How Technology Undermines the Art of Experience and the Experience of Art

Glazed before my eyes, was the painting; Two lovers embracing. The man planted a kiss on the woman’s cheek. The woman’s eyes were closed, drowned in affection. Delicate arms wrapped with one another, momentously forming one entity. A field of pastel flowers seeping from below, entangle their bodies. Whimsical. The color of gold shimmered and swirled across the canvas. This was the ideal of love. This was The Kiss by Gustav Klimt; Or at least an image of it. I had seen the picture of the painting a couple of years ago on a Facebook page aptly called “Art is a way of survival” where curated aesthetic images of art from across the world were balanced with equivalent words of poetry. Upon seeing The Kiss on my smartphone screen, I instantly wondered, what would it be like to see it in person?

Summer of 2018, I stood in front of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, I finally had the chance to experience Klimt’s works of art. By then I understood the valance and the popularity on The Kiss and how it resonated with not only me but with millions. We filtered our way through the gallery and approached the room where it laid. There was an enclave of individuals, a buzz of sounds, raising their smartphones, persistent in capturing the painting in the four corners of their devices. There was an unspoken but apparent cue for taking a photo, as individuals hastily posed at the frame of the painting, one by one, giving their best smiles hoping to capture a moment that they can later share with their friends. I pulled my phone out and instructed my mother the way I wanted the photo to be taken. The moment had to be perfect. I walked by the frame, my back facing the painting and posed as my mother attempted several angles until it was time to move away. The photos were shaky and ungratifying. I walked away from the exhibit upset by myself. Dismayed because the very memory of the painting was replaced by the anxieties and anticipation of photographing me with it.

My perilous experience in Vienna reflects a broader cultural-technological shift in human society and behaviors. The smartphone has equipped human beings with a digital camera in the palm of our hands that gives us agency to preserve virtual copies of what we do and see in the world. Its convenience and ominous presence is revolutionary and empowers the user to crystallize moments of their daily lives instead of relying on the fleeting nature of human memory. Social media platforms such as Instagram developed concurrently with the increasing sophistication of digital cameras and, in turn, encourage and reward our innate desire to preserve and publicize human experiences. What once was a useful tool, is now a gateway to an obsessive culture to capture, record and share events and things that barely arouse us, limiting the human consciousness to our perceptions.

Art is a uniquely human trait, fundamental to our experience. It is a projection of human creativity and imagination, imbued with subjective intent and motivation that are hard to replicate. The way we experience art is enigmatic, an abstract cognitive process that we don’t completely understand. Its characterized by its emotional and memorable quality, its ability to grasp our attention and change our momentary perceptions of time. We use a degree of confabulation, using fictitious accounts to make sense of a situation, to express our emotional appraisal towards art (Eby). This is evident when we observe visual art especially. My liking towards The Kiss was instantaneous but to explain my fondness towards it, I used details from the canvas: the characters, the background, the strokes and inculcated them with metaphors, themes, and ideas, delineating that the appreciation of art is not limited to the sum of our perceptional aesthetic judgments.

What happens then when we mediate art through a lens? We undermine the complexity of the human experience and our profound interaction with visual art. With the act of recording and photographing, we sacrifice present moments with the goal of immortalizing them. An overestimation of the abilities of our smartphones to document what we feel rather than a plain regurgitation of what we see. Our newfound cultural obsession over the photographable and instagramableattack the fundamental way we experience and appreciate visual art by altering and inhibiting internal processes such as memory, attention and time sense. Instagram being an audience-driven platform governs the trends and aesthetics that are popular, dramatically changing the way we create and consume art in our visually saturated world.

The act of taking a photo to preserve memories is paradoxical, in that it achieves the very opposite: we become more susceptible to forgetting the moment entirely and tends to reduce the overall enjoyment of the experience. A study conducted at Fairfield University investigated the impact of photo-taking on recall. The field experiment entailed half its participants to take photos of objects in a guided tour of the Bellarmine Museum of Art, and the other half were asked to merely observe. A day later, participants were questioned about the objects in the museum and were interviewed about their visual details. Results significantly indicated that the participants who photographed the objects were less likely to recall visual information of objects from the museum (Zomorodi). Similarly, studies conducted by Alixandra Barasch at NYU showed that a “participant’s experience interpretation of an experience” can alter based on the goal of the photo-taking. When participants had to take photos of tourist sites with the intention to share on social media, tended to report lesser enjoyment of their experience in contrast to when they were asked to take images for personal memories.

The outcomes of these experiments can be interpreted by our growing impulse to “outsource our thinking and recollection processes” to our technological devices through the process of photo-taking (Savov) and the impending anxiety and self-consciousness we suffer when we intend to share the photo (Buder). Our brain is not adept at multitasking and is unable to divide our attention to both, present moments as well as the act of taking a photo as both tasks have different demands. With the presence of the camera, we outsource our experience to it. This false sense of preservation we have when capturing an image, in fact, hinders further elaborate or emotional engagement (Savov) of what we are viewing, a discernment required in actively interacting with a piece of art. The second we take the photo we become a little bit more careless of our surroundings. Our photo-taking tic fueled by our need to share and promote ourselves likewise detracts us from the present moment as well with the very preoccupation of creating an image that will be seen by others. We miss the details of an artwork and the emotional valance they may embody with them.

The incessant use of our smartphone subverts our very ability to effectively appraise art by disrupting our levels of attention and our perception of time. A meta-analysis published by the University of Chicago press journals investigates the “Brain drain hypothesis” which supports that the very presence of our smartphone can limit our cognitive capacity due to the proliferation of smartphone dependence (Ward, Adrian F., et al). In an information-dense environment, “allocation of attentional resources” is vital to the efficacy of our cognitive functions and goals. However, the mere presence of the device reduces the availability of attentional resources that may have been used in a required task but rather is repurposed to curb our automatic attention towards one’s phone. The attention shift towards our phones may not even be conscious for it to cause performance deficits in our task (Ward, Adrian F., et al).

In addition to the cognitive costs of our smartphone addiction on attention, smartphones change how we fundamentally attend to things. Our smartphones and the social media platforms embedded within it create a visually-enriched virtual environment composed of stimuli and content that fight for our attention. To decipher these infinite sources of material and visual, we have developed an attentional scan, enabling us to shift and process multiple stimuli in a short span of time. The utility of such rapid operations come once more with a cognitive cost: we handle more with the drawback of processing everything on a much shallower level. By limiting our higher levels of attention to visuals with higher levels of arousal, the brighter, the bigger, the more colorful, we miss out on the subtlety and nuances of human art.

The concept of how humans perceive time is complex and multifaceted and thus reflects the time warping abilities of art. In his novel Stumbling Upon Happiness, Daniel Gilbert delineates that what differentiates humans from other animals is our ability to “think about the future” (Gilbert 4). We are hence not bound to the present, we do not experience life stimuli after stimuli but instead move back and forth with thoughts and ideas, remembering the past and anticipating the future through imagination. When viewing art, we often experience an “intense feeling of being in the present” and with a sense of mindfulness (Gilbert 7). We have an appreciation for the artist’s creation and creative interpretation and awareness of it, absent of other overarching thoughts. Our digital sphere, however, may reduce our ability to be fully in the present. Philip Zimbardo asserts that digital technologies all provide a constant display of time and our incessant use of them via checking emails, social media, and news has made us very aware of it, down to the very seconds. Creating a psychological sense of time that is “short focused and immediate” (Gregoire). The compulsive use of technologies as Zimbardo terms it, leads to “present hedonism” (Gregoire): an excessive present orientation where the individual lies in a limbo between the present moment and anticipating the very next. The anticipation of the present-hedonism state lies as an instant gratification trap, we lose the ability fixate on the present and continuously crave momentary rewards.

It is undeniable that Instagram culture is changing how we experience art, but it is also concurrently shaping how we consume it as well. The act of taking photos is Pavlovian, primed to activate during any moment that even mildly excites us. On the contrary, we suffer substantial emotional burdens through the form of guilt and failure when we don’t capture positive experiences. Barasch adds to her research on photo-taking on the enjoyment of the experience, that though the act of taking a photo divorces us from the moment, “sharing practices” later on can boost one’s self-esteem and sense of self (Buder). This leads to a more positive recall of the actual event. Social validation and rewards, therefore, bolster our need to capture ourselves with art. Creating a demand for forms of visual art that are salient to the aesthetic and trends of Instagram.

The surging popularity of Instagram-friendly pop-up ‘museums’ blur the line between observing and consuming art. There are several exhibits or museums with varying themes about ice cream, selfies, feelings, and rosé but all share common characteristics. They are immersive and interactive. Colorful, vivacious exhibits designed for the ideal photo opportunity. Feeding into our egocentric tendencies where “you” are the focal point of the exhibition, framed by the four corners of our digital camera. They are not meant to be confabulated with, the props and displays are created to look good, the motivation is clear. Often they are reproductions and mimicries of previous installation pieces by famous artists such as the “Obliteration room” forged by Yayoi Kusama. And yet they sky-rocket with engagement influencing traditional art museums to reclassify which artworks are more ‘attractive’ than others to attract more customers.

Futurists would describe the interaction between technology and art as a ‘paradigm shift’ a natural cascade and evolution of human behavior and society. It promises us that the plasticity of the brain and its sensitivity to the environment will come to our advantage; equipping us with cognitive abilities to navigate the tech-rich world. And yet, can this very malleability of our brain lose the ability to respond to art altogether? My inability to relieve my anxieties and obsessive nature over capturing the perfect moment with The Kiss was a product of only a few years of technological, social priming. As the sophistication of digital cameras and smartphones improve we begin to outsource our daily lives and overly rely on these devices to recall human experiences, reducing us to mere information processing machines when the exact opposite is true. We are complex dynamic beings with sophisticated emotions and rational thought. Art is an inherently human trait, and its appreciation is cultivated by our environment and through time. And then when we begin to create the world narrowed by utility and social reward we risk losing our functions of creativity, imagination, and art, we risk losing something that is fundamentally human.

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Cognitive Science major at USC, love writing about science, technology and the human mind .

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Mansi Iyer

Mansi Iyer

Cognitive Science major at USC, love writing about science, technology and the human mind .

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