Words and art by Dorian Winter

This piece first appeared as a featured article in volume 95, issue two of Pelican, where it won the Editors’ Choice Award. You can view our print archive here.

We’ve all heard of the creation of a ‘persona’ in the world of visual art – think back to the moustache of Salvador Dalí, the unibrow of Frida Kahlo, and more recently, the faceless, elusive nature of Banksy. Like the identity cultivation techniques utilized by pop musicians, film directors, and politicians alike – visual artists find themselves questioning their own identities as creatives: does the artist resemble their art? Does the art resemble the artist?

We are now entering an era where visual artists need to establish congruence between their social image and oeuvre to even be considered iconic or “algorithm-worthy”, particularly when platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels favour human-centric content over pure art process or reveal videos. But like with any algorithm, winning against a sea of other artists requires volume, extravagance, and something to remember. But is this to the detriment of authentic art making?

The two main discourses that are pervasive when it comes to the persona, or iconography, of the ‘artist’ are the romanticised, bohemian ‘myth of the artist’ and the commercialised, capitalist ‘creative labourer’ (Barbour, 2014). Theories of reputation, as suggested by Barbour, are key to understanding how artists use impression management to cultivate favourable public relations. To the artist, the reputation (as facilitated by the persona) is a type of capital, which sets a distinct array of norms and expectations for what the artist will do and how they wish to operate, and how this will subsequently calm the nerves of the ever-expectant audience. Becker (1982) takes this further, suggesting that artistic reputations require specific traits such as giftedness, the creation of beautiful works, expression of deep emotions, the production of unique artworks themselves, and a reputation solely built by the artist’s work alone (as opposed to an individual’s political or social controversy). These personas may be cultivated in an attempt to meet the needs of a ‘micropublic’, such as a particular algorithmic niche (eg. ‘cottagecore fibre art’, ‘gothic line drawings’) or they may be generalised and engineered to reach every corner of a larger public audience (Barbour, 2014).

In sociology, Erving Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical conceptualisation of self-presentation, particularly ideas of impression management and role play, see the ‘persona’ as a sort of matryoshka doll, where the artist can adjust different aspects of the self to suit their intended performance (or artistic image). This theory aligns with the idea of the artist matching the art – Goffman essentially suggests that a doctor must both resemble and behave like a standard ‘doctor’, while also practicing medicine, and so the artist must look and behave like an artist, while generating quality artistic work for their audience (Barbour, 2014). In 1959, the idea of the ‘audience’ was simple to Goffman – there are only so many people you can fit inside an art gallery. But on the Internet, this is simply not the case. The artist can ensure privacy by creating private online groups, but then may struggle to find a larger following or clients of interest (Barbour, 2014). The artist can ensure widespread publicity, but with the imminent threat of misunderstanding and/or criticism by an unwanted segment of the public audience. Is the cultivation of a persona the answer to success in the digital age?

Unravelling the contemporary forms of “artist stereotypes”

Codell (2003) came up with four identifiable artist stereotypes, most of which have become commonplace on the internet today. These include the bohemian, the degenerate, the prelapsarian, and the professional. Bohemians are similar to the contemporary hipster movement, embodying a sort of twee rebelliousness and a playful, adventurer attitude. The degenerate is a dangerous, attention-grabbing figure who is characterized as ‘mad’ (more on this identity later) and represents the devious confluence between biology, art and psychological problems. The uniquely Victorian ‘prelapsarian’ artist is a childlike social hermit, retaining a sense of childhood innocence in their personality and their work. The prelapsarian artist is similar to some ‘cottagecore’ artists today, who often roleplay an ‘isolated’ and ‘countryside’ lifestyle to encourage viewers to buy into the innocence and truthfulness of both their art and their artistic identity. And finally, the professional is an artistic identity that embodies economic efficiency, such as an oil painter who not only paints his canvases, but exhibits these works to the public, sells these works via auction, and engages with the media as a publicly visible entrepreneurial artist.

The most important of the four identities, from a critical standpoint, are ‘the professional’ and ‘the degenerate’, as two sides of the algorithmic coin. On social media today, ‘the professional’ is more prevalent than ever. With the capitalistic surge of ‘hustle culture’, ‘productivity’ and ‘becoming a millionaire before 30’ (well, maybe not that) – artists (especially those present online) are under more pressure than ever not just to create, but to create well, market themselves well and exhibit themselves ever-expandingly across the void of internet reception. The intertwining between the art maker and the labour market is not a new one, but it has shifted significantly since the ancient era of “patrons”, who would often scout out the artist themselves and commission their required works, no, the professional artist now having to be his own patron, and his own creator, all at once. Oh, and his own data scientist. And trendsetter. The professional won’t get by simply using the merit of his artistic skill, no, he needs to know the nooks and crannies of the hungry algorithm, especially with regards to the artistic appetites of viewers, and the intensity of the social media current.

On the internet, images and videos circulate more quickly than ever (just think about the virality of overnight celebrity scandals!), but for the artist, who traditionally requires time and attention to be paid to the complexity of their work, this may pose some issues, and a potential for mass misunderstanding (Tedone, 2022). Circulation enables widespread viewership, and so it is something widely strived for in the art community, but there are many critics arguing that riding the algorithmic wave is another pathway to the commodification of visual art. Tedone (2022) describes this process as networked images of artwork streaming through “aesthetic flows and currents (that)… spin out of the control of their makers”, pivoted by feedback loops and user input.

But what about when professionalism doesn’t reel in the likes? Well, meet the contemporary fringe ‘degenerate’. The most famous artistic “degenerate” may well be Vincent Van Gogh, who is commonly taught in high school art classes as being “the guy who cut his ear off” and “the guy who drank yellow paint”. In some respects, the psychologically disturbing lore carved around his existence and artmaking is almost as outstanding as his Post-Impressionistic works themselves. Unfortunately, some budding artists remember his story, and his legacy, and see it as a shortcut to fame (at any cost), sometimes making hyper-edgy or shocking works intertwined with themselves and/or their appearance that can do more harm than good. But when done well, ‘fringe’ and/or ‘degenerate’ is actually neither of those descriptors – it is the illusion of being an ornamental outlier. And unlike the meticulously curated art galleries we see in city centres, social media is a hodgepodge of work (both good, bad, and mediocre) that is almost always perceived as the antithesis to ‘high art’.

“To state it as a sociological hypothesis, the higher a work is in the cultural hierarchy, the more important is discourse about the object to its status. To state it in plain language, taste in high art is mediated, whereas taste in low art is not.” (Schrum Jr, 1996, p. 26).

In Barbour’s own case studies, she finds that the distinction between fringe and professional is explicitly present in contemporary art communities and is especially propelled by the algorithmic complexity of social media platforms. The newly named ‘fringe artist’ (rather than degenerate), is still a performer like the professional artist, but in a distinctly different way. This type of artist is more comfortable with demonstrating a unique, uncensored ‘authenticity’, but with a level of digestibility that doesn’t disrupt the functioning of the public eye too much. But what does this mean in terms of the quality of art making, and our digestion of it as an audience?

Personas, algorithms, and dilution of meaning

If visual artists feel pressured to commit to either end of a gimmick, either cultivating a ‘character’ for an audience to associate with their work (and for the algorithm to repeatedly promote until fame is inevitable), or to take a deeper dive into self-commodification, then it may be safe to say that some of the beauty and cathartic freedom of art making is being diluted. Is the algorithm to blame? Not entirely. The interaction between user, computer, and creator is multifaceted, and your activities at the other end of the screen (whether ‘liking’ out of awe, ‘disliking’ out of shock, ‘sharing’ out of humour) determine the way information and artwork is disseminated online.

But even if viewers and followers shift their behaviour towards slower, less cultivated authenticity, the corporate overlords at TikTok, Instagram and other platforms may still push content they deem ‘proper’ and block you from seeing the things you actually wanted to see. A recent study found that Instagram Reels, compared to photo posts, received higher average engagement and algorithmic promotion (Liang & Wolfe, 2022), with static photo sets being pushed to the bottom of follower reception. Additionally, Instagram Reels have a sophisticated video algorithm much like TikTok which picks up on strong emotions (ie. pleasure, shock, distress) and tends to market content that evokes these feelings in their new, and returning viewers. Researchers have also found that these video-based platforms, particularly TikTok, encourage an “algorithmized self” (Bhandari & Bimo, 2022), where everyone is encouraged to self-create and may, more nefariously, be encouraged to market a persona of their own, while watching the personas of others. Yes, it does get meta. Or Meta. But back to art!

Conclusions, concerns, and the future of the algorithmic, artistic persona

In essence, understanding the role that the public, and more specifically, the algorithm, play in the curation of the artist persona is essential to understanding why we see the art that we do. The dichotomy between the romanticised “myth of the artist” and the commercialized “creative labourer” underscores the tension artists face in trying to expose their art to the world, but also attempting to safeguard from being too ‘basic’, or too ‘extreme’. The artist stereotypes proposed by Codell (2003), which primarily reference early Victorian artmaking identities, are still highly relevant, if not more relevant, in the age of social media, where society still imposes varied expectations and perceptions of the artistic identity.

The professional artist, who is driven by capitalist pressures and the demands of social media algorithms, strives for both visibility and marketability. Yet, this pursuit risks the commodification and dilution of artistic integrity as creators become entangled in a web of self-promotion and algorithmic optimisation. But if we go to the opposite end, where the ‘fringe artist’ emerges, we run the risk of sensationalism and gross misinterpretation of shocking works that may inevitably overshadow artistic merit. But if we want to inch closer to the realm of aesthetics, it may be the case that the relationship between persona building and art making is inescapable – the new question is whether social media algorithms inevitably do more harm than good.

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