Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

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Magic and Loss author Virginia Heffernan began her career as a fact checker at The New Yorker before becoming Slate‘s first TV critic and a columnist at The New York Times Magazine.

In Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, Virginia Heffernan does for the Internet what Susan Sontag did for photography, Arthur Danto did for painting, and Lester Bangs did for rock music. In this important new book, Heffernan aims to build a complete aesthetics—and poetics—of the Internet, and knocks it out of the park. She manages to make a very big and chaotic thing seem like a gemstone that fits in the palm of your hand.

Heffernan argues that the Internet is a “massive and collective work of realist art” and that the rumored disintegration of our attention spans in response is a myth. She says the Internet isn’t bad for us; we’ve just been looking at it wrong.

“Like all new technologies, the Internet appears to represent the world more faithfully than the technologies that preceded it,” Heffernan writes. “And the Internet is an extraordinarily seductive representation of the world. We’ve never seen a work of art like it.”

Here, Heffernan does the impossible: she manages to cast a net over the most nebulous, anxiety-inducing part of our culture. She gives order to the digital chaos that grips our daily lives and shows how to think about it, how to reconcile it, and how to put it in perspective historically. In this seminal text, Heffernan examines our relationship both as individuals and as a society to the Internet. She asks all the questions we didn’t know we wanted to ask, and suggests answers that are sure to soothe the souls of every anxious Luddite out there.

When it comes to media—an arena in which many of us fancy ourselves connoisseurs—Heffernan is a genuine expert. Called one of the “best living writers of English prose” and “one of the mothers of the Internet,” Heffernan worked as a fact-checker at the New Yorker and a senior editor at Harper’s before she began writing for the New York Times in 2003 (first as a television critic, then as an Internet columnist at the Sunday Magazine). She has written for the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, Wired, and Slate, where she was the magazine’s first television critic. She has a PhD in English from Harvard.

Heffernan is a contemporary luminary. It’s clear through her prose, metaphors, and her ease with the subject matter that she’s been thinking about all of this for a very long time. The ideas in this book read as if they had been marinating in the deepest parts of her intellect for decades before emerging as the masterpiece of cultural criticism that it is. Like any good expert—because she knows the material so thoroughly—she can explain it in remarkably accessible terms.

Perhaps the most poignant theme is Heffernan’s assertion that the Internet is “the great masterpiece of human civilization.” She writes:

“For however alien in appearance, the Internet is a cultural object visibly on a continuum with all the cultural artifacts that preceded it. It is not a break with history; neither is it ‘progress.’ It’s just what happened to be next. It is not outside human civilization; it is a new and formidable iteration of that civilization. It’s also a brilliant commentary on it. To be still more specific: the Internet responds, often with great sensitivity, to critical methodologies. Sense can be made of it. Logic can be divined in it. Politics can be derived from it. Pleasure can be taken in it. Beauty can be found in it. Pain too—and loss. Agony and ecstasy is what I mean: the Internet may not be reality, but it’s very real art.”

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The art form’s greatest illusion, she says, is that the Internet is life. She argues that the Internet “becomes more deeply meaningful and moving when ‘read’ as an aesthetic object than lived or reported on as firsthand human experience. That human experience is art, where art is considered closer to a game than to a deception.”

So why is any of this of interest to artists? Because artists so often struggle to find their place in the digital realm. Countless painters, sculptors, writers, and performers are desperately trying to navigate their way through the Internet: managing social media self-promotion, maintaining their websites, email marketing, perfecting their “brand.” While it seems like a colossal headache, we’re still in the early stages of the Internet. Call it growing pains. Nevertheless, the arts have to keep up one way or another. According to Heffernan, the art world as a whole must learn to love the Internet—to work with it not against it—or else it’s in big trouble.

“For artists, ignoring the imperative to grasp the cultural implications of the Internet means risking irrelevance,” she writes.

Heffernan explores how platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram aren’t so foreign, culturally speaking. She draws parallels between well-composed Tweets and the concise poems of Confucius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Blaise Pascal.  

“Tweets are not diseased firing of glitch minds,” she writes. “They’re epigrams, aphorisms, maxims, dictums, taglines, headlines, captions, slogans, and adages.”

About Instagram, she concludes:

“But Instagram, if you use it right, will stealthily persuade you that other humans, and nature, and food, and three-dimensional objects more generally are worth observing for the sheer joy of it. This little app has delivered a gorgeous reminder, one well worth at least $1 billion: Life is beautiful, and it goes by fast.”

There’s so much to glean from Heffernan’s book. I feel confident suggesting it as required reading for anyone working in the arts—whether you’re a social media guru or you’re still struggling to get your sea legs online.

In Magic and Loss, we have one of the most important pieces of cultural writing of the last decade. So if you’ve been feeling unsure about what exactly the Internet is offering and taking from our cultural lives, Heffernan’s book has your answer.

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She was a cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.

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