Recently I went on a date to The Broad Museum in Los Angeles. It has a small collection that focuses mostly on 20th-century art – Koons, Warhol, etc. It is also an Instagram paradise/hellscape. I am by nature a curmudgeon, so I knew I was going to be annoyed at the Instagram-mediated museum experience. However, I decided to lean into it and focus on the crowds interacting with their phones interacting with the gallery. I brought my camera along and photographed others photographing art.
The irony was not lost on me. Everyone was streaming everything the entire time. As a former art student, I cringe at this kind of museuming. Also, I know I am being a snob right now, but I also believe something vital is not simply missed but in fact inverted and exploited by this type of cultural consumption.
One gallery in particular broke my heart. Kara Walker’s work was given its own room and visitors were warned of explicit content before entering. Walker is known for her juxtaposition of race, sexuality and violence referencing the antebellum South. This was the second time I encountered her work in the flesh, though it was no less moving in its familiarity. I was overwhelmed by the images. Rape and death intertwined with the quotidian. Black figures against white ground.
“The language of the trivial is the language of vanity, which is how the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes talks about our lives.”
As a child of the South, it was a gut punch. My aunt has a plantation-style mansion in Mississippi with an actual “help closet” in the washroom. In the hallways are silhouette portraits of her kids when they were young. Same style as Walker. We grew up with black women helping in the kitchen. I never saw those same women sit in the dining room for a meal.
Walker was talking to me and my people. I was surrounded by her installation, “African’t,” which dominated most of the gallery. It was suffocating.
Except I was also surrounded by what could only be described as the trivial, and the dissonance was dizzying. People would pop in the gallery to take a selfie, laugh at the images (at a quick glance they just look sexual and silly, not deadly), and then leave for the next gallery to exploit. At this point I had to sit down and feel the pain of our current moment. Some contemporary art can understandably be encountered as “cute” (Koons) or “pretty” (Kusama). But Walker is an assault on the soul. How were so many people gliding through the room without even flinching?
Because they were not really there. They were in their screens, which mediated the pain and transformed it into the trivial. 😜LOL😜.
Disgust, shame and empathy are heavy emotions, but they are important to acknowledge and metabolize. Walker shows us what we are capable of with just enough distance to survive the experience. These are things we are not permitted to forget, nor to trivialize.
The language of the trivial is the language of vanity, which is how the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes talks about our lives. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It is the Hebrew word hevel, or the Greek word mataios. It is form without soul. It is pointless and vaporous. It is flitting through a room full of deadly sexual violence and seeing only your next potential selfie.
לֹא־יוּכַ֥ל אִ֖ישׁ לְדַבֵּ֑ר
לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֥ע עַ֙יִן֙ לִרְא֔וֹת
וְלֹא־תִמָּלֵ֥א אֹ֖זֶן מִשְּׁמֹֽעַ
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
Speaking of selfies…
I recently ran across an article about the rise of selfie booths in worship spaces; Red Carpet culture rising from the waters of baptism. The church provides a fancy backdrop, maybe even a professional photographer. You provide the smiles and access to your social media audience. This is a market exchange of goods and services, leveraging the same incentives other brands use to create “engagement.” The church gets free advertisement on your platform (make sure you include the #hashtag and @handle) while you get to perform your religion for your followers.
“Most of us are simply not disciplined enough to escape the ego trap of social media.”
Of course this is all facilitated by the truism that drives so much of modern evangelical culture: if it spreads the Gospel, it is worth pursuing. We forget the wisdom of Marshall McLuhan at our own expense:
“The medium is the message.”
Most of us are simply not disciplined enough to escape the ego trap of social media. Those who try to tame the ego while building an online following do so at extreme emotional and social cost. The substructures of these digital spaces are designed to capture our attention for profit. Algorithms nudge users toward maximum engagement, which usually means exposing users to feedback loops of curated content that either affirms or enrages us, sometimes both at the same time.
The social media space is a dangerous world leveraged by hidden agendas and powerful systems. Your spiritual health is pretty far down on the list of their priorities. It is essential that we all believe the lie that these platforms are morally neutral; that they are reflecting reality, not poisoning it. All social/emotional/spiritual indicators show us that these digital platforms are distorting humanity and amplifying our worst qualities.
We are becoming more twitchy at a soul level. So I strongly urge faith leaders to skip the selfie booths and hashtag campaigns. Church is a place of formation, not exploitation. Your people rely on you to lead them into generative spaces of spiritual growth.
Plus, you have these precious few minutes each week to connect with your congregation, to look them in the eye and share the same space together. You are present in this moment, if you stay in it. Don’t give up one second to the lesser gods of this digital age.