“The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being.”
I’m not sure what’s worse: being one of the tourists who seem to experience their world through the lens of a camera or being one of the people who incessantly complain about such tourists. Having recently spent some time travelling around Turkey, I’ve witnessed much of the former first hand: people instagramming every plate of food arriving to their table, taking selfies against every backdrop imaginable (some of them with this ungodly invention), and in general paying more attention to their phones than to the tapestry of life around them.
So when I was asked my thoughts on the way that social media is changing the arts, my initial impulse was decidedly on the spiteful side of misanthropic.
But I’d rather spare my audience the predictable and take the opposite side in the argument. Instead of bemoaning the end of visual arts ushered by ubiquitous retro-hip photo-filters and vapid Instagram feeds, I will try to argue that the ability to create and share instant memories in the form of visual social media is making us live our lives more artistically. And that, in turn, increases our artistic sensibility and appreciation of art.
Art is only a click away
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” More than just the witty wordplay of a debauched socialite, this phrase is expressive of one of the principles of then hip Aestheticism movement. But first some back story. Earlier generations of Romantic writers and poets developed the view that the full scope of experience is obfuscated from us by the veil of habit and routine. To lift this veil and to reveal the true grandeur of concealed beauty is the chief task of Art (poetry in particular, as argued by Shelley in A Defence of Poetry). Aestheticism took this concept further. Without Art to draw our attention to particular sorts of beauty, the existence of such beauty in nature would be unnoticed. Or, more correctly, we would not find something to be beautiful until Art has brought it to our attention as such. As an example, Wilde spoke about the fog that plagued London for centuries without being much noticed, until the Impressionist painters made people appreciate the wonderful visual qualities of the fog in their paintings. To quote Wilde, it was the “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects […]. They did not exist till Art had invented them.
A discussion of metaphysics of beauty is beyond the scope of this piece. But whether you agree or disagree with Wilde, I think we can all appreciate the extent to which Art influences our ideas of beauty, which ideas then shape our experience of the world.
So where does social media fit into all of this?
Nobel-laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his 2010 TED talk put forth an idea that our mind is divided into the experiencing self and remembering self. The experiencing self is that which perceives the world in the immediacy of the moment. The remembering self reflects on the moments that have passed and constructs a narrative which serves as the basis for our memories. The two are distinct and often in conflict but the dichotomy between two creates a fascinating psychological framework. Notably, Kahneman observes that the way that the experiencing self and the remembering self measure and perceive happiness are quite different. And the happiness of the remembering self has more effect on our lives because it is the happiness that we remember – the happiness on which we build our memories.
Jason Silva in his recent Shots of Awe program applied Kahneman’s notion of the two selves to the way that we interact with the world through social media photography. By capturing a moment through the lens of an iPhone, we displace our experiencing self’s immersion in the moment with the anticipation of the way in which our remembering self will recall this moment through the photo. We are, in essence, anticipating the memory which we will have. But not merely content with passively anticipating the memory, this “forward living” gives us the opportunity to actively shape the memory which we will retain – to mould it to our will. “You’re given a chance to decide how this moment will be remembered,” Silva says, “we all become artists, we all become architects of our mental narratives, of our historical digital paper-trail.”
I find this concept to be fascinating. Human experience relies on our ability to create master-narratives of our lives. The experiences and memories we have sometimes have to be altered to fit the stories that we tell ourselves. But what if we have the mental and technological ability to create the memories that we want to suit our narratives? One could say that such memories are fake, since they do not represent the world as seen by the experiencing self. But does this truly matter, if the world of the experiencing self will be largely forgotten as one moment gives way to the other? Is it not almost better to focus on the more lasting world – the world of the remembering self – a world which we can affect?
And this is where we get to Art.
The task of Art is to draw our attention to the beauty of the present – the world of the experiencing self. Yet in this mode of perception the viewers are passive observers, constrained by the forms of the world before them and by the ideas of beauty expressed in someone else’s Art. On the other hand, if the viewers themselves become artists – if they crafted and created the moment that their remembering self will hold on to – does this not unleash a new sensibility of beauty? A new, more active and participatory way of living artistically? And do we not do exactly that when we document and share our experience through social networks?
Armed with a smartphone, each one of us can seek the beauty around us, frame it in a way that would express it best, remember it through the memory we’ve created, and share it with others through the picture we’ve shared.
I’m not suggesting that everyone with an Instagram account is now an artist. Nor am I saying that every picture of an artisanal donut and that an artsy-filtered sunset is a work of art. I merely propose that the rise of social media photography has given us all a chance to partake in artistic experience and made us more aware of the beauty around us. It has given our remembering selves the opportunity to craft the visual narratives of our memories and to instil them with beauty of our own creation. Some may use this to greater effect than others. But isn’t that the nature of all technology? It merely gives us the power – whether we use it or not is up to us. Still, I really want to slap the next person I see using the selfie stick.