What is Real?

I've been thinking a lot about 'the real' versus 'the imagined' lately. As a writer, it's difficult to draw a distinction between reality and fiction; for the artist, art is more real than everyday life:

Good art is the distillation of reality. The colours are enhanced; the feelings are intensified. A seaside painting by William Turner is more powerful than a trip to the beach will ever be. Perhaps this is because painting is not just a means to represent, but to re-present: that is, painting does not replicate reality, but reimagines it in surprising new ways. One of my favourite writers, Sir Philip Sidney, said something similar – "only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature".

In this sense, art is always in competition with reality – either to better or belittle it. Some of society's most valued critics are also the greatest satirists and comedians. The levity of Jonathan Swift and Robin Williams contains more truth than a thousand sermons. This is not to discredit the Bible or any other scriptural text of course, only to say that truth is hidden in unexpected places.

Consider, for instance, the selfie. Is it a representation or a re-presentation? I would argue for the former, although I suppose any image is subject to critique and therefore re-presentation. Detractors of the Digital Revolution say that we live in an Age of Narcissism, needing instant gratification in the form of 'likes'. Social media is a corporation and we are all working for free, they say. The programs are designed to suck us in, to make us addicted to external validation through algorithms. We are constantly bombarded with tweets and updates, and the development of Google Glass and the Apple Watch make technology an extension of our bodies. Are we human, or are we humanoid? The increasing popularity of online dating sites and the development of romantic 'relationships' in video games is interesting, to say the least. Again, this is not to dismiss the validity of those relationships – only to call into question what a relationship really means, when lived outside the body. Perhaps we will develop a language that distinguishes between 'meeting' somebody online, versus 'meeting' them in person.

It could be said that artists live through their art, just as academics live in their own heads. Still, it is disconcerting when we cannot distinguish the imagined from the real. Why are online conversations never acknowledged in person, especially when we spend so much time online? Why do we spend so many hours watching Netflix, playing video games, or browsing on social media? When I look at a selfie, I do not see a representation of a person so much as I see a person, re-presenting themselves to the world, as an image: look at me? The caption is always followed by a question mark, a self-conscious inflection that asks, who am I in this digital universe? The selfie is a mirror-image of a society that looks inwards at itself, not outwards at the broken world. It is not a representation, or even a re-presentation: it is a presentation for an audience of followers.

What are selfies and video games? Are they expressions of artistry, as valid as typing or painting, or are they as untrustworthy and false as the poets in Plato's Republic? To me, beauty is not a precondition of good artwork; art is utilitarian – that is, it must contribute something useful to society. Good art signifies: it adds depth to our otherwise dull and dreary lives. Art is what we live by, but it should not be what we live for.

Sarah HertzComment