A Pain in the Arts


While on a stroll during the bank holiday I noticed a young boy being admonished by his parent telling him to put his Gameboy/psvita/iphone/digital handheld device du jour away. He was out in the sunshine with his family and he should be enjoying it, admiring the beauty of the landscape, taking in the air, etc. I stopped and watched the group move away from me, while also admiring the scenery, and within in a hundred feet the father had taken out his own smartphone to check and the mother was taking a photo with hers.

It’s these sort of glib anecdotes most newspaper articles start with and then they proceed to condemn said parents for being hypocrites or praise them for chastising the child who is ignoring the splendour of the natural world in favour of a two dimensional touch screen, reconciling that they themselves were only using their phones because they were capturing the moment or ‘just checking the time’ and so on. Personally, I disagree with both stances.

In the age of multi-media contentification, it surprises me very little that reading amongst the young is in decline (though a trip to Waterstones at the weekend seems to state the contrary…) when they are aggressively presented with ‘high-octane blockbusters’ and graphically amazing videogames that are immediately made streamable/playable on most mobile devices then, yeah, life looks dull in comparison. The idea of stillness and solitude is terrifying but, ironically, incredibly dull too. Filling our time with sound and fury makes sense as a distraction. And this is not solely a ‘Western’ (as amorphous as that title has become lately) distinction. Recent missile attacks in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, were recorded on snapchat, with crowds gathering around a missile shot down in the middle of the street. Africa is the only continent with internet coverage below 20% on average according to the International Telecommunication Union, and it is fast becoming an oasis in this regard. While the Digital Divide is still present, it is decreasing year on year. Which means more and more people are able to remove themselves to digital mediums to Consume Their Content.

And this is why I am not disappointed by either the child or the parents for looking at their phones. It is more stimulating to look at your phone in nature, in the same way as me playing with toys in the garden in the 80s caused me to ignore nature’s splendour in the same way. Wherever we mine Rose tint it must be running low from the amount of nostalgia on public display in the media that seems to forget it was ever thus, it has just increased and got louder, something that endlessly benefits the media I might add. For me, the more worrisome aspect of this is to do with something Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw were interested in 100+ years ago: the notion of Anti-mimesis. Or ‘Life Imitating Art’.

The common understanding is that Art imitates life i.e. you fall in love therefore you write a poem about it, but the reverse is that Life is given a greater level of meaning or understanding by Art. Wilde uses the example that Fog had existed in London for centuries but only after it was artistically represented in paintings and literature was it seen as in anyway Romantic or attractive. This reflects in the way we all pay so much attention to our devices in everyday life in lieu of face-to-face social interaction or ‘being in the moment’ when outside. The digital realm has been imbued with more meaning in public discourse and so life is found online, we do not bring our lives into the digital realm. It is a subtle distinction but a significant one. At a time when all Humanities services and education is defunded and under-valued, when art, film, literature, music and more are deemed 'Content' and people enjoying it described as 'Consuming it', then I think we begin to see where the dislocation between ‘irl’ interaction and digital interaction comes from. With very little Art that genuinely upends or challenges popular thinking or understanding (that isn’t some white guy arguing for a return to the ideologies of a hundred years ago that lead to the holocaust) life is not imbued with fresh meaning. An objective reality remains objective and not understood until it is studied and labelled, this is the scientific method in action but is as equally applicable to the artistic method. Representing the world around us from our own perspective is what great Art does; t communicates, it does not distract. It focuses the lenses of the camera and that allows us to look at and appreciate the natural world, the ‘Real’ world, better because of it.

I do not blame anyone for choosing to use a digital device in the wild, I blame digital companies for not providing a nourishing enough experience filled with art and culture online that would allows us, when we put away our toys, to see the view before us afresh.