Screenshot of David Rimanelli’s Instagram feed.

MY INSTAGRAM IS BUMMING ME OUT. Early one morning last week, I posted a great van Dyck of Catherine Howard, Lady d’Aubigny; an hour later I foolishly posted a slutty but funny Polke, Modern Art, 1968, which will be in the Modern’s upcoming retrospective. Duh: People liked away at the Polke, and Lady d’Aubigny, while holding her own, isn’t thriving as vibrantly as I believe she ought to—she’s entitled to many likes, as many as Polke IMHO. This brings up a matter that any self-conscious Instagrammer is keenly aware of: Posting an image within close temporal proximity of another image “divides” the likes and weakens the post. Often, however, posting one image triggers me to post more—I am a confessed Instagram-aholic; my paraphilia is pictophilia—and my non-strategic Instagram heart feels, “Hey it’s INSTA I’m posting whatever I want as many as I want, all the time, fuck all, fuck you, etc.”

Certain Instagrammers send out insta-packets, for instance the siren of Fulton Ryder, Fabiola Alondra, who always imparts three thematically linked image-bundles (pyramids, say, satanic/Druidic circles, snake handlers, etc.—it works she’s got a zillion followers). And then there’s the insta-aholic, most splendidly or at least repletely and powerfully represented by Miss Alondra’s employer, Richard Prince (@richardprince4). “How does he make all that art?,” I ask myself, as his image feed comes in great tidal bursts. He seems to have scaled back a bit, but sometimes @richardprince4 would post what looked like twenty pictures in rapid succession. He seems to spend half the day immersed in Instagram, but then again perhaps—as with most celebrities—an assistant is delegated to manage his insta-brand.

I confess I refuse to follow anyone who doesn’t follow me—Richard was the exception, but then he started following me, and liking and commenting too. I was transported. Bill Powers told me that, at a Christopher Wool panel at the Guggenheim, Richard referred to my Instagrams of Ellsworth Kelly. He told me this more than once as if to highlight my ascendancy and insta-power. And as for those I do follow, I “like” ALL of their pictures: That is my politics of following. Of course I miss a few—even I take breaks from Instagram, short ones—and occasionally I hesitate before liking a picture posted by one of those whom I follow because… I really dislike it.

Screenshot of Jeísa Chiminazzo’s Instagram feed.

But if I’ve such a strong insta-brand, why do I still have a mere 2,380 followers? It’s confounding and, in a bizarre way, maybe even insulting. (I’m easy to take offense, alas.) Lots of people I know have 5,000, 10K, 40K followers. (Richard who is way more famous than me, fine; Jeísa Chiminazzo who’s got a zillion followers—granted in Brazil and Monaco mostly—FINE.) And I can’t go out into Society without EVERY conversation somehow quickly turning to my fucking Instagram and how brilliant it is. It’s wretched, misery, I hate it. Offering what he thought were words of consolation, a friend said, “If you’ve got 2,000 followers that’s basically the same thing as 10,000.” But no I say, and given this fellow’s own sketchy life, I don’t exactly trust his judgment either.

I first discovered Instagram via Facebook, where I was beholden to certain young avatars of chic like Tom Guinness and Rachel Chandler Guinness. Rachel posted pictures of herself at Ascot; she also caught the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in a delightfully off-guard {{??}} moment. Tom would post photos of people (himself, his wife) looking dependably alluring with a touch of daft, usually via Instagram. I did not know what Instagram was let alone how it worked, but having grown very dissatisfied by the overly over Facebook became curious. Under the spell of the Guinesses, I downloaded the app and sailed into a new world—and shortly thereafter deleted my Facebook account, which for various reasons had become troublesome to me. Instagram is a less miserable way of being miserable than Facebook. It’s streamlined, buffered, you could say etiolated. Unlike FB, Instagram doesn’t lend itself to those who wish to “friend” you only to hate on you, and certainly stalking is much harder not to say impossible.

Now, 2,631 posts later, I’m looking back at my Instagram début, the first ones, and the picture they paint doesn’t accord at all with my recollections of my day-to-day life at the time. The first image though presages my future: a postcard from the National Gallery, London, of Gerrit van Honthorst’s Saint Sebastian, which had been tacked to my bedroom door for fifteen years. My comment: “Whatever.” The second one is a stunningly hideous self-portrait (I abjure the neologism “selfie”) with the comment “I have no idea what I’m doung.” The third, a window in my apartment that looks out on a bricked-up window, captioned “Dreamt I was suffocating. Took pic”. The fifth, my computer screen, the wallpaper a detail of a 1948 de Kooning almost obliterated with jpegs—many of them the soil that grew future Instagrams. And the sixth: a picture taken in the dark—I do this a lot but so too do a lot of people—a black box with the comment “Hi.” You’d think I was living an updated Notes from Underground, and maybe I was, but I recall this period as one of intense professional and social activity and my calendar from the time proves it.

Screenshots of David Rimanelli’s Instagram feed.

I follow only eighty-five people. As for why eighty-five, well actually that’s too many for me—I want to LOSE some of these. The small number speaks to a certain Instagram snobbery, the desire to have many followers but follow very few—I am far from alone in this, this is what most people I would hazard desire. My Instagram really is mostly ALL ABOUT ME. At most half of that eighty-five consists of people whose pictures I actually find interesting. There are friends and friends of friends who are sort of my friends but some of these are “courtesies,” I don’t follow them for image-content. Then there are some people—few—that I follow that I don’t even know but whose pictures are good. Then there are random people who will possibly be unfollowed (but some randoms have been there from the outset of my Voyage so I keep them). And then there are the people one meets and in the midst of some hideous conversation about Instagram they say “FOLLOW ME!” Sometimes I cave. Other times, I just say there’s a cap at eighty-five.

Of course there are certain people who follow WAY MORE people than follow them. They are the Insta-voyeurs as opposed to the Insta-exhibitionists/bitches (e.g., yours truly). For example, a certain young lady of quality, from whom I learn about @eli_miz and @itslavishbitch (check these out yourself; they are sick), among many others. She also keeps tabs on what looks like Global Society, from Como to New Delhi. Why does this matter? Because most people on Instagram, wherever and whoever they are, want to tell the world “My life is lavish bitch!” Hence the tedium of Instagram, and really why one needn’t follow many, to my mind, as well as the pleasure one takes in those who take care with their Instagrams and provide pleasure, wit, dare I say even knowledge.

I have a predilection for eighteenth-century through Modernist art: Images from this era often get as much love as that felicitous whore Polke. I post a lot of French, from Quentin de la Tour to Rouault, always, every week it seems. Some Picassos, a passel of Matisses, and I promise you no Pierre Huyghe or Cyprien Gaillard. Why devote much attention to contemporary art when so many do so; it’s redundant. Occasionally I pick something up from a gallery website—say a Ken Price work-on-paper from Mr. Marks. I enjoy the British, from Lady d’Aubigny and Sir Peter Lely, Stubbs, Blake, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney, Hoppner, Ramsay, et al. And maybe my biggest insta-collection: Joseph Mallord William Turner. And then Victorians, lots of Pre-Raphaelites, creepy and fun stuff (e.g., George Frederic Watts, or Henry Scott Tuke for Victorian homoeroticism). I post a lot academic painting too, which supports my fervent conviction that the important Salon art of the nineteenth century is VASTLY more interesting than almost anything done today—anything that we who toil in the contemporary art world are supposed to be interested in and perhaps really are. The Artforum Instagram provides superb coverage of what’s going on in the global art world, but even so I find most of it pales compared to the riches stored in the vaults of Tate Britain.

Who got the most likes in my insta-histoire? Curiously, not Polke, though yes he does reliably well. No, Meredith Frampton’s Portrait of a Young Woman, 1935, is the winner so far with 213; Félix Vallotton’s Seated Female Nude, 1897, is a close runner-up with 210. But I post a lot of works on paper, and these too often do exceedingly well: German Expressionist woodcuts, Vuillard drypoints, Redon pastels, etc. The less-lovable-than-Sigmar dude (viz., Richter) got 169 likes for a photolithograph from 1968 that makes so much of the hot young artists of today who unconsciously imitate it look risible, and depressing.

Screenshots of David Rimanelli’s Instagram feed.

Yes, the melancholia. That’s very deep with Instagram. Perhaps it reflects my boredom with my own time, such as it is. I am disappointed with most right-now contemporary art, and I find in these images from the past a formal vivacity and power, and symbolic and emotional depth, and an unstrategized strangeness lacking in the current scene—my day-to-day scene. But at the same time Instagram is, really, just a hobby. I do it because I enjoy it. Seeking out certain images and not obvious ones takes more work, but it’s work that gives pleasure, to me, and evidently to many others.

I wonder, then, what drives these others to their likes. George Romney’s portrait of Lady Altamont (1788) received 136 in the course of but one day, whereas van Dyck’s Lady d’Aubigny (c. 1638) has crept up arduously to eighty-four. Lady Altamont (née Lady Louisa Catherine Howe) is almost a contemporary beauty, her composure secure in its loveliness, her hair and dress seemingly ready to be photographed by Patrick Demarchelier. Catherine Howard, Lady d’Aubigny, is obviously of that Howard dynasty that provided Henry VIII with two of his spouses—the least fortunate ones, her namesake the fifth wife, who was first cousin to the likewise second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her cheeks are plump, her eyes wary, her red gown falls low over pale reticent flesh. What a difference 150 years makes, and Lady Catherine’s appeal is that of reserve. Instagram favors the quick read, but I encourage you go back in time to Lady Catherine, and add your like to her destiny.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor to Artforum.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Performance view, Carnegie Hall, New York, February 28, 2014. Photo: Steve J. Sherman.

THE VIENNA TOURIST BOARD—whose principal slogan is the rather menacing “Vienna: Now or Never”—also advertises the city as “the world’s music capital,” a place where “music is literally in the air.” Not everyone’s lungs take to it so well. Vienna is the city of cherubic boys’ choirs and inoffensive waltzes, but it is also the home of Erika Kohut, the neurotic, gruesomely perverse music professor in Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher, 1983). Erika—frigidly portrayed by Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s 2001 French-language film adaptation—has devoted her life to Schubert and Schumann, has made her way into the upper echelons of Austrian musical society. And the effect has been to turn her into an incestuous and self-mutilating masochist of the first order. That’s just how things go in the Imperial City, Jelinek writes: “Vienna, the city of music! Only the things that have proven their worth will continue to do so in this city. Its buttons are bursting from the fat white paunch of culture, which, like any drowned corpse that is not fished from the water, bloats up more and more.”

Here in New York, this month’s massive festival of Viennese music at Carnegie Hall and many other venues citywide (among them MoMA and the Jewish Museum) did not exactly equate Austria to a gaseous cadaver. Yet there was a darkness and incisiveness to “Vienna: City of Dreams”—Freud’s town rather than Mozart’s, a place of both fantasies and nightmares—if you knew where to look. The festival certainly had a lot of strudel and schlag if that’s your thing, but the Wiener Philharmoniker, in town for three weeks, also offered music of Jelinekian shock and difficulty. Accompanied by an important symposium in which the usually unforthcoming orchestra reckoned with its hideous Nazi past, the festival had at its heart two concert performances of major works of modernism: a poignant, coal-black performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1922) on February 28, and a blaring, rock-‘em-sock-‘em outing of Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) on March 1. Both were extraordinary, their intensity amplified rather than undercut by the lack of theatrical staging, and I couldn’t get them out of my head during the overstuffed contemporary art week that followed, as I exhaustedly hustled from biennial to Brucennial and from one fair to the next to the third to the first again.

Wozzeck, just ninety minutes, is frequently called the best opera of the twentieth century, and I’m not going to disagree. (The only competitor for the honor is Berg’s other opera, the incomplete, much longer Lulu [1937], whose heroine seduces a man with the line, “Isn’t this the sofa on which your father bled to death?”) It is the story of a man ground down by society, abused by the rich and powerful, misled by love: in other words, the story of our time. It’s so dark and splintered that it barely merits comparison to other operas, not even those of Berg’s Second Vienna School colleague Arnold Schoenberg. Really, you’d do better to look for parallels in painting, specifically the bracingly ugly Expressionist portraits now on view at the Neue Galerie’s “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937.” Like those paintings, Wozzeck too was suppressed by the Nazis; the Third Reich had no place for what Goebbels called “the moral decay of the atonal composers,” whose music offered “dramatic proof of how strongly the Jewish intellectual infection had taken hold of the national body.”

In fact, though, the opera isn’t wholly atonal; Berg mixes moments of stunning beauty into his spiky score, seducing you before landing the deathblow. Under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst, the Wiener Philharmoniker played the most intense passages with unstinting ferocity (the rape scene at the end of Act I was performed not just loud but very fast), and little moments of mercy, a celesta line for example, were interrupted by angry, trembling brass. As the grunt soldier Wozzeck, the baritone Matthias Goerne kept leaning forward on the scaffold where he and the other singers had been positioned, infusing his lines with a curious poignancy that belied the darkness of the libretto. The music has Wozzeck as something out of a tortured portrait by Dix or Kokoschka—much of the vocal line is a difficult, spooky Sprechgesang—but Goerne, bravely yet with total ease, played him with such naturalism that it was hard to take at times.

An excerpt from Act 3 - Scene 2 of Alban Berg's Wozzeck, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera.

Wir arme Leut,’ ” Wozzeck intones again and again: we poor folks. Unlike the Romantic heroes of nineteenth-century opera, whose glorious deaths could spiral for twenty minutes or more, Berg’s hero succumbs to poverty, despair, and eventually insanity, first killing his common-law wife and then drowning himself—to the indifference of his abusive captain and doctor, who walk on unperturbed, like in the painting of Icarus that W. H. Auden describes in “Musée des Beaux-Arts.” In Wozzeck, no amount of intelligence, cunning, or honor will save you; if you’re born into the wrong class in the wrong society, then you’re going down and your kids are too. History is fate, but in compensation, perhaps one day the great and good of New York will pay upwards of $550 a ticket to see an opera about your suffering, before adjourning to dinner.

Salome, unlike Wozzeck, is about people at the top of the pile: namely the incestuous tetrarch of Judea and his reckless stepdaughter/niece, borrowed from the play by Oscar Wilde and transformed into one of the most scandalous and impious figures of modern art. Even by the rather extreme standards of opera, the story is shocking: a teenager falls in love, the guy spurns her, and so she does a seven-minute striptease for her stepdad to convince him to behead the man who rejected her. Then she grabs the bloody head, sings and dances with it for another twenty minutes, kisses the thing, and in the last few seconds is murdered. By the way, the severed head just happens to belong to John the Baptist. (Thanks for playing, Lars von Trier.)

Fun all around, then, and this night the Wiener Philharmoniker, in giant numbers and led by the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, played the score with the velocity and intensity it merited. From the prologue on the orchestra went at Strauss’s score with more anger and intensity than in Wozzeck, reaching deafening heights at the entrance of John the Baptist. By the end, when Salome gets her man’s head on a silver platter, Nelsons brought the players to such a shattering crescendo I gripped my seat, like in a horror film. Yet while some of the singers couldn’t handle the blare (Tomasz Konieczny, as the unlucky martyr, was a superb exception), the orchestra itself never let the details get lost in the clamor. The final few bars, with its sickeningly dissonant chord after the big kiss, were revelatory despite the noise.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Richard Strauss’s Salome. Performance view, Carnegie Hall, New York, March 1, 2014. Photo: Chris Lee.

Such grim and decadent music played by such a conservative orchestra—white tie and tails everywhere, even more than usual given its long exclusion of women—kept me thinking long after I left Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t just that Wozzeck seemed more politically incisive and Salome more shocking than anything I saw at the fairs or the Whitney. Even at the biennial, whose (relative) distance from the market might have allowed greater experimentation or savagery, boundary-pushing works by artists such as Bjarne Melgaard felt safer and more controlled than Salome, whose blasphemy still shocks. And it wasn’t just that the performances reaffirmed for me the disavowed hunger for modernism one sees everywhere in today’s art world: Most of the digital mashups passed off as contemporary are ultimately modernist collage a hundred years out of date, while on a tour of the galleries of the Lower East Side any given weekend you will see more small-scale abstraction than at a Klee retrospective.

It was more than that. Modernism so often seems to do a better job describing our present social and economic conditions that it can drive a student of contemporary art to fury. (To say nothing of contemporary music: the most anticipated event of the Metropolitan’s season, Nico Muhly’s “Internet opera” Two Boys, was so safe and retrogressive it could serve as hold music.) Modernism is our antiquity, argued T. J. Clark in Farewell to an Idea—but that was in 1999, before the start of this very unpromising century of war and austerity that, in too many ways, looks rather a lot like the start of the last one. The postmodern abdications of the past few decades, the small-scale gestures and individual stories and surgical interventions and little acts of détournement, look rather less impressive in the cold light of the 2010s, when allegedly deceased history has come roaring back to life. Wozzeck and Salome worked through history; they still do, dismayingly. It would be wonderful to see more contemporary artists do the same—and draw from modernism not formal gestures to be applied arbitrarily, but the scale and ambition that their world and ours both require.

Jason Farago is a writer based in New York.