Social Anxiety: Why Artist Amalia Ulman’s Fake “Middlebrow” Instagram Is No Different From Yours

This art project Instagram account gets disturbingly close to the truth of contemporary culture.

November 07, 2014

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

Here's a not-so-humble brag for you: I am writing this piece from the roofdeck of the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I'd never been to California until two days ago, and when I read that this particular Ace was located in a crazy-looking renovated movie theater, with an outdoor lounge space on top, I was already picturing this scene in my mind, imagining the photo I would snap of my first time in Los Angeles: putting in a full day of writing while reclining on a cushioned day bed in the California sun, my sandaled feet pointing in the direction of the rooftop's placid wading pool. It's funny how we think in Instagrams now, isn't it? Even when we have yet to actually experience the grammable event in question.

It's extremely tempting to show my friends back at home the uncharacteristically glamorous turn my life has taken in the past 24 hours—I was flown in from New York to report on a festival that's happening here—but I'm not sure if I'm going to go through with it. I wouldn't be the only person on my feed who's posted a photo of hanging out on the rooftop at the Ace Hotel while most everybody else I know is stuck at home, grinding away in cold and rainy New York. I've been on the other side of that equation, and if I'm being honest, it can feel like a stab in the heart—a declaration of "I am here but you are not," with a contradictory "but aren't you happy for me?" mixed in. Beyond telling you where I am for the sake of this story, I'm not convinced that I want to inflict that on you all right now in image-form. In fact, it's because of this conflicted relationship to Instabragging that I've taken to mostly using the app for work purposes these days, to promote the odd FADER event or magazine release. In other words, I'd love to impress you with my very posh whereabouts right now, but I'm also worried that to do would be in bad taste—out of character for my Instagram feed, and out of character for me.

Not every instance of selfie-taking is just shameless self-promotion, though. Recently, I've been following the work of Argentina-born artist Amalia Ulman, and I have to say she's the most artful selfie-taker I know. Not just because she sneaks into Los Angeles hotels and takes pleasingly composed photos of herself living the highlife—posing on fluffy bedspreads in luxe white bathrobes, riding wood-paneled elevators carrying luxury brand shopping bags—but because she's actually turned her Instagram feed into an art project. This past year, she's transformed @amaliaulman into a conceptual performance about a young woman who moves to Los Angeles to try her hand at a modeling career. With each successive selfie, Excellences and Perfections (as the piece, a recent "online exhibition" at the New Museum, is called) articulates a rise and fall narrative tracing the character's evolution from small-town girl to tragic Hollywood glamazon. She's on the sort of reckless quest for self-improvement and personal advancement that can lead as easily to fad dieting and pole dancing as it can excessive partying and plastic surgery, and the effect "reads" like a pictorial lesson in internet era identity construction. There's an easy parallel to be made between the art of micromanaging the details of one's own online image and micromanaging those of one's own body, and Ulman's project lifts the magnifying glass on both, with an emphasis on her own laborious construction of a kind of bland, conventional, feminine beauty. Recurring motifs on the feed include latte art, avocado toast, tasteful cleavage and wavy willows.

Most every interview I've read with Ulman refers to her interest in exploring a "middlebrow" femininity. Now, I've been thinking and writing a lot about the word "basic" recently, which seems to connote something similarly generic, but discovering the 25-year-old artist felt like a good excuse to refresh myself on the meaning of the term. On a recent Googling spree, I found it in a letter that Virginia Woolf wrote to the editor of the The New Statesman back in the 1930s. It was in response to a review of one of her books that had run in the British newspaper, and though she didn't end up sending it, it ended up becoming a canonical "middlebrow" text. From what I can make out, Woolf was butt-hurt that the reviewer's commentary didn't refer to her as "high brow," which is a term that came about in the 1900s to denote a person of strong intellect, deriving from the somewhat questionable notion that people who are smart tend to have higher foreheads than people who are not. In Woolf's understanding, the term describes "a man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea"—a kind of hapless intellectual or artist who is lost in thought all the time, obsessed with life's great questions, and "wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life." A lowbrow, by contrast, denotes a person who is skilled at dealing with the logistics of every day survival—"a man or woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life," per Woolf, by which I think she means people who are busy living life but not necessarily bothered with figuring out what life means. They're the ordinary working people—bus drivers and school teachers, civil servants and scullery maids—who depend on the "high brow" artists and intellectuals to do that thinking for them, all the while ensuring that the world keeps running and providing observational fodder for the highbrows' heady contemplations of the human condition.

Considering Woolf's own relatively affluent and educated family background, there is something terribly classist, even embarrassingly naive, about such a view of the world. Still, Woolf was equally fond of the lowbrows as she was of the highbrows, enamored with what she saw as a mutually beneficial relationship between the "bodies" of the world and the "minds" without seeming to realize how offensive it is to reduce people who work jobs for a living to "bodies." What she despised, however, were people that she called "middlebrows"—individuals she describes as "betwixt and between" the other two brows, too self-important and particular to want to align themselves with the "body" set, but not "deep" enough to hand their entire lives over to intellectual and artistic pursuits. These people, she complains, live "in pursuit of no single object, neither Art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige." Like the greatly pejorative meaning of the word "highbrow" today (nine times out of ten that I hear it used, it is to indicate that something or someone is "elitist" or "snobbish"), the term "middlebrow," for Woolf, seems synonymous with pretentiousness, with pretending to be someone one is not, co-opting the trappings of high culture merely for appearance's sake. It's seeing yourself as a person of impeccable taste, while only appreciating the things that all of society has already deemed "worthy." In the era when Virginia Woolf was living these were things like "Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers, always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters; houses in what is called "the Georgian style."

In a culture where we define ourselves to the world via the material and cultural commodities we consume, we've become more focused on the "branding possibilities" embedded in culture than in actually experiencing it.

Today, calling somebody "middlebrow" is a pretty cringe-worthy, archaic thing to do. For one thing, it feels like a word that only a self-identified high-brow would use to indicate somebody less high-brow than themselves, and who wants to be high-brow in 2014 anyway? Like being "middlebrow" back in Virginia Woolf's time, being "highbrow" is probably the most pretentious thing one can be, smacking of a kind of willful ignorance and conservatism: why would you only value opera and novels by dead white authors in an age when pop culture has opened up a new infinity of expressive forms? Still, in some ways, I think the concept of middlebrow—in Woolf's understanding of it—actually feels more relevant than ever in the age of Instagram. In a culture where we define ourselves to the world via the material and cultural commodities we consume, we've become more focused on the "branding possibilities" embedded in culture than in actually experiencing it. When we go out to a show, we watch the entire thing through our cellphone screens so that we can post it on the internet later. When we eat a good meal, we get worried about photographing it from the right angle rather than savoring the way it tastes. Like the middlebrow person Woolf berates, our consumption of culture is inextricably bound up with a projection of "money, fame, power, prestige."

Spend enough time scrolling through the photos on Amalia Ulman's instragram feed, and you'll find that it enacts that projection on a disturbingly literal level. We get to know the character she is playing only via the things that she's choosing to surround herself with, and the things that she chooses to surround herself with, for the most part, are all clichéd signifiers of class, and wealth (with a dash of fashionable "low culture" references mixed in, like twerking). The world of symbolic objects she inhabits extends even to her own body, which she modifies (or appears to be modifying) before our own eyes: over the period in the character's life that she documents, we see photographs of her face following facial fillers and a non-surgical nose job, as well as images of her bandaged chest in the wake of a breast enhancement. Some of these images are "real," and some of them are not: Ulman did in fact get the facial operations (see the YouTube video below of a real-life conversation she had with celebrity plastic surgeon and "king of collagen" Dr. Fredrick Brandt at the Swiss Institute recently), but the boob job is entirely a photographic construction. She did snap most of the hotel photographs inside actual hotels, but from what I can glean from the interviews she's given, she mostly snuck into them for the photo opp.

Indeed, probably the most intriguing thing about Ulman's project is watching the artist construct a convincing illusion of a real-life person's real-life Instagram feed. Of the 100,000+ followers she has as of this writing, I can't imagine that all of them are "in on the joke." Other than the most recent image she posted—an Instagram advisory she received about not posting photos that are against the app's "Terms of Service," with the caption "Glad @rhizomedotorg archived it all"—she gives no indication that @amaliaulman is a conceptual art piece. Had I stumbled on her account without the previous knowledge that Ulman is an artist, I probably would chalked it all up to just another one of those weird, spammy "hot girl" feeds that have been appearing with increasing frequency on Instagram of late, in a kind of social media equivalent of soft porn. At the end of the day, there's nothing all that out of the ordinary about @amaliaulman; in a space where everybody is projecting some sort of fantasy image, her own fantasy projection seems entirely within the realm of possibility. Were I to snap that selfie I was talking about at the beginning of this piece, I could easily craft a similarly luxurious (and grossly misleading) illusion about my own life right now.

And yet, there's something a little too over the top about Ulman's Instagram. In its unabashed food portraiture and selfie use, it lacks the self-awareness of the characteristically self-aware generation of which she is a part. Most millennials I know construct their online image very painstakingly, but are also very careful not to appear to be doing so. Of all my friends, there is one, a grad student, whose Instagram perhaps best encapsulates the dilemma of wanting to engage in the culture of self-representation online without creating a fallacious fantasy image. Right now, among his most recent uploads, there's a photo of a man in the subway leafing through an absurdly large CD booklet, and another of a Honda Civic inexplicably perched over a sheet of foam bedding. He always seems to expressively zoom in on the most bizarre, sordid things in his immediate surroundings, and when I asked him about his "Instagram philosophy" via email recently, he confirmed my hunch: "I like to highlight unusual juxtapositions and motion towards the disjointed, absurd, dysfunctional, and sometimes seedy underbelly of the world that I experience, whether that be physical or the digital world within the phone." Likewise, when I asked him whether there were any sorts of images he would never post online, he revealed a similar resistance to illusion-making: "Images in which I am plainly bragging, because it doesn't feel natural to brag in public. Images which are plainly beautiful, because of the uselessness and dishonesty of those images to me." Of course, as he admitted, he's not above posting selfies sometimes, but at least he's 100% honest about why he does so: "Only for personal validation." She doesn't say so explicitly, but that must be what Amalia Ulman's character—as a kind of exaggerated mirror reflection of all of us—is looking for, too.

From The Collection:

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety: Why Artist Amalia Ulman’s Fake “Middlebrow” Instagram Is No Different From Yours