You are what you see: M&C Saatchi’s Mimi Gray on the impact of our visual culture

As society gets to grips with the impact of social media on our sense of self, M&C Saatchi’s new project Visual Diet questions the value and impact of the images we’re exposed to. Head of Visual Content Mimi Gray explains how it works

It has long been my belief that, just like ‘you are what you eat’, what you see affects how you feel. As an art buyer, this plays on my mind a lot.

I am always looking, searching for something new to stimulate and challenge me. On my travels through cyber-land, I am confronted by the good the bad and the airbrushed. It can be hard to harvest the truly great visuals without some collateral damage to your senses. Pop-ups, digital banners, luxury brands: all vying for your attention. Unattainable lifestyles served up inches from your eyes but so far from your reality.

Exposure to thousands of these images daily can leave us feeling hollow, anxious and inadequate. These symptoms are aggravated at times when we feel we lack control over the imagery we are being fed.

The Visual Diet campaign was born to empower people to take back control over their visual consumption by challenging the way we currently devour imagery and interact with social media.

What started off as a conversation between myself and art agency MTArt last year has grown into something much bigger for M&C Saatchi. It’s an issue we believe is profoundly important – not just in the creative industries but wider society, too.

The premise of Visual Diet is simple: look at more of the stuff that makes you feel good and restore some balance to your visual diet. Filter your social media feed. If it’s full of influencers flogging teeth whitener, Bali beach bums and plastic-enhanced selfies – and if that’s making you feel shit – then it’s time to do some unfollowing.

Every time you ‘like’ you’re telling the app to feed you more of that type of content and asking brands and users to create more of it. So, before you double tap, think – how is this making me feel?

Selfie Harm by Rankin, shot for Visual Diet

I have always believed in the healing power of art and photography; in its ability to transform our moods and transport us to a better headspace. Art is the cure; the antidote to visual sugar that leaves us feeling low but craving more.

The positive impact of art is widely regarded: with some doctors now prescribing visits to art galleries and museums, art therapy and apps like Moodrise, using visuals to make you feel better. The effect of colour on mood is also significant, forming the basis for alternative therapies like chromotherapy. These mood-enhancing properties are what prompts auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s to regularly repaint their walls: “A blue motif for contemporary sales, for openness…. A moderately disharmonious colour is used for highly abstract work, to elicit feelings of creativity.” [Don Thompson, The Orange Balloon Dog, 2017].

To test this theory, I decided to conduct a visual experiment. Using AI technology we developed at M&C Saatchi, I wanted to observe how people engage with imagery when they think no one else is watching. Feeding the poster with a vast range of content and logging interactions from viewers facial expressions and online votes, the tech element scores each image with a positive or negative engagement mark. The experiment is still ongoing, but the results do indicate a strong positive correlation between colour, art and engagement.

But if this is true and art really does have the power to make us feel good, why don’t we ‘like’ it?

Artwork by Cindy Sherman
Artwork by Cindy Sherman

As Marine Tanguy, founder of MTArt Agency and partner on Visual Diet, pointed out in her TedX talk last year, Kim Kardashian has more than 50 times the number of followers than the Louvre museum on Instagram. At the time of Marine’s talk, before The Carters’ Apeshit video dropped, this number was over 70 times!

Important artists and social activists like Cindy Sherman and Ai Wei Wei (@cindysherman 234K, @aiww 486K) garner relatively few followers compared to the likes of Kylie Jenner (125M). I think it would be fair to say that the art world arrived at the social media party a little late, but the question remains: why do we double tap for selfies and not for art?

If you search by hashtag for a painting or gallery on Instagram, it is likely that the top results will feature said artwork/gallery as a backdrop to a selfie. Has the selfie become a legitimate art form? Or is it something much darker: a form of self-harm; a trend that invites us to curate and distort our self-image to fit the unrealistic beauty standards defined by social media.

We have created a culture of mindless liking and deep scrolling (to become so absorbed in scrolling through your news-feed that you keep scrolling even without reason). A daily masochistic ritual: our thumbs hover over the screen, twitching involuntarily and before we even register what we’ve done, it’s already too late. The post disappears down the belly of our feed into data oblivion.

The Connection by Federico Clapis
Touch Scream by Federico Clapis

Artist Federico Clapis is subverting this definition of deep scrolling, encouraging an artistic social movement that aims to positively change our online habits.

According to research by the American Academy of Paediatrics, the number of cases of acute depression have increased exponentially in recent years in line with the type and frequency of content consumed on social networks. Federico’s solution is to interact solely with accounts that post art, transforming your feed into a personal gallery space in the palm of your hand.

This may seem extreme, I’m not telling you to go on a visual crash diet. As with any (non-fad) diet, balance and moderation are key. Find whatever it is that makes you feel good and treat yourself to a bit more of it – whether that’s art, ASMR, or videos of animals getting haircuts (niche). The internet is a weird and wonderful place and you are spoiled for choice so don’t waste your time staring at stuff you don’t really like.

For us at M&C Saatchi, this is only the beginning of Visual Diet as we continue to explore the links between imagery and mental health and encourage conversation about our current visual landscape. The power is in our hands, as creatives and as individuals: let’s balance our own visual diets and look at more of the stuff that makes us smile.