For many millennial artists and art appreciators, we don’t have to trek out of our homes to enjoy a night at a gallery to see the creations of our friends and admired artists. While that is still thankfully present, it is not the only way to digest work anymore. Social media plays a strong and interesting role in the accessibility of art, while also creating several questions regarding the value and intentions of art using social media as a platform. Milwaukee artist Shaun Watson, a talented illustrator, pin designer, and dear friend of mine, had an interesting perspective in regard to this issue, especially due to his own work and his social media presence. Shaun not only uses Instagram as his primary medium of exposure and marketing of his work, but he additionally focuses on a consumable art form that is becoming more and more popular socially and stylistically. In an online interview, we discussed how Instagram and social media in general raises eyebrows, creates controversy, and presents a new approach to art.
First, to give a bit of background on the featured artist, Shaun has been drawing since he was young, yet doubting himself every step of the way. He enjoyed the street art and graffiti style as an adolescent, but after feeling restricted within the confines of street art, he moved towards illustrations and what he describes as a “natural” style of drawing. He never felt “good enough” he confesses, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to find a style and form that fit his creative preferences and abilities. His work today is minimalistic in nature, focusing on thick, primarily imperfect black lines and a white sheet of paper. Typically, he draws the things around him in his daily life: plants, dogs, the objects within his home. His work is quick, not to diminish anything about the quality or the value, but that is simply how he produces his work. “Most of my work is created fast,” he says. “But it may take 20 drawings to find one I love. I try to treat every drawing and doodle I do as if it has the potential to be my masterpiece.” In addition to illustrations, Shaun focuses on merchandise such as pins and patches revolving around similar themes as his illustrations.
When thinking about his personal art, I became more interested in how he felt about the mass accessibility of his work and why that matters. Most of his work is sold at generous prices that most people can afford, which I found pretty rad. Shaun likes to not only make his art accessible through social media, but accessible price-wise as well. “A lot of my fans are in their 20’s, and presumably do not have the money to spend on a fancy painting, but still want to support up-and-coming artists,” Shaun says. “Pins are a perfect way to do that. Art is not just for the bourgeoisie anymore; anyone is allowed to love it, and anyone should be able to afford it.” Merchandise as a form of art is interesting in itself, but the tangible and wearable aspects within them is what I find most compelling. I think there has historically been an idea, most likely centered and valued around tradition, that art worth anything needs to be isolated in a gallery setting, or that people actively go to see art, rather than wear it. While fashion of course resembles this, art of Shaun’s style is a more recent trend, and one that places more value on the work because of the tangible qualities. In regard to this, Shaun told me his wearable art resembles a large-scale support system. Seeing people around the city donning his pins or posting his stickers to their laptops can be immensely supportive and encouraging. At the same time, merchandise art also comes with the concern for getting back what was financially put into the work, since the goal ultimately is to profit. It’s a system which relies heavily on society and urgency to remain relevant, or more specifically the need to respond to public desires. Through social media, Shaun is able to track how the public respond to his work and adjust based on the demand. In addition to this, Shaun’s pins resemble the accessible qualities that social media also plays in his work overall. Through posting on Instagram, he has not only gotten more clients, but has also met with artists around Milwaukee and found a support system of artists there. In August they hosted an art event together called Fitz and Friends that connected 20 talented artists and their fans to share their love of art and creating with each other. Social media for him has been a generous gift and one that he has taken full advantage of up to this point in his art career.
On the opposite end of that, critiques of this accessibility come from many different places, but mostly from those outside the millennial generation. The disposability of this type of art has been argued to cheapen the quality and make it therefore less desirable. In regard to wearable art, or generally art that can be accessed in our daily lives, has also been critiqued as not “real” art, and Shaun speaks on this as well. The problem with this mindset is that it limits the spreading and sharing of art, and ultimately confines art to an audience with a certain economic status and privilege. It takes away the value placed on artists looking to experiment, branch out, or simply artists that don’t have the means to produce art that has been socially deemed “valuable” up to this point. It’s a struggle, but there’s also a struggle in social media within the art scene as well. Shaun talked about Instagram artists who were already fairly well known prior to Instagram, becoming more famous because of it, while beginner artists still stay close to the bottom.
Ultimately, as appreciators of art and artists ourselves, I believe it’s important to recognize many forms of art, especially ones that fall outside of the mainstream. Narrowing perspectives create barriers to our understanding and can consequently diminish the talent of the hard-working artists behind the pieces. Social media creates an accessibility the art scene has never seen before, and yes this is not an original thought and yes I’m arriving late to this discourse, but it’s an important and relevant ongoing discourse. Challenging our own ideas of what art can be and where it should be and who can create it are all things that make us better artists and responders to it.
Lastly, check out Shaun Watson’s work on his Instagram page, @fitz.art or by visiting Fitz and Friends online. He describes to me a memory that I think perfectly encapsulates the essence of his work; “My best memories are of sitting down with a beer and a fresh pen and some fresh paper, usually outside. I just draw as many drawings as I can and the whole experience is just wonderful.” His work has been sold online across the country and throughout Canada, in addition to a local Milwaukee shop, Hot Pop. And soon, I have no doubt that I will one day come across his pins attached to the denim jackets of my fellow Seattleites.