This essay was originally published as part of the online art show “Nu Matrearchs” as part of The Wrong Biennial.

The Instagram Model as Art World Question

As detailed in my recent Rhizome article entitled “Self-Made Supermodels,” a new genre of female performance is emerging online as part of the phenomenon called the Instagram Model (IG Model). “Nu Matr-E-archs” – a show with around 30 images taken from 15 IG Models’ pages – will place some of these digital performances into an art world context in order to inspire discussion around the social, political, economic, aesthetic, and art historic issues that emerge therefrom.

“Nu Matr-E-archs” was named in contrast to a high-end event that was held at Art Basel Miami in 2016 called “Nu Muses,” and was produced by the commercial photographer for Victoria’s Secret and Treats Magazine (which features agency models posing nude). The models in “Nu Muses” were “selected by a panel of judges and through social voting for their inspiring, timeless beauty” and the show hopes to “redefine nudity as fine art.”

“Nu Muses” is an example of the long-running motif of mostly male fashion photographers seeking to have their nude photos of women called art by the art world. Yet the art world has also long been resistant to this attempt, perhaps because work like that presented in “Nu Muses” is an example of media and industry modeling agencies promoting a narrow bandwidth of SFW female display created by “man hands,” as I called it in my last online exhibition, BodyAnxiety.com. In other words, it operates in the “muse” paradigm. In considering “Nu Matr-E-archs” in juxtaposition to “Nu Muses,” I hope to call attention to and discussion about how the “muse” and “matr-E-arch” paradigms are different and what these differences might mean for women, art, and society.

The curatorial guidelines for Nu Matr-E-archs are as follows:

1. The model takes almost all her own photos (or a photographer is rarely credited). This ensures that the model is free of “man hands,” that her primary public relationship is between her and her fans (not her and the photographer), that she has “appropriated” the photographer as opposed to being appropriated by him, and that her artistic explorations come from free self-portraiture and self-investigation.

2. At least half of her followers are men (according to an incomplete but representative follower count). This indicates that the model is engaging with the male gaze. Importantly, this separates her from celebrity users – such as mainstream pop stars and industry models – all of whom have many more female than male followers. Hence, because she lacks mainstream press, she is growing her followers through IG-native mechanisms as opposed to the growth mechanisms of mainstream media outlets that exclusively cover safe-for-work agency/industry models and celebrities. In other words, a high male follower count equals a truly “self-made supermodel.”

3. Her images are artistically interesting (while also being “sexy”). Her images are diverse and artful because she engages in explorations of light, color, shape, and physical gesture. Her images are often sexy because they are meant to engage her followers in an art experience that also includes arousal.

By placing the work of these IG Models in an art world context, the following questions and discussion topics, among others yet to be determined, emerge:

– These women have ownership over their images. They are not being subjected to artistic appropriation or unequal muse/model power relations with a co-opting photographer. This is a challenging step and an accomplishment in its own right. The model is the artist is the matriarch is the one being compensated through adoration, followers, and often income. Does this new performance phenomenon circumvent many of the current social arguments against images of women in our culture and provide a new vantage point from which to consider a new set of questions/tactics for achieving female agency?

– IG models must be more “NSFW” (i.e. sexual) to attract followers and power. Is there something wrong with a woman being publicly sexual? Does being sexual preclude a work from being considered artistic? Can female sexuality that engages the “male gaze” be seen as a personal choice that engenders a conscious aesthetic? Does a pro-arousal approach necessarily make something NSFW or porn, and if so, when does this designation serve as an act of censorship toward female bodies (and male audiences)?
– What does it mean for art and women that IG models have a uniquely high male fan count? This fact differentiates them from female celebrities (Beyonce, Kim Kardashian, Lana Del Rey, etc.), female artists who “perform” on Instagram (Amalia Ulman, Chloe Wise, Alexandra Marzella, etc.), and female industry/agency models on Instagram like Candice Swanepoel. Interestingly, this high male follower count also seems to coincide with having a mostly non-art world following – does this make these women outsider artists?

– What does the IG Model mean to artists who are interested in the digital, viral, or lived pop nature of art? What is the relationship between what the art world generally considers “digital art” and what the artists in this show are doing?

– The “It-Alt Girl” is similar to the “It-Model Girl” and both are embraced and propelled to popularity thru mainstream media. However, the “It-Porn Girl” and “It-Instagram Girl” are not embraced by mainstream media due to the fact that they embrace the male gaze and create NSFW content. Last year, Britney Spears’s team decided not to release her David LaChapelle “Make Me” video because they determined it was “too sexy” for the mainstream. So “too sexy” is now a trigger. This is like when Instagram or Tumblr deletes photos that are not nude but are deemed “too sexual.” It is censorship. So who is determining what’s too sexual and what’s not and what are the determinants?

– Slavoj Zizec recently described LGBQT as a “sexual liberation movement,” which it undoubtedly is. To what extent are IG models staging a sexual liberation movement for what has traditionally been called “sex workers,” yet which feels like a term in need of re-contemporizing? What is the difference between sex and work on the Internet, in the art world, in the selfie-modeling world? What are these artist models seeking to liberate themselves from via sexualized art and female display in discourse with the male gaze?

– How can the art world actually differentiate itself from the commercial world in terms of allowing for alternative avenues of female expression? While the worlds often overlap, such as in “Nu Muses,” artists looking to comment on this overlap generally use hetero-arousal-denying and alt aesthetics. For instance, Richard Kern has presented content from his failed porn site (newnudecity.com) in the art world to great acclaim. This can be quite satisfying, but is it the only option for the female image in art? Does being hetero-arousing make something not art? But if it’s not art, it’s also definitely not mainstream, so is it “just” porn? Yet if it is addressing many of the social concerns generally thrown at porn and also shares very little aesthetic similarities to porn, is this a correct categorization? What then is it?

– Unlike traditional female performance artists, whose work remains largely grounded in the various critiques of the 1960’s that targeted the problematic nexus of patriarchy, male gaze and capitalism via live acts of mutilation, deconstruction, and defiance, IG Models seek an inverted liberation. Their practice – which entails digital acts of beautification, reconstruction and arousing engagement with the male gaze and capitalism – utilizes their ownership over contemporary tools of production to achieve financial and creative freedom. Is the art world ready to embrace what they’re doing as a new form of performance art that is as “critical” as the old form, only in different ways and toward different factors?