Art, Technology and the Shape of Life

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Because I can’t manage time with much of anything to distract me, I’ve sometimes had to remove myself from technology to write. Two months ago I signed back into social media after one of these breaks, having done it enough times to know that it’s a little like hopping a merry-go-round as a child. You stand still for a moment, letting the wheel go around a few times as you get up your nerve, then take a deep, bracing breath and jump on. Even the shouts of your friends welcoming you back is the same, and the feeling that they are only just now realizing you were gone.

A bonus of the break, after taking it, is having a different perspective, the distant point of view compared with the close. Up close technology-based life looks like regular life. From farther away, it looks to be making of life what art does, an imitation.

There is a difference, though, it seems to me, and an important one, between the imitation of life that goes on in the tech-social world and that of art. Such “sharing” often has a charitable motive, dish up a slice of your life, offer a taste of friendship. The sense of being part of a community is one of the many fine things about social media and the main reason I miss it when away. But I am uneasy to see that in my absence there’s been an increase in staging, to use a real estate term, a clearing away of the clutter and mess of ordinary living so life looks more attractive, more Pinterest-worthy to Facebook friends and Instagram followers. There’s no harm, of course, in setting up a photo so the sink of dirty dishes doesn’t show. The danger is subtler than that, I think. It lurks in the careful consideration of how our private selves, or in other words how we, will appear to others in a public post. Psychologists are studying the phenomenon, offering theories that explain why technology has us unconsciously posing, but spiritually speaking, the danger is not lessened because the posing is unconscious. The need to connect, be seen, be cherished, is natural to us, God-given and strong. But let any need become passion-feuled obsession and we are all, even the most honest of us, capable of resorting flim-flam and fakery to satisfy it.

Not so with art, and here is the difference in the imitation. True art, whether it be a sculpture, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a hand-carved iconostasis, inspires. It moves the soul toward God. It generates growth. To grow in the presence of art a soul needs only disposition—a heart that lists in the direction of the divine, and discipline—a willingness to do the work that brings about change. In other words, we are challenged by art to live in a way that changes us because art purposely forms within us the ideal of our humanity, makes us long to have faces that resemble God’s. Technology does not do this for me. The internet is a brightly colored feeder and I am the hummingbird, lazily sipping at sugar water. No work needed, I merely fly in for a nip anytime I like. And if the syrup is a little too quickly gotten, substitute sweet, who cares? I’ve almost forgotten by now what a real flower looks like anyhow, let alone remember the taste of its nectar.

There is a nub of conflict, E.B. White says, between, “The careful form of art, and the careless shape of life itself.” In the conflict, so he claims, lies our destiny.

photo of plants on the table

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

Tech-social society has its place, the sincere cheers of welcome from both old friends and new remind me of that, lifting and encouraging my heart. But it will be good to remember, I think, as I snap an Instagram photo, post a meme on Facebook, that if the thing is not art, it is also not quite careless enough in shape to be life.

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