Life, Technology, and Edward Hopper

Compartment Car, by Edward Hopper
The physical world has become pixels, widely available on the Internet but difficult to access corporally. Previously sublime natural wonders have lost their power in the face of camera lenses; now, they are recorded rather than seen, reduced to small jpegs that fly into the wilds of the Internet. The Internet links the world together digitally, to the detriment of physical interaction and first-hand emotional experiences. Edward Hopper died well before the Internet was invented, but his paintings explored the phenomenon of numerous bodies occupying the same space physically, but never mentally.

His paintings never condemn his characters, but rather present them in a matter-of-fact manner that is quietly disconcerting. Rather than becoming dated, his painting’s relevance has grown in tandem with technology and its isolating pervasiveness.

Our lives are stories that we tell ourselves, narratives that influence our daily decisions. These stories can be collective, where we seek to fit ourselves into a community and model ourselves after communal values. Or, these tales can focus on the individual and the individual’s ever-changing opinion. Digital technology becomes dangerous when it hands the individual all the tools to become solipsistic. Small, pocket-sized computers have made it so that one need never be away from the Internet. In response to this ability to receive constant information, websites have increasingly appeared that dispense information in short single-sentence bursts. Those who have such technology at their fingertips find themselves widely, but not deeply, informed. This need for constant, quick information has seeped into a group of social-networking sites, in which the individual has the ability to contact their friends with one-sentence updates that appear on a collective update feed. Thus, there is a constant shaping of individual narrative through written language. The constant interconnectivity and knowledge of public presentation has cultivated a collection of individually obsessed people.

Perhaps there has always been an impulse to distance oneself from the world. It isn’t safe to interact with what one doesn’t know, therefore it is better not to make contact with strangers. But, technology has made it so that this disconnect is complete. One is able to walk with headphones, or to talk on the phone, and completely disregard public space and the small accompanying interactions. There is a disconnect between the digital world and the physical world, and the digital world commands more cognizant attention. Thus, there are spaces filled with people with nobody interacting with one another. Through their ipod, cell phone, or computer, a complete disengagement is possible.

In this regard, Edward Hopper painted contemporary society long before it was contemporary. As a painter, he was divided in his interests. His discontentment with city life often led him to the countryside, both of which he painted. His portraits of city-dwellers are the more powerful of his images, and the more pertinent to this discussion. In these, he had an almost standard way of depicting people. They occupy a shared space, but are completely uninterested in one-another. His figures are often described as lonely, but truly they are more solitary. He creates invisible barriers between the figures, so that they are involved in their individual worlds and unengaged with the physical world in front of them. They are often empty-handed, but one can seamlessly insert an ipod and thus transform them into contemporary images.

Hopper claimed to have been uninterested in the people in his images. Instead, he expressed a love for the light playing off of various surfaces. This could, perhaps, account for his unemotional, and perhaps cynical, depiction of everyday life. People are accessories to his landscapes, but the mood of his landscapes provide a pregnant environment for his characters to exist in, adding to the hermitic feeling they exude. The solitary nature of his figures is the essential quality that carries them from the 20s to the present. What Hopper, perhaps accidentally, tapped into when he was painting has grown more potent with age. What was solitary in the 30s has grown isolated contemporarily.

Technology is a beast that we have yet to truly wrestle. No adults have yet been brought forth that have had the Internet their entire lives. But, even in its relatively adolescent stage, it has altered the armature of existence. Through this, Hopper has transcended time and provided us with a mirror of contemporary society; a reflection of socially disengaged and interiorly obsessed individuals. Whether or not this mood will shift into a useful online community is yet to be seen; what exists right now is something in-between. The digital community remains, for now, a self-obsessed and loathsome environment, but yet it hold enough appeal for everyday interactions to be sacrificed. Hopper’s paintings can function as both reflection and warning, of sorts. They caution us through their un-emotional images to balance the line carefully.