LONDON, United Kingdom — The writer Tom Wolfe said, “The surest cure for vanity is loneliness.” And what could be more recognisable in our age of Instagram than the solitary quest of the selfie taker, desperate for attention in a world already overloaded with imagery, many clearly struggling with a culture that has ridiculous standards for youth, beauty, wealth and status? But aside from those for whom virtual vanity means feeling insecure about their appearance — ironically, often exacerbated by seeing pictures of themselves on social media — there are those for whom the internet plays a big part in the creative process of self-portraiture.
The phenomenon of the artists currently pushing the boundaries of beauty on Instagram, in all their bizarre, distorted and, at times, prosthetically enhanced glory, seems like an anarchic “Fuck you!” to the highly contoured, pornstar “perfection” of the needy Kardashian wannabe. Like the clubbers of the 1980s, who peacocked their way around Blitz or the Mudd Club, Instagram is now the place to parade one’s individuality with just as much anti-establishment vigour.
“It’s that same thing,” says Nick Knight, the photographer and founder and director of SHOWstudio.com, who has worked with some of these artists. “It’s just dressing up in front of the mirror, but the mirror is actually the internet. I worked with four or five different people recently: Sad Salvia, Isshehungry, Maren Bailey, who used to be called Teratology, and the collective Fecal Matter, also known as Matieres Fecales, and all of them take their looks very seriously and are very advanced in it. But I think everybody had these attributes throughout the ages, it’s no different from the punks walking down the King’s Road in the ’70s, it’s just a way of showing off.
“For a lot of people, there is the natural desire to be a peacock, a dandy, to stand out and express yourself through your visual appearance. Certainly, it’s comparable to the Blitz Kids or people who went to Kinky Gerlinky. Any of those big, flamboyant moments of dandyism where people thought, ‘Actually, I’ll just dress the way I want to dress.’ And I like the fact they get lots of attention for it. So I think it’s a deliberate engagement with their own image, a way of showing off. They’re all different and do it for different reasons but the basic instinct is to say, ‘Here I am. I exist and I’m fabulous and I defy you to think that I’m not!’”
Instagram is now the place to parade one’s individuality with just as much anti-establishment vigour.
But self-portraiture that is both challengingly political and raises questions of vanity is nothing new, from the bone-thin, often naked work of figurative painter Egon Schiele to American artist Cindy Sherman’s conceptual images of herself. But perhaps it is in the work of the late, Lower East Side transgender doll-maker Greer Lankton where we can see extreme, often twisted attempts at the garish glamour of vanity that relate more to the warped aesthetic of today’s Instagram creators. Like Lankton, who often created her bizarre poupées in her own image — i.e. a starving anorexic who once wore a life-sized fat-body suit in which to photograph herself, perhaps in response to the feminine softening of her once masculine physique — their work is not an attempt to symbolise social decay, but to present a life-affirming force to the world that says, to borrow the title of Lankton's 1996 exhibition, “It’s All About ME, Not You.” And perhaps, sometimes, that’s just OK.
Not everyone agrees, though. The idea of parading oneself has been viewed dimly by the establishment in the UK for centuries. As Knight explains, “Britain is a Protestant-based culture. We don’t believe in vanity as a nation and our culture isn’t supportive of it, unlike in Catholic countries. North America and Britain are dead set against the idea of decoration, certainly personal decoration. Look at the way the Protestant church strips everything back down because it doesn’t like the idea of the decadent developments that the Catholic church is so in love with. That’s very much part of why fashion doesn’t particularly sit well in Britain.”
But old-world values aside, is there indeed vanity in the idea of a self-made aesthetic and the desire for recognition that comes from throwing it out into the internet ether? Knight agrees: “Absolutely. It’s a way of expressing yourself and that’s the thing I’ve always loved about fashion, it is the most basic form of human expression — and probably one of the most important art forms we have, as art is about human expression. I think everybody can decide how they dress and everybody does decide how they dress, unless they live in a totalitarian state. And one of the things that you will see in totalitarian societies is the removal of the power of individuals to express themselves, including the power to decide how they look.
“So whether it’s in the shape of a uniform or shaving people’s heads, those are things that totalitarian dictators will do to suppress the people of that country. It’s only when you see the opposite, its absence, that you realise being able to express yourself, and decide how to dress yourself, is a form of personal freedom. It’s incredibly important, which is why I’ve worked in fashion for the last 30 years.”
Is there vanity in the idea of a self-made aesthetic and the desire for recognition that comes from throwing it out into the internet ether?
Viewing virtual vanity in a politically heroic sense, what it truly shows us, both then and now, is how change can come from uncensored ideas. As Knight concludes, “These people are dressing up for an audience and the audience grows and grows and grows and pushes them to take the look even further.
“And there is a security in being able to do that to some degree in the privacy of your own home. A lot of these guys are doing it when they go out as well. Fecal Matter, for instance, dress like that every single day. When they go out on the street that’s how they look. And a part of their thing is the idea of provocation, of provoking society to react. So their look isn’t just something that is confined to the bedroom.”
Nothing lonely about that. Long may virtual vanity and the amazing artists it is producing prosper to shock, provoke and inspire us.