Kim English’s Zeitgeist in Carmel-By-The-Sea

“Communication” by Kim English. (Oil, 13″ x 15″)

It was while driving home from Carmel, California, after having seen this and other paintings at a juried show (more on that in a later post) that I heard the story on the radio: college students today are so bad at social interaction that some universities are now tutoring them in it before they graduate. Part of the reason, the report said, was that they spend more time interacting with a computer than with people. Hence the first things they get training in are handshakes, eye-contact, speaking properly, staying focused on what the speaker has to say, and not using slang or profanity. LOL!

This resonated because of the above painting, which was part of the Twelfth Annual American Impressionist Society’s National Juried Exhibition in Carmel, California. It shows a college- or post-college age girl on her computer alone in her room or dorm, most likely conversing on Facebook or some other social network, a glass of wine at her side. The wine and casual posture tell us she is relaxing, unwinding, socializing, even though there isn’t another human in sight.

As soon as I saw this work, which is deceptively simple and stripped down,  I thought the artist, Kim English, had managed to paint the zeitgeist of our time. A generation ago the woman in the painting would have been talking with friends at a bar or restaurant. Or in a campus lounge or on steps or walking down the street. Or even on the phone, where one can hear the voice and inflections of the other person, absorb subtle cues, participate in the give-and-take.

Sometimes I imagine going to back to my college friends and telling them that in 20 years people would so much of their time cut off from the world around them,  typing messages with their thumbs, often further isolated by the white plugs fitted to their ears, trailing wires about them like some sort of cyborg. I remember the first time I showed the whole concept of simple email to some of my classmates in law school. I made a point of mentioning how it was so fast that if the two people were logged on at the same time they could send messages to each other almost instantaneously–which, after all, is all “messaging” really is. They stared at me  and said, “Why would anyone want to do that? Who wants to sit at a computer?”  Who indeed? I wonder what they’re doing this very minute…

Today it’s common to go into a public place and see heads bowed, as if in prayer, only their god is wifi. A coffee shop in Berkeley, Local 123, tried several times to cut their wifi during specified times, such as when a lecturer or author was speaking, or when live music was being performed. The customers, in a 21st century variant of “I want my MTV!” revolted. No wifi, then bye-bye!, was basically what they said. I wrote some time ago about listening to a combo smokin’ some jazz standards while all eyes were on electronic screens, and a vast silence filled the end of each set. The musicians laughed it off—I can only imagine to hide the hurt.

That’s the girl in the painting: updating her Facebook posts instead of listening to a good set of music she didn’t even know she liked before she tried it, or having a good debate with friends over a bottle of chardonnay, or going to the Godard festival at the repertory film theater. Part of the beauty of “real life” is sometimes you find yourself dragged to something you didn’t know you liked. With the infinitely-tweekable Internet, we can tailor our various feeds and alerts so that only the parts of the world we care about ever reach us. Advantageous some say. Disaster, I say. Ideally, your college and your post-college years are supposed to be horizon-broadening, and indeed the internet can coontribute to this. However, study after study has shown most people use it to narrow in on their interests, getting only the news and information that they agree with and excluding outside influences as much as filters permit. Plus, calling capitalisthater3269 an idiot and then sending him an emoticon of you with your tongue stuck out isn’t the same as asking a beret-wearing poli-sci major with a minor in philosophy to explain his position over a couple beers or a tarty zinfandel. Not as fun either, frankly. But it’s easier, and more convenient. Kind of like fast food and television. And look what that has done to us.

Of course I am being deliberately one-sided, and there are many reasons kids need some etiquette lessons. Heck, everyone surely could benefit, even people who grew up when computers were mainframes that required air-conditioned floors. But there’s something disturbing about people who refer to someone they’ve never met, and shared little more than a link or an LOL with, as “their friend.” There’s something odd about sitting alone in your room with a glass of alcohol and looking around for someone to talk to when the person in the next apartment is probably doing the same thing…this is what depressed people used to do. And that’s why this painting is so well-considered. We don’t see the girl’s face. We can glean almost nothing about her. The space could be an apartment, a dorm, a bedroom, a living room. She could be happy, sad, in love, bored, ready to kill herself. All anyone gets to see of her is revealed through staccato postings that get merged instantly into thousands of other staccato postings. It’s as anonymous a setting and subject as can be.

And yet I’m willing to bet that 2,731 people call her a “friend.”

2 responses

  1. Jaime Oliver

    John, this was really wonderful. I enjoyed your piece and I wish I’d been there to see that show. (Like you, I’m a bit of an art show nut.) I agree few painters today are painting the zeitgeist…they are either stuck in the 19th century (even if they are painting 20th century subjects) or they are painting post-representation ironic/symbolic crap that is so trendy it will surely be embarrassing in 20 years. This essay succeeded on two levels: as a look at our emotional state and a look at the contemporary art scene. Thanks.


    November 10, 2011 at 10:33 am

  2. Jill

    John, your essays are so accomplished, as the person above says, that I am wondering if they’ve ever appeared in print (New Yorker, Economist) or web (Salon, Slate)? I have been following this blog for a while now and have two things to say – 1. can’t wait for the book and 2. maybe you should consider a collection of essays somewhere?


    December 2, 2011 at 8:07 pm

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