Light in the Dark: Staying Hopeful in a Dystopian Mediascape

Cover Photo by Eric Park on Unsplash

Edited by Catherine Harlow

The beginning of the year is often a time of reflection and goal setting. For me, this process began by watching this video about the lack of celebration happening in our everyday lives. This made me consider the idea of everyday celebration and joy in my own writing. In doing so, I noticed a stark contrast in the topics I was tackling before and after the 2016 election. Before the election, the majority of my pieces were about the academic topics I enjoyed in college, like obscure exhibits from 1960’s Disneyland or a specific chair from a particular Bauhaus ex-pat, topics that I used to find simply engaging, with no grand and awful implications on my everyday life.

But after the election, it felt as though I was only looking at art and design through a deeply critical lens, with every article ultimately citing the gross injustices of our society, and a call to action to fix them. I think I got swept up in addressing what I thought were very big and urgent topics, trying to shout just to be heard in a suddenly much more chaotic online world. I am certainly not advocating burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the things that are wrong with our current systems. But I realized that constantly being in this mindset had become pathological for me. Simply put, I had burnt out. There are of course times and places for critical analysis and if that’s all you are consuming, it is easy to churn out more of it. But if doing so completely drains mental energy, what bandwidth is left over to pursue and process joyous things?

Art history as a discipline asks us to constantly assess and reassess history. It is our job to consider power structures based around differences in gender, race, social class, and sexual orientation. More often than not, that demands that we be critical of what has come before us in the hopes of a better future. Doing this requires that we always be analytical, in considering the past, present, and implications for the future. We ask complex questions and hope to come up with complex answers. But perpetually being in a critical mindset does not feel sustainable in the long-term. So what can we do to recharge?

  1. Seek out Artists/Creators that inspire you

Talking to inspiring creatives is one reason I am very glad we started the Profiles series. Before starting the series, I had no real context of who the people working in the arts were or what they did, outside of being professors and curators. In this series, we’ve talked to fashion designers, podcasters, animators and so many more. What is more remarkable is that each one of those people is…a human. They have favorite things to eat, they are burdened with self-doubt. And yet they still create. They are filled with an infectious energy. Working on the series really broadened my horizon for what is possible for creative careers and  renewed my commitment to continue living a creative life.

2.) Seek out beautiful art

Thought-provoking art is not always aesthetically pleasing but there is a simple pleasure to be had from considering objects that are. We have built our portfolios on this site by always trying to make arguments, thinking about all the ways that the art challenges us. But, it is okay to revel in technical prowess and in things that are just pleasing to look at. In any classroom, half of art history is formal analysis, processing and describing what you see. Over the years, we might have lost touch with this skill of just appreciating the materiality of the art. For me, I am inspired by good interior design. One example of this is the Danish concept #hygge, the aesthetic of coziness, on Instagram. For a more academic topics that I have always enjoyed, see the Eames House (and other model houses) in California, built in the 1950’s and 196’0s. While art historians are taught to respectfully consider many different types of art, there will always be those pieces that resonate with us deeply and remind us why we started studying art in the first place.

3.) Create art of your own

We got the advice of “make cheap art” from Zubeida Agha, one of our Profiles interviewees. Earlier this year, I took her advice and started digital photography. Frankly, it has been really great for my mental health. Whenever I used to feel anxious or overwhelmed, I would go out for a quick walk expressly for the purpose of taking pictures. I had gotten so used to barreling through on my commute that this a really good way to force me to pay attention to the city around me. The walks, no matter how short, got me out of the house and even on days where I was just editing, it helped me use my brain in a different way. It is really gratifying to make something but also to keep trying to make better things and track my  progress over time.

There was a time in my life when I thought that finding interesting and inspiring art would be easy, so easy that I didn’t need to make an active effort to seek out interesting topics. But I didn’t truly foresee operating in a digital social milieu that capitalizes upon our attention and anger. It is easy for all of us to get swept away in the latest outrageous story of the moment. But we need to remember that the digital platforms we access are designed specifically to keep our attention, not necessarily educate or entertain us. We need to respond by taking the reins and consciously curating that content for ourselves rather than letting the algorithms dictate everything we see. It is a worthwhile effort to consciously make space for things that make us happy and bring us joy. We can not wait for such things to fall right into our (digital) laps. The default settings on every major platform are designed to catch our attention and not necessarily for good or educational reasons. If we don’t like seeing that particular assemblage, it’s time to actively find better content.


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