Kate Eichhorn on the Rise of Insta-Artists and Insta-Poets

In April 2014, Amalia Ulman, a recent art school graduate living in Los Angeles, started to upload images of herself to Instagram. Her first image, accompanied by the caption “Excellences & Perfections,” received twenty-eight likes. Over the coming months, Ulman continued to upload selfies documenting her semifictionalized makeover. Some of the images, like the one of her recovery from breast augmentation surgery, were pure fiction.

Others, including those taken at her pole-dancing lessons, reflected things she was actually doing as part of her self-transformation. Like millions of other young women who post selfies on Instagram, Ulman was using the platform to construct a semifictional narrative about herself. Unlike most young women, her carefully curated postings about her life would ultimately be embraced as art.

In a 2015 Art Review article, Eric Morse observed that in Ulman’s Instagram work, eventually titled Excellences & Perfections, “promises of voyeuristic spectacle and salacious confession ignited her account’s real-time fan base and drew mainstream coverage from pop culture glossies like New York Magazine, i-D and Dazed and Confused.”

But according to Morse, Ulman didn’t just garner an online following during her durational performance on Instagram. “What continues to fascinate most about Ulman’s progressing oeuvre,” Morse observes, “is not only the vast conceptual net under which she interrogates theories of identity, domesticity and fantasy, but the challenging heterogeneity of disciplines and templates that she engages from exhibition to exhibition—from poetry to design to online performance.”

The critical reception of Ulman’s social media performance work hasn’t always been as positive as Morse’s laudatory review, but it has been copious, and in a content age, quantity is what matters. Ulman clearly understood this, which is why she felt compelled to start producing work about herself online in the first place. As she explained in a 2018 statement in Art Forum, “There is an expectation now that artists should be online and on social media promoting themselves, but that the promotion shouldn’t be the work per se. It felt like a requirement, especially as a woman, to expose oneself to sell the work in a way.”

Ulman’s decision to produce content about herself (not herself as an artist but simply as a young, sexualized woman) ultimately proved wildly successful—more successful than her previous artwork. What her online performance also revealed is that in an age of content, content isn’t just something needed to promote one’s art. Increasingly, content is art or, at least, what has come to stand in for art.

But what does this mean for artists and writers and the broader field of cultural production? If cultural producers are now under immense pressure to produce content—not necessarily about their art or writing but about themselves—is culture itself now nothing more or less than the sum of the content one can produce about their alleged lives as artists or writers? Rather than the “death of the author” heralded by French novelist and philosopher Roland Barthes in the 1960s, are we now witnessing its counterpoint—a cultural sphere where nothing remains but a cult of celebrity being played out on digital platforms?

Content isn’t just something needed to promote one’s art. Increasingly, content is art or, at least, what has come to stand in for art.

The field of cultural production in which Ulman and other contemporary artists and writers now work is still partially structured by traditional forms of reception and circulation. In Ulman’s case, reviews of her work in publications such as Art Review and the exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in London and New Museum in New York City certainly contributed to her success, but neither of these achievements secured her success in the first place. Her ability to gain a foothold in the modern art world was propelled by her willingness to produce content about her life and share it on a social media platform. And Ulman isn’t alone.

Most artists and writers now rely on a similar strategy—or more precisely, content strategy. In the 2020s, if you want to be a successful artist or writer, you don’t necessarily need cultural or social capital or even a preexisting body of art or writing to succeed. What matters most is your content capital.

Like cultural capital (a person’s social assets, which include but are not limited to their educational credentials and style) and social capital (a person’s social networks or sphere of influence), content capital—the ability to create content about oneself online—is important because it opens doors to greater success, access, celebrity, and wealth. It is essentially another type of intangible asset that influences one’s social mobility. But this may be where the similarities between content capital and other types of capital end.

Unlike cultural and social capital, which tend to be restricted by one’s class or economic status, content capital is much easier to acquire. You don’t need to be able to pay for a private-school education or access to rarified cultural institutions to acquire content capital. One can build up a tremendous amount of content capital by simply hanging out online and posting popular content that leads to more followers and, in turn, more influence.

In this sense, a cultural sphere that relies more on content capital than on cultural or social capital is more democratic. But is it necessarily one that serves working artists or writers? Here, it’s useful to consider the recent and rapid rise of Instapoets.

Most poets live and work in obscurity, but one poet requires no introduction—Rupi Kaur. The fact that Kaur has become a household name is an accomplishment in itself. Born in 1992, Kaur grew up in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto. Though it is a culturally diverse place, Brampton is not a cultural center. It is the sort of place where you can converse with people in multiple languages, eat cuisine from around the world, and access Bollywood films as easily as you can access Hollywood films, but it is not the sort of place where you can easily visit an art gallery or attend a poetry reading. Still, this is where Kaur achieved a very rare form of literary success.

A cultural sphere that relies more on content capital than on cultural or social capital is more democratic. But is it necessarily one that serves working artists or writers?

Kaur was a typical suburban teenager turning out maudlin poetry in her bedroom. She did her first reading in the basement of the Punjabi community center in her hometown. In 2013, she started to share her work under her own name on Tumblr and eventually Instagram. As her following and body of work grew, Kaur eventually knew she wanted to publish a book, so she enrolled in a creative writing course and asked eventually asked her professor for advice.

As Kaur would later explain a 2017 Interview Magazine feature, “I went and asked my professor for some advice. She was like ‘I don’t think you should self-publish, because it’s kind of surpassing the gatekeepers in this literary community, it’s not a good look.’” Instead, her professor encouraged her to send her poems to a few established Canadian literary magazines.

At first, Kaur took her professor’s advice. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers at Canadian literary magazines didn’t like her poems enough to publish them. While such rejection would dissuade many emerging poets, for Kaur, who already had a large following online, the rejection just confirmed her earlier decision to take matters into her own hands.

She eventually self-published Milk and Honey with CreateSpace, which is operated by the Amazon-owned company known as On-Demand Publishing, LLC. Unlike most publishers, CreateSpace doesn’t do much gatekeeping. In fact, they will publish any content except place-holder—for example, hundreds of pages of Lorem Ipsum.

Despite not having a great deal of cultural capital and skipping the literary gatekeepers, Kaur’s self-published book sold millions of copies, eventually landing her on the New York Times bestseller list. Remarkably, her follow-up collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list and stayed there for months. As cultural critic Carl Wilson has pointed out, “These are airport novel numbers, not poetry ones.” So what’s going on?

In the world of poetry, especially Canadian poetry, Kaur’s accomplishment is staggering. Poetry generally circulates in a very small market, and this is particularly true of Canadian poetry. Even well-known poets publishing with established literary presses often sell just a few hundred copies of a new poetry book. Backlisted poetry collections may sell only a few copies annually or none at all (sadly, I know, because I once published a poetry book in Canada and get a depressing sales summary from my publisher every April).

Yet, without any connection to the Canadian literary scene or an established publisher, Kaur turned something that generally has no potential for profit not only into something profitable but also into something with a seemingly endlessly expanding audience. What separates Kaur from other poets in Canada and around the world? Sadly, her differentiator is likely not her writing (most critics agree that she is no Homer, even if she now consistently outsells him). Kaur’s real differentiator appears to be her content capital.

In the world of Instapoetry, the poetry doesn’t need to be good…It just needs to be copious and easily viewable on a mobile device.

In 2018, Faith Hill and Karen Yuan published an article in The Atlantic about Kaur and the rise of the Instapoet. As they observed, “Social-media poets, using Instagram as a marketing tool, are not just artists—they’re entrepreneurs.” It’s a literary endeavor where business savvy seems to matter just as much or more than literary talent, but as Hill and Yuan discovered, Kaur doesn’t seem to see this as a problem.

As they reported, “Kaur, the ultimate poet-entrepreneur, said she approaches poetry like ‘running a business.’ A day in the life can consist of all-day writing, touring, or, perhaps unprecedented for a poet, time in the office with her team to oversee operations and manage projects.”

While Hill and Yuan rightly point out that Kaur and other Instapoets have turned poetry into a business, they have also done something else—created an entirely new genre of poetry. This has even prompted some bookstores, like Powell’s Books in Portland, to create special subsections for Instapoetry. What’s striking about this new classification is that the poetry’s distinguishing feature has nothing to do with traditional literary classifications—for example, nation, form, or language of origin.

The only thing that defines Instapoetry is the fact that it originates on Instagram or a similar social media platform. While this may seem unimportant to the average reader or nonreader, it actually matters a great deal. Having been put in a class of its own, Instapoetry can more escape potentially scathing comparisons to works published throughout the history of poetry.

Still, just like Ulman and other visual artists whose content (selfies) is art, for Instapoets, their content (pithy, screen-sized poems posted on Instagram) is literature. While they do still publish books, for Kaur and other Instapoets, books are an afterthought—just one type of merch among many other types of merch. After all, for most Instapoets, whose following comes from producing content online and not from books, the book isn’t all that different from the other things they sell, including t-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with inspirational poems and, in Kaur’s case, also a $100 pen that just features an engraving of her name.

For Kaur’s followers, the impulse to purchase one of her books likely has less to do with the desire to read her work (remember, the poems can already be found online for free) and more to do with a desire to purchase a product attached to the author celebrity she has become. This explains why Instapoets, unlike traditional poets, don’t rely on literary critics or reviewers. In the world of Instapoetry, the poetry doesn’t need to be good or have any literary merit, or be recognized by any traditional literary gatekeepers. It just needs to be copious and easily viewable on a mobile device.

For the average Gen X writer or artist who likely spent their twenties trying to get their work recognized by traditional cultural gatekeepers, the “insta” success of today’s social media-based writers and artists may appear facile. But as much as one might want to believe that Instapoets and Instaartists are not the future of literature or art and just a passing trend, they do seem to be winning the race.

In late 2019, The New Republic declared Kaur the “writer of the decade.” As contributing editor Rumaan Alam explained, “Readers who know about poetry might think Kaur’s work is dumb; those for whom Kaur is their first exposure to the medium think it profound. It doesn’t matter if you believe that title of poet belongs only to the likes of Wallace Stevens or Gwendolyn Brooks. Kaur has seized it for herself.”

As one might want to believe that Instapoets and Instaartists are not the future of literature or art and just a passing trend, they do seem to be winning the race.

Similar stories continue to emerge in the visual arts world. In 2019, a headline in Elle read, “Meet The New Generation Of British Artists Selling On Instagram To Invest In Now.” Not all artists who build a following on Instagram end up being successful, but it has changed how emerging artists get their foot in the door. Some of these artists will go on to achieve success in mainstream art circles.

British painter Flora Yukhnovich, for example, was discovered on Instagram by Matt Watkins, director at the Parafin gallery in London. Following her first Parafin exhibit in 2017, Yukhnovich, still in her twenties at the time, started selling her paintings for $40,000 on average. In early 2022, one of her paintings sold for over $3 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

In the past, to be a successful artist or writer, you first needed to be recognized and supported by the established artistic or literary apparatus. Artists needed gallerists and museum curators to recognize and showcase their work. Writers needed literary agents and publishers to get their work into print. Likewise, both artists and writers relied on critics, reviewers, and academics who write about art and literature to further authorize their work and affirm their identities as artists or writers.

In a sense, the visibility of one’s work came after recognition by established cultural gatekeepers. Now, the opposite holds true. Visibility, starting with a successful content strategy on a platform like Instagram, is now what seems to lead to one’s eventual recognition by cultural gatekeepers. But is this good for culture and cultural producers?

The field of cultural production has never been a place where “artistic genius” is simply permitted to shine. Artistic and literary success has always been shaped by outside factors. Which artists are venerated, whose work is celebrated, and ultimately, who can make a living as an artist or writer has always been dictated by factors that exceed the work. Where you exhibit or publish and who and where your work is reviewed has always mattered as much or more than the work itself. And while there have always been exceptions, all of this has generally been a lot easier if you arrive in the art or literary scene with a certain degree of cultural and social capital.

In this respect, the current content age has been game-changing for emerging artists and writers. The monopoly of power is no longer concentrated with curators, collectors, publishers, critics, and reviewers. Artists and writers can now realize success with or without the support of any of these gatekeepers. Understandably, many people view this shift as a positive development and, in many ways, it is. Why beg a gallerist for a show or wait for curmudgeonly editor to publish your poems when you can take matters into your own hands and build up an influencer-level following on Instagram and wait for them to find you instead?

The problem is that in the new paradigm, every artist and writer isn’t just a writer or an artist. Unless they can hire someone to do the work for them (employ an entire team to oversee their daily operations, as Kaur now does), they must also be committed to producing content about themselves on a daily basis. They must be both artist and content producer, both writer and content producer.

So, what’s my advice to emerging artists and writers? Don’t go into debt to pay for an expensive visual arts or creative writing degree. Take your money and invest in a digital marketing strategy instead. The future of art and literature is no longer about what you hold the potential to produce. It’s about how much content you can create and how much visibility and influence you can cultivate on your social media platform of choice.

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Excerpted from Content by Kate Eichhorn. Copyright © 2022. Available from MIT Press.

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