17 July 2013

Instagram and Impressionism

I have never “Instagrammed” anything and I probably never will.

Wait. Strike that.

Now that I think about it: I Instagram all the time—I can’t stop myself from doing it—but, as long as I can do it with good motives, I will gladly keep on doing it—hopefully—until I die.

Some weeks ago I read an article in Relevant magazine entitled “Instagram’s Envy Effect”. The author (Shauna Niequist) observes: “My life looks better on the Internet than it does in real life. Everyone’s life looks better on the internet than it does in real life. The Internet is partial truths—we get to decide what people see and what they don’t. That’s why it’s safer short term. And that’s why it’s much, much more dangerous long term.”

This is why the article’s url states that you should “stop instagramming your perfect life”. If Instagram is simply a way of hiding the truth, I agree with this bit of advice. And if Instagram produces primarily “the envy effect” in us, I also agree.

But envy is not something that’s produced by Instagram. It is our own making.  This is something only I can know in my own heart. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be used with good motives or ill.  And they can be accessed by envious people or selfless souls. These underlying realities cannot be controlled by the programs themselves.

The fact is: with or without the official Instagram interface, we all Instagram our lives. Here’s why I think this happens…

I believe that, for most people, Instagram is connected to a basic human impulse: We crave beauty. We want to make our lives beautiful and to make the world a more beautiful place. We do this because we believe that beauty can draw us towards one another; it can entice us towards truth, and (yes) towards God, who is beauty’s source.

We beautify our houses in attempts to create a space where people will feel at home, connected and integrated. We beautify our bodies because beauty catches our eye and attracts one person to another. We beautify places of worship in hopes of creating spaces for spiritual communion.

Of course, this is why the editors of Relevant did not choose a repulsive photograph to accompany the article in question. Ms. Niequist is a beautiful woman and this photograph does true justice to her beauty which lies both within and beyond eyeshot. Whether or not the photo was processed through Instagram we can be sure it was instagrammed in the broader sense—for the photo conveys something of her spirit, the image of God in her.  Without denying there may be heartache in her life, the photo nevertheless affirms there is, indeed, joy.

This is also why Relevant takes care to “Instagram” its own image. Are the icons and graphic designs in each issue “true to life”? Yes and no. They are designed to give us a feel for something “different” and “relevant”—and this attempt to create beautiful print-space is authentically communal for it is designed to “draw us in.” And it does. So, it is true—designed or not.

Does this picture on the cover of a recent issue reflect something of the essence of the person? Yes. Does it accurately portray how this man always looks? No. But that does not mean it is false.

Our attempts to “Instagram” can be destructive (as Ms. Niequist wisely points out) but such acts can also be constructive. It all depends on the heart.

So…we crave ways to be art-makers, to create and share our creations with others. And…this art has the potential to unite or divide.  

Much of this potential rests with the choices of the artist, but much of it also lies in what the audience does with the art. Even the best-intended art can be corrupted by a shriveled spirit and even the worst-intended art can be sanctified with eyes of grace. “Beauty,” as the expression says, really is “in the eye of the beholder.”

A story: Our friends Dick Robinson and Joyce Robinson paid us a visit in Madrid some years ago. Both of them were artistically inclined. Joyce was the director of an arts foundation and Dick was an accomplished photographer. Because of their passion for art, they wanted to see some of Madrid’s great museums.

Both of them were Christians. This is a relevant detail because modern Christians have developed the nasty habit of mistrusting many aspects of art. If we Christians are honest with ourselves, we feel there is much in the artistic enterprise that tempts us to betray our faith.

Dick commented on this: he stated how he used to simply look away from certain paintings because he felt they were too “worldly”. He cited nude paintings as an example of this and he stated that most Christians would not look at a nude painting properly because they were too afraid of lusting. In Dick’s estimation, this fear robs people of beauty. We make the art-piece “ugly” because we approach it that way. If we bring a beautiful spirit to something, it takes on a beauty that may, in fact, surprise us with joy.

Art-making is our way of making beautiful things out of the mess of our lives, the world and history. Art is our way of expressing how we see things with our heart, even if our eyes tell us something different. This kind of art (even if it is created with mixed motives) has the potential to “draw us near”.

Think Impressionism. It is a way for the artist to communicate to his or her audience “the way this makes me feel.” Good art awakens emotion; Christians should not fear this because we are, after all, beings with pathos.

Is Impressionism “accurate, true to life”? In one sense, no. In another sense, yes: for it is an attempt to convey how another person experiences an event, place, object, action, idea, or other persons.

Even before Impressionism existed as a defined artistic movement, it permeated the spirit of the arts. Classic sculptures like Michelangelo’s David have a supra-real quality to them. Because Michelangelo sculpted with excellence, the audience is more readily able to see David as Michelangelo sees him.

If we take time and open our hearts to listen to what the artist may be saying to us through their work, we may find our spirit quickened with re-cognition. This is the heart of impressionism. The artistic expressions make us feel something, they give us some sense of an object’s essential nature which transcends what we can see with our eyes.

Impressionism is a valid way of expressing ourselves because it is akin to something God does: “People look at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart.” When we learn to look at the heart like this, we participate in God-inspired art-making.

This principle transcends art-marking and bleeds into relationship. For example, when normal people like me look at someone like Simon, all we see is a cantankerous fisherman, uneducated—probably dirty and smelly—lower or middle class with an uncool windblown look to his hair.

When Jesus looks at him what does he see? All this and more: Peter, the patriarch on which a family spanning the centuries will be built. He saw this as present while Peter was still just a fisherman. That is an artist’s eye.

And this is the rub. How to see things as they are and see the potential in them at the same time. It doesn’t have to be an either-or. This is a point of disconnect for us but it never is for God—for He never sees us as fallen apart from the beautiful image we possess.

How do we reconcile the two, then? How do we “see things as they are” and “see the potential” at the same time? The same way God does. By creating.

In her book The Mind of the Maker Dorothy Sayers writes: “We must not…try to behave as though the Fall had never occurred nor yet say that the Fall was a Good Thing in itself. But we may redeem the Fall by a creative act. That, according to Christian doctrine, is the way that God behaved and the only way in which we can behave if we want to be ‘as gods.’” 

Creation is our way of reconciling truth and beauty since we find both enjoined in The Maker. Creating is our way of seeing beauty as truth.

All good art does this, whether we realize it or not. It is why our heart leaps to our throat when we hear a certain symphony. It is why we feel not-so-alone when we look at a photograph portraying loneliness. It is why film and theater, through their interpretive filters, will be ever-new for us.

This is also what gives poetry its power. Poets are linguistic impressionists. They use words to convey the spirit of a thing, the emotion that’s aroused from a real-life encounter. When the words are put together a certain way, they measure more than the sum of their parts. This is partly what the writer strives to communicate; it is why the poet labors four weeks for just four lines of verse. “How to express what I’m feeling, how this strikes me…” And the reader participates in the meaning-making, too. Poems I read when I was twenty mean something different today.

We are Makers. Portraying the beauty in the midst of the mundane is our way of laying hold of the Image of God in the midst of the Fall. It naturally proceeds from our impulse to recreate paradise. So, there is nothing wrong with it, of course. And Instagram represents one small (if over-popular) part of this impulse.

That said, if Instagram provokes envy in you or deepens loneliness, stop using it. But, understand: we cannot escape filtering life. It is our way of making beauty, attempting to express how we feel, how someone or something strikes us. The key is to see it all as beautiful so there is no need to envy—because you make beauty in your way while another makes beauty in their way. Yes, it is all beautiful: from the garden planted out back to the sidewalk paved out front—from the cloudy sky above to the rich soil beneath—from the vegetables arranged symmetrically on a dish to the broken bodies they nourish.


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