammer is not to find interesting things to photograph, but to become the interesting thing.
At its core, Instagram is powered by a careful balance of desire: every commodity (including the Instagrammer) must be desirable to the consumer, but no consumer can seem unsettled by desire for the commodity. Like the measured interest at the core of the picturesque—a display of world-wise connoisseurship that signaled class belonging—“thirst,” and its careful suppression, is what drives Instagram. Thirst is an affect that combines envy, erotic desire, and visual attention. However, if you are obviously thirsty, it means that your persona as a sanguine consumer has slipped, which is considered bad or embarrassing. One has revealed too much about one’s real desires. In this way, Instagram influencers are like dandies, whose greatest accomplishment was the control of their emotions, and more importantly control over the ways their faces and bodies performed those emotions. “It is the joy of astonishing others,” writes Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life (1863), but “never oneself being astonished.” Which is not to say that displays of emotion are banned from Instagram—they are essential—but influencers typically communicate these feelings in generic, mask-like facial expressions and gestures, or with the supplement of emojis. Consider Eva Chen, the former editor of Lucky who is now Instagram’s director of fashion partnerships. Her expressions are one formulaic rictus after another, like the masks of Greek theater.
According to Instagram influencers I reached out to, their first priority is to avoid creating images that appear overtly staged or cliché. Alyssa Coscarelli (@alyssainthecity), a New York–based fashion writer and editor at Refinery29, explained:
In my view, ‘Instagrammable’ things have to be aesthetically pleasing but without trying too hard. . . . The restaurant De Maria was basically made for Instagram, and yet . . . isn’t a completely obvious thirst trap. It’s just tasteful and photogenic without being tacky. An example of a bit of a thirst trap would be The Museum of Ice Cream. To me, this is a turnoff because it tries too hard to be Instagrammed.
Such considerations of thirst impact everything from Instagrammers’ daily routines to their choices of decor. “I prefer to stay at a hip, photogenic, well-decorated boutique hotel than a hotel chain,” Alyssa wrote. In choosing the objects in her apartment, she said, “I’m . . . keeping in mind the aesthetic of each piece because I know not only will I photograph it for my own channels but it’s also likely to be photographed by blogs and publications.”
The Instagrammable is a product of the neoliberal turn toward the individual. It is chiefly concerned with bringing previously non-commodifiable aspects of the self into the marketplace by turning leisure and lifestyle into labor and goods.
Not all Instagram influencers are as sanguine about the narrow sort of self-presentation required by the platform. Sabina Socol (@sabinasocol) is a French magazine journalist and nascent Instagram influencer with approximately 100,000 followers. Her account is typical of European fashion and lifestyle influencers: slouchy jeans and Parisian cobblestones, skimpy bathing suits by the pool in Ibiza. Recently she decided to pursue influencing full time, and has hired a manager to deal with sponsorship requests. Socol says she hates manufactured spontaneity and thinks selfies are corny. Yet to be legible, Socol’s Instagram photos must play by the rules of the game: many feature Socol looking over her shoulder, posing as if caught in a moment of sudden recognition: Oh, I didn’t see you there.
It is this obsession with looking natural that appeals to advertisers, because unlike a magazine ad or television commercial, the line on Instagram between the real and the make-believe is much more porous. People scroll for hours on their phones because of the pictures’ ability to simultaneously conjure fantasy and ground that fantasy in the suggestion of documented experience. Contemporary audiences know that television ads are fake, but on an Instagram feed, mixed with family snapshots and close-ups of birthday parties, sponsored posts of cerulean waters on the shores of Greece look real enough—achievable, or at a minimum, something one should hope to achieve.
U.S., EU, and Commonwealth law all require, in varying ways, that corporate sponsorships be declared as a form of advertising, and the sponsorship of Instagram channels is no different. However, in practice many influencers are less than forthright. In a blog post from April 19, 2017, the FTC noted various techniques that influencers have adopted to pay lip service to the law while obfuscating the nature of their relationship with sponsors: hiding disclosures beneath the “More” button, burying disclosures in a thicket of other hashtags, or using vague hashtags “that many consumers will not understand as a disclosure like ‘#sp,’ ‘Thanks [Brand],’ or ‘#partner.’” It is here that the tensions around authenticity in a neoliberal economy come obviously to the head: everyone on Instagram is chasing authenticity, but obvious sponsorships reveal the whole enterprise to be a carefully curated commercial experience. If that hard-won illusion of authenticity is punctured, influencers fear getting dragged by—and ultimately losing—their audiences.
These fears, however, may prove short-lived. Indeed, the platform—and its aesthetic—are evolving, and with them audiences’ expectations. In his essay “Everything in Its Place,” Rob Horning asserts that few people still have faith in the documentary status of an image on social media. Instead he believes selfies on Instagram take on a more semiotic function. Horning writes:
It is becoming common sense to regard images shared online as the products of elaborate manipulation, more like language in their malleability. They must be read not as ‘showing what really happened’ but as having been manipulated to convey as clearly as possible the messages they carry with increasingly explicitness—even and especially if that message is ‘I’m authentic,’ or ‘I really did this.’ Conveying a sense of authenticity may require the most painstaking manipulation of all. The distinction between what one hopes to say and what one ‘really’ did becomes besides the point.
Just as the picturesque was supplanted by highly decorative Victorian styles of architecture and design that eschewed naturalism for a bonkers eclecticism, Instagram users are starting to forsake the appearance of naturalness for the artificiality of augmented reality. The ornament has merely migrated from interior spaces to digital ones. Such changes in taste correspond to the popularity of Instagram’s augmented reality–enabled “Stories” function, which the company recently announced has reached 300 million users. Its filters—which, for example, let you wear cartoon glasses or bunny ears—are less about producing evidence of an Instagrammable experience than they are about conveying a message or a mood, such as “I’m feeling playful.”
When the success of an image depends less on its illusion of authenticity and more on its semiotic, and perhaps mimetic, capabilities, the picturesque and the Instagrammable will have to go their separate ways.
However, this shift is unlikely to put advertisers off of Instagram. If anything, a version of the app dominated by augmented reality might turn out to be even more ripe for commodification than our current iteration. The “curated” look associated with Instagram limits how much content top users produce, but because the images on the Stories feature are disposable and disappear after twenty-four hours, users are now filling their feeds with even more content, driving up engagement, and keeping more eyeballs glued to phones.
Influencers and the attention economy are only likely to grow in significance—yet I also suspect that the particular visual tropes and anxieties articulated by Instagrammers of today will soon feel dated. When the success of an image depends less on its illusion of authenticity and more on its semiotic, and perhaps mimetic, capabilities, the picturesque and the Instagrammable will have to go their separate ways, just as naturalistic Romantic and florid Victorian aesthetics diverged in the nineteenth century. But until the day when digital embellishment has become de rigueur, you can find me, iPhone in hand, scrolling and strolling through the picturesque knolls and wooded copses of Prospect Park, searching for the perfect backdrop for a #nofilter selfie.
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