What if art has always been, in some deeply human way, cathartic for us? What if we used art as a way to respond to the heartache and the fear and the thoughts and emotions we had no other way to explore or express?
What if we once responded to the world in the medium that worked best for us; the songwriter moved to song because she was so pissed off by something, the photographer moved to make photographs because he saw something that moved him or aroused his curiosity, or the sculptor or playwright or painter – whatever – did what they did because it was the most powerful way they could find to be in the world and deal with the uncontrollable, the beautiful, the frustrating, the profound injustice?
What if art – the best of it – the stuff the still moves us, like (in my case) Picasso’s Guernica, served the function of a release, the pressure finally building until our heart and minds screamed, ENOUGH! and let it out in the medium that best suited us?
And what if social media, for all the good it brings, also acts as catharsis? What if it too gives us an immediate way to explore and express the harder realities and emotions? What if it gives us a constant pressure release, always hissing, never building to the point where the muse gets involved? What if social media, or the way we’ve chosen to use it, is robbing us? Impoverishing us? What if social media is a good thing, or a mediocre thing, that is standing in the way of greater things? It’s not Twitter’s fault, it’s not Facebook’s fault. They’re technologies. Mere opportunities. Opportunities to do a thing once reserved for art, for our creative efforts?
What if the rabid way in which we choose to use social media (I’m talking to you, duChemin) robs us of the chance to stew in things a while and craft a more refined, more intentional, but no less impassioned response to the world. What if the constant hissing of the relief valve of social media – and this might be my biggest concern – is so persistent that we’ve all stopped really listening? What if no one cares because they just can’t f*cking absorb it all anymore.
What if less is more? What if the miracle of these tools is not the thing we once hoped it was? Or, more to the point, what if we’re not using it mindfully enough and it’s slowly allowing us to cannibalize the thing we love while the world watches, half-heartedly, from their browsers?
What if the combination of short attention spans, the immediacy of social media, and the ubiquity of our photography is contributing to the decline of perceived value in our work? Or maybe it’s just lowering the demand. Or both.
This isn’t a sermon about social media. The world doesn’t need one more prophet casting woes. It’s a sideways glance at something I worry might jeopardize some of the most important aspects of my life. It’s a call to myself to be more intentional, to put my time into creating, to nurturing the muse, and to protecting what painter Robert Henri called the art spirit. And it’s an invitation to critically examine the role of social media in our lives, as we should any influence or tool. In the book Technopoly, a book that should be required reading for this generation, Neil Postman asserts that we can either use tools or be used by them, and that the line between those is deceptively thin. We will never live our best lives, nor create our best work, when being used by the tools we pretend to master.
This is a follow-up to my thoughts in my last article, Paying Attention. I wrote both of these to engage with the questions in my own mind, and to share them with you in case they’re helpful. As is often the case it is probably more important that we asking the questions than that we agree on the many possible answers those questions provoke in us.
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