By Phil James
A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article that claimed that a grade-school poem was perhaps “the greatest poem written so far in the 21st century”. While this stuff is expected during the rise of clickbait websites–tabloids, no less, for the millenarian generation–it made me reconsider the effects of social media on the art world. For thousands of years, visual art and literature have been essential parts of society, and they have almost always provided a platform for cultural dialogue and symbolic transgression. I am here to suggest that social media is eroding the role of art and literature, and that there must be pragmatic steps taken to separate it from its sphere of influence.
I understand that the ‘art’ is (and has always been) a loose term, and I don’t mean to take too conservative a view of art being a specific set of objects or a certain type of language. This list merely recognizes that several functions of social media threaten the relationship between the piece and its audience. It is more about what it does to you than to the work itself.
1. The Social Gaze – Social Media is forcing us to judge based on our powers of judgement — superficial likes and clever comments.
In her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey claims that popular cinema compels the viewer to be voyeuristic, to sexualize and objectify whoever is on the other side of the camera lens. This is known as “The Male Gaze”. I would argue that social media follows a similar structure; since likes and shares are sacrosanct to whoever is promoting a given page, whatever creates a desire to validate content will become the norm.
The problem is that visual art is not necessarily meant to please the eye. Oftentimes, it is supposed to be uncomfortable. Whole artistic movements have succeeded on the principle of going against popular aesthetics. Unfortunately, social media prevents us from working with the pieces. We either accept it or reject it immediately.
2. Art is Contemplative – Social Media is consumable
As I mentioned in the previous point, the disposability of pages on social media can be harmful to art. Another reason for this is the space where we host these pieces–pages full of bells and whistles, with constant notifications and endless distractions. Like a casino with no clocks or a restaurant designed to make us hungrier, social platforms are built to motivate consumption. This is a naturally unhealthy environment to present works that are supposed to inspire critical thinking and deep contemplation.
Artistic movements like Andy Warhol’s pop-art challenged the aesthetics of consumer products by holding them on a pedestal too big for their own value. Unfortunately, social media actually motivates product design, especially items that further promote the consumption of technology. The greatest threat to social media are items that challenge the value of social media and technology.
3. The Medium is the Message – Gifs will triumph over Murals, Catchy titles over good content
The Digital is fundamentally inauthentic. As the late great theorist Walter Benjamin put it, “[e]ven the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and
space”. Art that better accommodates the social media environment will ultimately succeed over images of paintings and sculptures. And considering the rise of Gif art and the recent obsession over the aesthetics of app design, it becomes very difficult for art to feel authentic.
This also goes for shareable works of fiction. Recently, several websites have relied on the model of using catchy, “clickbait” article titles to immediately pique consumer interest. It is difficult to get a meaningful message across when the amount of hits is the only measure of value. Surely, the artist would not enjoy their art exhibit if people showed up but simply passed through the gallery. The current model leaves no room for contemplation.
4. If ‘Shareability’ is a currency, then pathos must be going through inflation
If something is shareable, it is often because it rouses a certain set of emotions in the viewer. Whether it be a cute cat or a profound act of armchair heroism, your emotion is what these websites and their parent companies want. The problem with this model is that it is difficult to reproduce over and over. The internet has desensitized a whole generation to the horrors of war and the bare intimacy of disaster. The longer this model remains, the more difficult it will become to make something worth sharing.
Art and literature have always used pathos, the ability to evoke cathartic emotion, as a rhetorical tool to help audiences retain the explicit or implicit message of a given piece. Social media is eroding the value of pathos by using it as a currency, and as some failed promotional campaigns have proven, it could begin having a reverse effect. If we become numb to any sort of emotional appeal, then any process that requires contemplation and patience (such as a long read or a complex work of art) will be ineffective.
5. The Lowest Common Denominator
Before the modern era, there was generally a great divide between the institution of fine art and the lower class. In France, for example, art has been managed and overseen for centuries, and although it may be the reason for all the transgressive innovation, its institutionalization has separated it from the lower classes. Television, syndicated publications and today the Internet has democratized the spread of art.
While this is fundamentally a good thing, art is now competing with media that is produced to briefly wow for cheap validation, and this collusion is creating a false binary–that art and literature, in their erudition and complexity, represent the ivory-tower mentality of higher economic classes. This is caused by a growing internet audience that is also craving likes and retweets for their responses; complex analysis and unique readings will rarely receive any validation, but more often than not, memes and witty responses become a more popular method of dialogue. It’s not that art requires a certain elitism to survive on the internet, it’s that social media will rarely allow difficult interpretations over simplistic, immediately-likeable comments.
6. Social Media is fundamentally extroverted–and many creators are not.
Social media can seem loud sometimes. An endless cycle of viral videos, brightly-coloured links and barely-legible Twitter updates can be too much for some people, and it is certainly no place for contemplative relaxation and meditative reflection. The poetry that succeeds in the era of social media is not the poetry of solitude and ennui. Slam Poetry, for example, has become extremely popular for a generation of viewers expecting sleek production skills and digestible meaning, such as videos like this one. It is not that the message is wrong, by any means, but that it is simplistic, and appropriates the form of poetry to dispense unambiguous rhetoric.
I am not against slam poetry and I love how it has maintained literary scenes all over the world, but it becomes nearly impossible to discover the next Emily Dickinson or Marcel Proust on major social platforms, because they lack a key ingredient: sociability. Social media is allowing non-artists such as marketing teams to become the main orators of poetry–and in doing so, is destroying the medium as a whole. Consider the recent ad by Apple for their new tablet. It associates engaging with their product as a form of cathartic poetry. Poetry will lose its value if it becomes a rallying cry for major corporations.
7. Search Bubbles and Big Data Algorithms are closing your doors of perception
One of the biggest problems with using social media as a platform for your art is that many of these websites and applications use search bubbles and certain algorithms to keep certain people close and others away. They collect your interests together and make fair estimations about who and what you will like next–a terrible prospect for anyone whose art requires an amount of time to appreciate and understand.
The rise of Big Data algorithms is helping out many parts of society, including health care, logistics and even the food industry. But what it is doing wrong is forgetting that the best works of art do not just reinforce old opinions, they change them. Companies like Netflix are producing shows that accommodate your interests, but what they are failing to do is challenge the status-quo. Art cannot exist within an echo chamber.
8. Too many stories: Twitter Journalism is replacing the Novel
Considered one of the very first ever novels, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela still resonates today. Written today, the novel would resemble one of the hundreds of millions of personal blogs and twitter accounts on the web, but in the 1760’s, there were few guides on facing the challenges of daily life in difficult urban settings. Young women read Pamela to know how to adapt to the city and to the cruelty of employers and deceptive courtiers. It is not necessarily a bad thing that we no longer have as many novels like this one, but, as a recent article in The New Yorker points out, social media platforms are specifying news stories to a point that the human element remains. Our peers become witnesses, and events become all-the-more relatable.
The problem with this shift is that The Novel is not necessarily meant to capture reality and every little detail. Works that have in no way attempted to reflect the truth–such as the magic realism of Marquez, the surrealism of Robbe-Grillet or the all-out confusion of Pynchon’s novels–have become the figureheads of whole literary movements, but they cannot be read within the confines of a technological apparatus. The book must speak for itself.
Art and literature need to become public events completely outside of social networks. Just as the Romantic poets looked back to nature at the beginning of the 19th century for wisdom, we must use physical space to host physical works of art. Similarly, we must continue to promote events that allow for intimate conversation with authors, poets and other speakers.
The “Next Big Facebook” should only be accepted if it does not automatically marginalize those who present difficult opinions and complex thoughts. They should be embraced because they embolden and enrich people, and not rejected because it isn’t immediately consumable.
We can’t be completely quantitative. Computers function on binary logic and simply cannot “smell the roses” nor enjoy particular colors or sounds. Social networks must take people out of their comfort zones to figure out what they really want, instead of simply making their interests estimable.
We must embrace skepticism and transgression more than reinforced traditional values on social media platforms, as it individualizes opinion and promotes self-expression.