Art is often lauded as a social good that helps overcome the divisions in our world. It allows people of diverse heritages to come together for the common experience of viewing a performance, film or painting. Art cuts across the boundaries of language, location and time. It also brings communities together with festivals, exhibitions and other social activities. In a way, art is the very essence of humanity.
However, art is also the greatest hazard we face. It is beautiful, seductive and dangerously manipulative. Art has the power to present elegant lies that bury the truth under the static fixation of aesthetic beauty.
Perhaps the best manifestation of this happens in advertisement. Take Penn’s advertising as an example. Brochures targeted at prospective students show bright, flowering shots of campus that make it look impeccably beautiful. Images show Penn students of all ethnicities gathering together in circles on immaculately groomed lawns. What could be better?
As we all know, this is contrived imagery. It presents Penn as a perpetually warm, green place where people of all heritages come together in the pursuit of knowledge. This narrative is a lie. Penn is not a particularly diverse place. Most Penn students come from the Northeast of the United States or California and were born into families that reside within the wealthiest echelons of society. Although Penn’s campus may be visually appealing, poverty mires much of the surrounding city, whose infrastructure and public schools are crumbling. Meanwhile, Penn continues to add billions of dollars to its endowment. Penn’s advertisements, however, tend to hide these social and political realities beneath a facade of manufactured visual beauty.
However, Penn is not alone. Every organization and every person in our world participates in these same dangerous artistic manipulations. All companies use visual advertising to present carefully crafted false associations between products, services and happiness. For instance, Apple connects its products to the creation of a “world story,” showing iPads and other devices capturing images of colorful cultural festivities. The truth is that Apple cares about profit margins, not some kind of harmonious global narrative.
On the individual level, we use social media to craft art out of ourselves. We take pictures of the luxurious food we eat and all the exotic locations we have seen. We only upload the most pleasurable of these photographs in an attempt to hide our real selves. Photographs with purpose exclusively govern our social world. A flood of manipulative visual stimuli has entirely replaced real human interaction with aesthetic falsity. We have let social media become an advertisement for ourselves. This is the century of the self-commoditized human.
If there is a God in this world, it is the aesthetic, the one and only ruler and dictator of all relations. Never has beauty played such an all-important role in society. While it may be futile to attempt an overthrow of this all-powerful force, it is possible to push against it within the confines of the system.
The first defense against the aesthetic is recognizing it. Instead of taking images at their face value, we must analyze them with the utmost level of suspicion. We must understand their origins and their purposes. We must interrogate their surfaces to isolate the falsities that lie beneath. It is our job to then expose these lies — such as Apple’s insistence that its products are unifiers of different cultures — by sharing them with others and by writing about them.
As artists of ourselves, we must fight against the urge to present ourselves as commodity. We must refrain from editing our lives and instead express them in their entirety—the good, the bad, the exciting and the mundane. We are so much more than images. We are people. It is time we reclaim that identity.