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Caroline Calloway
Caroline Callowayvia Wikipedia

Unpacking the art and performance of Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway

We look at how the Instagram influencer became a figure we love to loathe and how art could be the link between it all

In June of this year, Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway wrote to her almost 800,000 strong audience that she was in the grip of a new kind of creative renaissance, “here to make art that shocks people out of their world and suction-sucks them straight through a tube into mine and leaves them with meaning when they step back into reality.” It was a bold statement for a woman who had months ago been virally shamed as a “scammer” and was still licking the wounds from a creativity workshop tour gone awry. According to Calloway, it was art that would be her refuge even though it was art that had brought her here in the first place.

In a now seminal essay for the New York Magazine back in 2010 entitled, “I tweet therefore I am”, Peggy Orenstein looked to the words of mid-century sociologist Erving Goffman who famously argued that all of life is performance: “We act out a role in every interaction, adapting it based on the nature of the relationship or context at hand”. The piece became one of the first viral essays to seriously comment on the way platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were changing how we live our lives. “If all the world was once a stage, it has now become a reality TV show: we mere players are not just aware of the camera; we mug for it.” Some nine years on and the message of the essay lingers, posing the conflict between personas lived online and offline while pinpointing the seductive temptation of social media to become a space for performativity. 

Fast forward three years and Calloway was using Instagram with the same veracity as politicians and celebrities were using Twitter. Harnessing the platform before most had any idea of the potential it held, Caroline Calloway and her use of life as art planted the seeds for online fame and a captive audience. 

Trading likes, attention, and adoration for a life led through the lens of an iPhone, Calloway spurred one brand of inauthenticity for another. Though the #ads she sold weren’t related to tea that makes you shit, Calloway was dealing in inauthenticity traded as something more dangerous: relatability. If Audrey Woolen emboldened women to “own the void”, Calloway put it upon herself to fill it, documenting the minutiae of privileged life shaped by anxiety, “messiness”, hundred-dollar sweaters, and the wanton eye of social media. 

Aside from a lack of targeted dietary supplements on the #feed, there remains a secondary distinct difference between Calloway and other Instagram influencers of her popularity. Firstly, a focus beyond the picture snapshot on the narrative behind it, working with (then) anonymous co-creators to fashion fantasy into biographical writing and narratives. Secondly, an awareness of certain kinds of class prestige that would separate herself from her audience, offering them a tantalising glimpse of a life they could not lead but wished they could. That Calloway is an art history alumni of St Edward’s College, Cambridge has allowed for a strange “through the looking glass” type of class fetishism to run rampant. A woman with a background in elite private education and social circles stripped straight from the novels of Cecily von Ziegesar, Art History, a subject of study and discourse often cited as a gateway drug to the upper echelons for the upper echelons, was almost tailor-made as a route for amassing anecdotes filled with a rotating cast of wealthy friends, boyfriends, and ghostwriters.

With the Manhattanite “It Girl” glamour of Paloma Wool and Glossier intersected with irreverent praise for artists such as Hilma af Klint and Jules Bastien le Page, Calloway became an Instagram generated icon for a highly coded and classed brand of femininity. The mask of authenticity was made all the more life-like for the cultural capital it supposedly possessed. 

As ex-friend and now viral Cut essayist Natalie Beach wrote: “She had ripped up the wall-to-wall carpet (in her Cambridge dorm)... because she had always wanted exposed wood floors, but you couldn’t even step out of bed without getting splinters.”

The contrast of the authentic persona versus the inauthentic reality runs in parallel to the art she has made, with Calloway selling the works for 80 to 120 dollars apiece despite an acknowledgement that “I do not know how to paint that well”.  Aptly named, the “Tittay” series, identikit breasts (pert and small, of course) were sold in watercolour, harnessing a lite-feminist motif that has been seen time and time again. The performative nature of Calloway’s life allowed the works to sell, seemingly amassing an audience of young female fans keen to purchase a physically tangible testament to the relatability of their idol. The “Tittay”’s were paying rent while also creating an outrage economy that was spiking story views and upping the follower count. They were the carefully created creations of a clever girl cannily rebuilding a brand and attempting to appear authentic by doing so.

“What makes some lives more worthy than others? And crucially, who gets to call their lives art?”

Embracing a cyclical mode of artistic production, Calloway turned to Matisse cut-outs or the preferred title of “dreamer bbs”. Extensively filmed via the medium of Instagram stories, Calloway records her artistic process to her following; sat cross-legged on the floor she hand cuts the Matisse templates and stick-glues them to a backdrop of baby pink neutrals or starry sky prints. It feels important to say that this is a key aspect of Calloway’s visual persona. Bleary-eyed and with paper strewn across a rug laden wood floor, it is the curated personification of a millennial artist at work, an Etsy-fied artist’s studio as the backdrop to her art-making. In more ways than one, Calloway’s art is secondary to the drama and performance of her life itself. 

This hybrid of influencer/performance has for some years been a topic of genuine discussion and contest both online and offline. Writers and art critics pointing to this blurred distinction have noted several artists who play within the slippery game of authenticity/inauthenticity online. YouTube sensation Poppy – born Moriah Rose Pereira – began her experimentation with internet performance back in 2013, singing cover songs on YouTube, and performing at social media festivals such as VidCon and Digitour. Mixing internet aesthetics with music videos more akin to art performance, Poppy and her team created a hyperreal image of a popstar within the age of social media, toying with identity, and messing with previously clear cut notions of pop music in the 21st century. Other artists who have used their own lives to create a kind of metadiscourse around authenticity and inauthenticity include Shia LaBeouf, an artist not often credited with using narrative film and artistic performance to question what celebrity and authentic lived experience means when living within the public eye. His latest film Honeyboy stars LaBoeuf playing his own father in a biopic depicting his own upbringing as a child star within a tumultuous and dysfunctional household. The film has achieved critical acclaim for its honesty. 

Yet there is a privilege afforded to those who are able to cite their lives as a performance. What makes some lives more worthy than others? And crucially, who gets to call their lives art? Calloway’s fixation on her art and narrative is perhaps indicative not of a woman doing wrong, but of a woman perfectly placed to enact the role of millennial villain. Self-obsessed and yet equally obsessed over, Calloway is an example of the space that certain privileged women are able to occupy within the cultural marketplace. In a much-lauded essay for feminist film journal, Another Gaze, writer Rebecca Liu deconstructs the idea of the millennial woman, citing the toxicity of relatability, and the cultural narcissism afforded to very few. “To demand someone enter into and entertain your anxious mind-palace and reckon with your complicated and endlessly fascinating individuality can be an act of power. But who gets to be an individual to the Western public? Who gets to be complex?” Perhaps Calloway’s art is as much a reflection of the audience she has gathered as it is of the woman herself.