Marius Sperlich is an Instagram artist from Germany who has built an audience by posting intimate self-portraits that explore the tension between human beauty and commercial desire.
Sperlich’s highly saturated, tightly shot works serve as a product and a critique of media and arousal in contemporary society. Sperlich has created an interactive work called LIKES = MONEY (2019), which is currently on display at CONTEXT Art Miami. The work allows people to enter into the world of the artist by choosing what they want their portrait to look like—whether it be a sexy selfie or a portrait of an animal. The price for this piece is determined by how many likes their Instagram post receives.
This installation generated almost 110,000 likes in 24 hours and garnered a selling price of over $100,000. In the subversive vein of Marilyn Minter, his photographs of cropped mouths and other body parts simultaneously appropriate and revel in the language of commercial photography.
Marius Sperlich’s ability to use Instagram as a primary source of funding is impressive and seemingly worthy of emulation. But if you’re thinking about pursuing this avenue for your own work, I would advise caution.
First and foremost, there is the issue of appropriation. When considering taking a “viral” approach to your creative endeavors, ask yourself if it would necessarily benefit your work in the long run.
Is it truly inherently transformative—or is it only beneficial insofar as it drives value back to someone else? I raise that point because, as far as I know, Sperlich has not made any significant alterations to his images when they have been reposted on other Instagram accounts.
They look mostly like they always do: they still contain the same captions, the same borders at the top and bottom of the photographs, and so on. Unless you really want to cash in on that benefit by focusing on “viral” imagery designed specifically for aggregation sites from the outset (and doing so without fundamentally altering their subject matter), I think it would be better for artists to focus on creating individual works with impact and staying power first and foremost—not simply generating attention on Instagram alone.
In the end, it pays to make stuff people like. If you provide something that people want and want to share with their friends, you’ll likely end up earning some money too. Make the right people laugh (or think or cry) and you could get quite a few followers. That feedback loop is what drives engagement on social media, so it clearly works in Sperlich’s case.