social media and art | the shape of us

If you’re reading this, there is an 80% chance you are a Facebook user (and if you’re the likely one who accessed it from Facebook, welcome to the 80%). If you’re under the age of 30, there is a 60% chance you have an Instagram profile. If you’re the parent of a teenager, there is a 75% chance your teenager is active on both Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram claims 500 million active users, and in June of 2017, Facebook recorded 1.32 billion daily active users. These aren’t empty profiles, as at least 75% of Facebook’s total users check in once a day.

Social media’s pervasiveness established by the statistics above intersects with the desires of made | new to pose this question: how does social media impact art consumption? More specifically, what must we be aware of as Christ-centered theologians who both create and consume art through the lens of a society deeply entangled in the world wide web?

To begin to answer, last week I highlighted what social media is, and this week, I will highlight two results: what social media requires, identifying the impact upon our art with each step. In short (placing a toe back up on that soapbox), let’s declare, inquire, and be willing to engage in judgment. We’ve been asked a question that deserves an answer.

What Social Media Requires: A Profile

You have a profile; you are a user (the drug language is ironic for reasons we’ll introduce below). From the brief bio of Facebook and abbreviated resume of LinkedIn to the emoji-laden About Me of Instagram, profiles are the digital expressions of ourselves within these virtual worlds masquerade as real life. Maybe you didn’t grow up with video games, but, thanks to social media, you’ve since created your own avatar. Some networks attempt verification (are you who you say you are? A picture is worth…Twitter’s blue check-mark), although those just try to quench the death hoaxes. Once you’re online, with that thoughtless or thoughtful name, the rest is just marketing, self-expression, and curation.

Take a look at your favorite Instagram feed. Chances are, it has a visual or aesthetic theme that probably involved advance planning. Again, we encounter the juxtaposition of unlimited opportunities in a limited medium. Our profile creations allow us to choose unique expressions of ourselves, but doing so demands only certain iterations. Is your profile truly how you see yourself, or how you think others see yourself, or how you would like others to see yourself?

Imagine choosing one outfit that you had to wear for the rest of your life. What’s the criteria? Do you go with the dressy suit you last wore at your aunt’s funeral, or the business casual from that wedding last summer? The flowered Easter wrap or your favorite t-shirt dress with the cool pockets? Is the truest representation of yourself these things? If “hours spent wearing” is the designation, your profile pic would be you in your favorite sweatpants and the shirt from a college you didn’t attend (with Netflix in front of your face and your phone firmly in-hand).

I might be exaggerating, but the point remains: we choose what parts of us the world sees. Sometimes that profile is true, and sometimes we put the real portrait behind a fingerprint lock or on a private playlist. While our profiles can contain truth, it raises the question: is it true if it is incomplete? With a tip of the hat to philosophy, is completeness a necessary attribute of truth?

We can discuss more about honesty and art under the second response, but for now, let’s establish this: social media does not cause lying. It does facilitate it. It doesn’t plant liars so much as provide the soil for them to grow. This response is directly corollary to our first identifying characteristic: the digital nature of social media creates a two-dimensional world in which we do not need to be whole persons. Just as our artistic expressions become flattened by bytes and video streams, so do our whole selves. Our avatars and bios can be more wish-fulfillment than actuality.

We lie on more than just our dating profiles and driver’s licenses, and it isn’t just for the sake of self-protection or privacy. The selective choices and pieces of our lives that we display to the world in our profiles is a strength we take comfort in, for there is power in a veiled face. Whether we consciously identify if an artistic consumption fits with our aesthetic or peruse our tagged pictures to cull the badly incriminating ones, we are trimming our lives into profiles of our own making.

Regarding the art we create and consume, Picasso once described art as the lie that tells us the truth. Chaim Potok fictionally declared art as truth, and I would posit that they spoke of the same thing. Honesty to an artistic vision seeks truthfulness in the wholeness of vision. What damage is done to our honesty when it is cropped and filtered, parroted and promulgated by questionable avatars?

What Social Media Requires: A Response 

Here we revisit a characteristic of social media: its connectivity. It reaches out, and, in doing so, engenders a response. You may argue that you are not required to engage with the posts in your feed, but even your choice to scroll past them is a response (behind every “yes” is a “no”). While Facebook has sought to develop sophisticated reactions (does one of six emojis actually count as a reaction?), we’ve so muddled our ability to respond truthfully that we “Like” heartbreaking posts as proof that we’ve seen them.

Do you truly enjoy the person who posts a meme every half an hour, or do you just find the kitten pictures to be a nice break from the workplace drama? Or, vice versa, do you agree with the platitude she posted (50/50 chance it’s some iteration of ‘love thyself’), or do you just like her as a friend? Regardless of the content, we now have the opportunity to know everyone all over again. What a joy to connect with the relative that lives across the pond, for surely you would know nothing of him without the connectivity of social media (but when his birthday pops up in your notifications, you may forget it because there are four others the same day and that’s just too much. Might as well let them all down). There are demands for us to post, read, like, react, especially after that friend posts the rant about the silent users who just ‘like’ and scroll with all the speed of a drive-by-shooting. Social media requires a response, but it does not always require effort. It demands time, not always engagement. It wheedles for presence, not always participation.

In relation to art, here all points converge: why do we post? Why do we scroll? Why do we like? What does it do to us? If you haven’t seen Simon Sinek‘s encapsulation of millennials, it’s worth your time. His point about addiction and social media is not unsupported, and the statistics are accumulating, although further research is still sorting through the countless factors that affect this outcome. However, we shouldn’t pretend that the lack of consensus is proof that addiction doesn’t happen.

Think of it this way: social media is an entrance into addictions of every flavor, and it joins the fray as a narcissistic injection of its own. In the muddied waters of art that have been created for a simultaneously connected and disinterested audience that liked your DIY post last month and not your puppy’s birthday post, we run the risk of dishonesty yet again. Did we write the poetry out of a truthful vision or with the shortsightedness of garnering endorphins through notifications?

Revisiting Potok’s vision of art, his semi-autobiographical character, Asher Lev, unswervingly speaks of art in this way:

“But it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence.”

It’s a blunt statement, but I’ll make one as equally direct: we are whores to our feeds and likes and the hearts we are bound to bestow and the hearts we aim to receive.

In Conclusion…

I can’t rail against social media without acknowledging the creativity it engenders and the connectivity it entails. I can’t deny the innovation and the ability to interface with creatives from around the world. But, recognizing the characteristics and requirements of social media, where does our theology come in? If art is an expression of our souls, why does it matter that these souls are sanctified ones?

Here, I hope my silence has been instructive. By now perhaps you are tired of the paradigm that social media is a tool (so are others). I cannot preach about the moral imperatives governing the nature of social media. Its characteristics are not inherently evil, but they are deeply capable of evil. The responses it requires of us are where our theology must be our first foundation. Is there a moral imperative governing our creation of a profile? As a social experiment (ha), take a moment to read Galatians 2:20, Till We Have Faces, and One With Christ. Then, with your Scriptural, literary, and theological horizons widened, take a stab at creating that social media profile and let a real life friend read through it.

Before you post your spoken-word piece that may be a rant, consider digging into this, this, and this. Root your feet in realities other than the unsteady platforms of social media. Art is proclamation, and both our creation and consumption of such proclamations is stunted and warped by the characteristics and requirements of social media. I would suggest that creating art for social media is claiming to be a gourmet cook who only knows how to use three ingredients or run a microwave. Conversely, consuming art through social media runs the risk of living off TV dinners for the rest of your life. You’ll starve.

One final admission, confession, and plea: I recognize that I am writing this for a form of social media. I recognize that it is being disseminated via social media. I recognize the irony of criticizing a platform I stand on, of taking a saw to my own branch. Furthermore, I confess that I recently chose to disengage from these platforms. I’m in indefinite hiatus from the forms of social media I’ve dissected above. I chose it for reasons both public and private, practical and immaterial, deeply spiritual and unaccountably shallow.

But here is one reason that I hope this essay supports: social media shapes the way we think, speak, and live. To learn to shape social media rather than have it shape us is a personal and corporate challenge, and one we will all face whether we recognize it or not. For myself, one facet of stepping away involved the recognition that I needed the space in order to see it the right way; to recognize it for what it is and learn to live with it rather than under it.

We are living immersed in social media, using the language of it, absorbing its practices. We may learn how to grip it without letting go, but I would beg you to seriously consider whether you truly hold it, or it holds you. Far more than just our art is at stake.

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social media and art | more of less

If you’re reading this, there is an 80% chance you are a Facebook user (and if you’re the likely one who accessed it from Facebook, welcome to the 80%). If you’re under the age of 30, there is a 60% chance you have an Instagram profile. If you’re the parent of a teenager, there is a 75% chance your teenager is active on both Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram claims 500 million active users, and in June of 2017, Facebook recorded 1.32 billion daily active users. These aren’t empty profiles, as at least 75% of Facebook’s total users check in once a day.

I could bury you under the statistics being posted daily on a social network somewhere, but here is a concluding truth: in case you had any doubts, social media is here to stay. We post, like, share, scroll through a feed, and watch a story (although hopefully we’ve learned not to poke by now).

We could weep or rejoice that we’re seeing curated baby pictures from the college roommate we had for one semester ten years ago who lives in Denver and posts a daily yoga picture and just had her first daughter with her partner of eight years. Also, they just switched to cloth diapers. #crunchy

We could like or question the selfie our world-jaunting friend (who attends the same church, but doesn’t usually make it in time for first service) posted of The Ambassadors while on the British leg of her jealousy-inducing, culturally enlightening vacay. Note that the selfie was taken at just the right angle.  #foundit

We could enthuse with or judge the coworker who attended the midnight showing of that movie competing for the most headshots in cinematic history, or was it the one that claimed a Guinness record for its profanity? You can go back and check for their poorly-lit selfie in front of the movie poster. #worthit

I’ll step off my soapbox with this introductory admission: the pros and cons of social media can and should be called the joys and dangers of online connectivity. This article is not the place to discuss the full implications of social media on our lives and relationships. However, its pervasiveness established by the statistics above intersects with the desires of made | new to pose this question: how does social media impact art consumption? More specifically, what must we be aware of as Christ-centered theologians who both create and consume art through the lens of a society deeply entangled in the world wide web?

To begin to answer, I’ve chosen to highlight two characteristics (what social media is) and next week, two results (what social media requires), identifying the impact upon our art with each step. In short (placing a toe back up on that soapbox), let’s declare, inquire, and be willing to engage in judgment. We’ve been asked a question that deserves an answer.

What Social Media Is: Inherently Digital

This may seem obvious, but let’s remind ourselves: social media is not the old-fashioned networking of rubbing shoulders at a local business meeting or clinking glasses at a corner pub. Social media is digital in both form and access. Whether it is your smartphone or workstation or laptop or all three, these are the gateways to social media.

While social media can be the impetus to interactions outside of itself (a book club with Facebook invites but a living-room locale, for example), the point of contact is first between yourself and an electronic screen in range of the nearest cell tower or Wifi hotspot. Social media as an electronic tether is both the ball-and-chain and the key to the lock; we are obligated to digitally access our networks at the same time that we have chosen to create those networks as accessible only digitally.

What does this have to do with art consumption? One query is whether our art experiences are diminishing to electronic platforms; a sister question is the validity of our choices to limit them thus. Art galleries and concert halls are packaging their art to meet a digital culture, desperately seeking to bolster a shrinking public. The difficulty is utilizing the digital nature of social media to translate an experience that is not inherently digital. We can see the Sistine Chapel from our living room, but can we smell the centuries of tradition and reverence? We can hear the strains of Vivaldi via a live-streamed concert, but do we hear the dusty echoes of the last emphatic bow?

We can ‘Like’ the Facebook page of our city’s premiere orchestra, but at the performance we’ll be asked to disconnect from the very electronics that fed us the news in the first place. Afterwords, be sure to Like Us on Facebook and Instagram while we slot audible art into a visual medium, crop visible art into a filtered feed, and reformat scripted art into a convenient e-book.

Book excerpts used to be read aloud from the tome pulled off the shelf, but now they are digitally hand-lettered (its own oxymoron) against a foggy mountain background and uploaded to a platform that swallows it whole without ever tasting the words. This last small example is one that reveals a secondary, yet equally damaging loss that can be explained after a glance at our next primary characteristic.

What Social Media Is: A Form of Communication

The intent of social media is connectivity and communication, and no one can deny that it is highly capable of both. I’m not a Twitter user, but I’ve marveled over the creative confines of a 140-character constraint (although even that may be changing). Instagram lives by informal mottos both singular (“a picture is worth a thousand words”) and sloppy (“pics or it didn’t happen”), although corporate branding usually censors the latter.

Now we have something called Snapchat, which is still incomprehensible to the dinosaurs of this age (you know them, the ones who still use punctuation in their laborious text about walking the dog and seeing our neighbor, George, and having a chat with him… “XOXO Love, Nanna”). This platform is more difficult to describe; something along the lines of temporary visual messaging with the occasional voice distortion and themed/transmogrifying filters (think visual vomit to a select few or the whole world via a “story”).

It’s telling of our language that we call these pieces of visual communication “stories.” While social media trends toward the visual, Spotify is an intersection of the social with the audible, and Facebook is all things; if you write it, read it, draw it, watch it – you’ll find it there. Also, if you’d like a calendar reminder of when to do that, you’ll find it above the feed full of memes and fake news. And connectivity? The sky is the limit, but Mark Zuckerberg is not, as Facebook shrinks us far closer than six degrees.

When it comes to art consumption, I showed my hand with that header. Social media is a “form of communication,” and a limited one. Here, the digital nature and the communicative aspect converge in a way that expands our consumption (that connectivity again) and limits it (digital communication can only touch our senses in singular ways). The translation, communication, and consumption of art via social media is in a definitively blunted manner. Just as handwritten class notes require greater sensory and cognitive processing (and yes, affect your grade), so do real-world experiences.

To revisit our book quote example, can you recall sitting on the edge of your seat, hearing the unique lilt of another’s cadence as he read aloud from a book that would soon become your favorite? The scrunch of the reader’s nose when arriving at a description of scent, the higher pitch taken for a rapid line of dialogue, the deep breath before a weighty line; these are the experiences of art that are disintegrated upon entering the bytes and streams of social media.

Just as sound waves are compressed to shallower depths to facilitate online streaming, so do our discussions truncate themselves to fit into 140 characters or the lexicon of an online post. The brushstrokes are flattened, the colors muted, and suddenly we touch art wearing the metaphorical glove of social media, unable to truly feel the contours of what it was meant to be.

There is endless possibility to what we can touch, undoubtedly. But the sheer volume of communication buckles under its own weight, unable to further identify between information and communication, between creation and consumption, between experience and engagement. Social media involves far more of something that is far less.

questions worth asking

Confession: this summer, I walked into an art gallery for the first time.

Second confession: I loved it.

Third confession: I didn’t know why.

I’m a self-admitted art dilettante, with experience largely of the history-books-and-billboards kind. Walking into a gallery and realizing, two hours later, that I didn’t want to leave was quite unexpected. Walking out of the gallery and being completely unable to articulate why was even more unpredictable.

What was the last painting that caught your breath? When was the last time you walked out of a movie? What was the last book you didn’t finish – or did finish and promptly chucked at the wall? What was the last line of poetry that demanded to be spoken aloud simply so you could taste the words? Art is meant to seduce, provoke, pierce, bind, and unleash…but only as far as our willingness to engage with it.

We are creatives, not simply consumers. We create because it is inherent to us as bearers of the imago dei, but we consume because we live in a created world. What we consume informs what we create, and the processing of it is the bridge between the two. While for me it was the storied glory of the Scottish National Gallery, for you it may be the gut-wrenching grip of book hangover or the starry-eyed stumbling after an intricate movie. What was the last experience that begged to be processed and not simply consumed? As artists and souls in development, choosing to engage further is crucial to our growth. Can we dig past our first impressions and engage with the nature of that which we consume?

What you hated – why? Was it twisted, uncomfortable, badly-portrayed, or confused?

What you loved – why? Was its siren-song heard by a longing that should be encouraged or kept in check?

When you meet truth – will you know it? When you see beauty, can you tell me why it has captivated you? When you meet ugliness, can you tell me why it is ugly and not simply unique?

When we react to art, can we take a moment to ask why? Why couldn’t we put the book down until the last page? Why couldn’t we tear our eyes away from the spectacle – whether grotesque or wooing? Our experiences with bad art can and should be as formative as our encounters with the soul-enriching kind. While we should seek and laud the best kind of art, if we don’t learn to process the art we encounter, we may not recognize the best kind when it comes. Perhaps our responses reveal that we never dug deeply enough to see the creator’s intent. Perhaps our eyes need to see a little better to understand the honesty of horror or the triumph of ordinary life. Perhaps our moral compasses need an adjustment when we realize that what desires of our soul are being fed. Perhaps, when we stand before a self-portrait and marvel at the season of life captured, we will know better how to articulate why, and in doing so, nurture the imago dei we confess with our lives and our art.

It’s much the same as our faith: we can settle for the beauty of the sunset, or uncover what it says of our Creator. Eventually, maybe we will learn something of ourselves, for what God is this who can tear the sky with thunder and paint it gold at dusk? And who are we that we can taste both?