Skeuomorphism at the College Art Association Conference: Or, the Unexpected Virtue of Instagram

One of many photos of sunsets on Instagram, Alki Beach, Seattle.  COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

One of many photos of sunsets on Instagram. Alki Beach, Seattle.


“I want to ask you what you think of the new Instagram feature, the one that allows you to control how filtered your photos are. I wonder what you think of the user being allowed to manipulate the degree to which your photos are filtered,” Annika Svendsen Finne, a master’s candidate at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, said to Kimberley Jane Lucy Chandler, a doctoral candidate at the University of Brighton, during the Q&A period following a CAA panel last week entitled “Skeuomorphic: The Skeuomorph from the Acropolis to iOS.”

The panel had opened with several dictionary definitions of skeuomorphs from Nicholas Herman and Sarah M. Guerin, both of the Université de Montréal. In this case, the technique wasn’t employed as a weak rhetorical device, but rather as a necessarily informative one, which I will recreate here: a skeuomorph is an “Object or feature that imitates the design of a similar artifact made from another material,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Herman gave a short speech that, with the right inflections, could almost pass as a dramatic critique of consumer culture:

Skeuomorphs crop up almost continuously in everyday life. We use plastic cutlery that follows the same pattern of silverware; we wear jackets with false ticket pockets, and jeans with fake brass rivets. We put on shoes and sit on car seats with polyurethane surfaces that are imprinted with false stitching that mimic hand sewn finishes; we walk into elevators and floors paneled in faux wood that recall the golden age of architectural material. Some of us smoke cigarettes with yellow filter covers, coded signifiers of the cork filters that have long since been replaced. Most of all, today, we use digital devices. We use computers with graphic interfaces that evoke the traditional workspaces, and more recently, we have started to use touchscreen devices—a calendar with virtual pages curled, a note-taking application with the yellow ruled staff paper of paper pads, a rustic e-book shelf.

He went on to state the question posed to the day’s panel, which asked “whether skeuomorphism is good design, allowing users to relate to a concrete but outmoded object with which they’re familiar or whether this is a nostalgic, superfluous layer that obfuscates the inner workings of the digital.” I.e. ergonomics and aesthetics vs. the kitsch, the faux, and the ersatz.

Allan Doyle, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, spoke about Quatremère de Quincy’s criticism of skeuomorphism in art, while Svendsen Finne taught a brief but in-depth lesson about the divine skeuomorphic structures in the early Renaissance paintings of Piero della Francesca, and McGill doctoral candidate Jeffrey Moser discussed the patterned moldings of pre-modern Chinese ceramics. Chandler closed with her presentation, “The Question of Instagram,” with a refreshingly enlightened outlook, saying:

“Instagram, which was launched in 2010, is synonymous with the fleeting impressions of everyday, and the immediacy of digital media. It is the stuff of smart phones, Facebook, and hashtags. The life of an Instagram photo is short—minutes, not hours, are its primary unit. The temporal coherence of these photos is lost in photo streams of radically different temporalities, origins, and histories.

Poised between reality and abstraction, memory and interface, Instagram merges the analog photograph of traditional photography with digital coding to form a networked digital image. Instagram is a skeuomorphic medium, one that exhibits an indexable trace of an earlier iteration of photography—in this case it is Polaroid photography—by appropriating some or all of its requisite properties. In this merging of past and future, Instagram also complicates the notion of historical validity….[But, I ask] if being instantly nostalgic is really such a bad thing.

I argue that skeuomorphism is not a typology of things, but rather an activity, and in the present-day context of new technologies and tooling, almost all materials have potential to skeuomorph, to behave as others do.

While Instagram might appear on the surface to compromise the validity of the photo, it is in fact a comparable medium. Instagram is a new media object, with its own historical agency.”

The session—and a decade’s worth of doctoral research—was capped with a revelation from an audience member, who suggested that skeuomorphism is a natural rebellion against advances in technology. “When technology makes things easier and easier, it creates a kind of imbalance—[life] is too easy, it shouldn’t be that way. We just don’t know what to do with this technological change, or how to internalize it, or how to make it ours now.

“It’s about feeling left behind, and we don’t like it!” he ended emphatically, eliciting laughter.

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