The Demise of Greatness

I often wonder, or perhaps I am perplexed more so, by the thought of the world’s most revered masterminds interacting with the mediocratic and political landscape of social media. Would they have utilised the tool for their supposed benefit or would they have rebelled against the prism of it’s imposed social standards? Would they have walked fondly among the mirrored walls of vanity, all casting a reflection back unto themselves? Would Picasso have uploaded photographs of his French villa  Notre Dame de Vie, of his vintage car, perhaps slipping in one of his many muses and lovers? And would those lovers in turn, have grown envious of one another and of Picasso’s attention being spread among a mass of digital followers? Would this vacuum of virtual identity have diluted the authenticity of his work, severed the creative channel? Would the artist’s early sketches have contained the fluidity in which they do if he had spent so much time gazing at a format of 3x3 squares? Perhaps Cubism would have dawned sooner. 

And would Virginia Woolf have wrangled words together in the manner in which she did, if the solitude offered by her room of ones own was intruded upon by the incessant presence of a mobile phone and the psychological anchorage to an app that prods for complete devotion? Would Woolf have drowned herself in the swamp of vanity, self-devotion, brand loyalty, nudity, hyper-sexualisation, hashtags and favourable colour schemes that have become a framework for achieving likeability and status? Would the Bloomsbury group have pertained to a policy of 10k Instagram followers or above for membership, carelessly allowing intellectualism to slide into the muddy underworld of society’s drainage? Would the prolific writer have set her phone on self timer, propped up by the assistance of an object, so that she could curl up in front of it in her transparent lingerie reading a book, a photo which she would later caption #bookclub? Would she have supported Instagram as a tool for promoting feminism, a platform for female expression, or would she have seen clearly the paradoxes and contradictions, #womenempowerment #freethenipple? Would her stream of consciousness have continuously poured forth into the catchment of narrative, her writings have withstood the test of time, her ideas as relevant now as they were then, if they had been conceived through a lens of pre-set filters (available for purchase on her website)?

And would Coco Chanel have identified inspiration in the riding attire of her lover Etienne Balsan if her thumb and gaze were both impaired and employed by the eternal scroll through an Instagram feed? Would she have been inspired at all to become as prolific as she was, repurposing material, reconfiguring masculine styles to liberate the female form, if her mind was weighed down by the wasteland of others inspired ideas, ideas that had been carefully considered for her by social media’s algorithms predicting her every taste and preference? 

Henry David Thoreau attempted to live outside of the boundaries of conventional life by building himself a cabin in the woods where he could cut open the skin of the humdrum, to commune with the marrow of life, rekindling the embers of what it meant to live intimately and purposefully with nature. Now digital detoxes run rampant like wildfires as resolutions to the surfacing undulations of anxiety and depression become increasingly prevalent. How many eating disorders, how many suicides can we attribute directly to the influence of social media? How much of society’s restlessness and unhappiness has spawned from every individual feeling compelled to maintain an online presence? Now highly curated, photogenic spaces, pleading to be captured on Instagram’s live story, cabins and the next “great escape” are trends within themselves propelling individuals to adopt certain characteristics and hobbies that salute an online category. It’s easier to be understood, accepted and promoted when one abides by labels. Yet amid this superfluous hype we are starving for connection, for intimacy, for authenticity, for communion, numbed through the saturation of imagery. Social curiosity has become a global currency, at the expense of our own good fortune. Our weaknesses have been exploited, slaves once again to our economy. And now the greatest trend emerges… authenticity, an attempt to return to the au naturel. Yet how can authenticity prevail in such an atmosphere? As Susan Sontag mediates in On Photography (1971), “in teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience… the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects.” Authenticity is at once deemed an impossible feat by the very nature of photography itself. 

And so the question remains, would any of the great minds from the twentieth century have become whom they were if a force so vast, that there was (almost) no pocket of the earth left unburdened by its seething presence, had reigned during their era? Has greatness been diluted or heightened by the cross-pollination and intersection of culture and ideas? Have we been awarded more transparency across industries, would critical mass have been met to allow the #MeToo movement to unfold without this interface of connection and collaboration, or is that merely a fortunate spinoff to something that is predominately narcissistic? And does any of it really matter? If movements are gaining attention namely gender equality, political transparency, environmental sustainability, does it matter where and how awareness is generated, does it matter that these movements are trend-driven? I believe it does. If social media influencers can overlook the numerous spelling errors in their blurb to save Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, then surely they are also going to overlook the overarching themes attributing to the demise of the reef, or miss the whole point entirely of their ambassador role. To what degree did their bulging wardrobe of gifted clothing from brand collaborations contribute to global warming and how many lives were exploited in the process? What’s the social responsibility of these public figures in this new landscape, particularly when they can claim $1 per like for brand endorsements, or for those with celebrity status, a six-figure sum per post? And what about the multimillion-dollar content creation agencies linking influencers with brands, what responsibility do they have? It’s a shame an increase in followers doesn’t appear to correlate with integrity or moral imperative. Is this what it means to be “woke”? At least, I suppose, we should be thankful a tool such as social media exists to “record the rapidly disappearing forms of biological and social life” (Sontag, S. 1971). Even though I would like nothing more than to neatly conclude this essay, another thought came to mind as I sat in the park watching on as a mother arranged her young daughter to appear to be casting the pet dog’s chew ball with a plastic apparatus that served as an extension of her very small arm. The mother stood back in admiration of the scenario, her phone a predatory weapon, pointed, ready to shoot. She aborts her maternal instincts in that moment and in an attempt to isolate, solidify, possess, crystallise an experience, she naively refuses the very experience all together, a testimony to memento mori and “time’s relentless melt” (Sontag, S. 1971). Are we no more than puppets, pulled to dance by the strings of public desire?

Perhaps the demise of greatness pre-dates Instagram and travels as far back as the industrial revolution, the beginnings of the machine churning out mass production. It was only inevitable, at some given point in time, that society’s players would start snapping selfies and create an app which lines them up like Warhol soup cans. I suppose we really have all been famous for fifteen minutes… Has greatness demised in the face of contemporary society? Or in an effort preserve greatness, must one turn away from all forms of social media? I’m assuming the correct answer to that question is the one that gains enough traction, enough impressions, enough likability in the face of all the other noise. I will leave you with a final thought by Sontag (1971):

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”