Humanity and Egon Schiele

Or, a brief critique of ‘humanity’ and an excuse to talk about Egon Schiele.

I recently took a short course on E-learning and Digital Cultures with the University of Edinburgh. During the first two weeks of the course, we focused on the role of technology in contemporary society, as well as its future role, and explored the ways in which digital culture is viewed as either utopian or dystopian. In the final week, our attention shifted to what it means to be human, more specifically, what it means to be human in the digital age.

Before exploring this theme through art, it is perhaps worthwhile to note that the word “humanity” originates from “humanitas”; a term used by Cicero to describe how an individual could become a great orator – learning, benevolence, mercy, judgement, honour. Although the ultimate goal in “humanitas” was to be a successful speaker, I believe that modern-day humanity is still rooted in a similarly central theme of shared communication.

By communication, I do not simply mean speaking, but rather a sharing of ideas through writing, visual signals, listening, touch, behaviour, etc. To be truly human is to show genuine care, interest and understanding before, during and after communication with others. Any medium which enables the sharing of complex, and simple, emotions can be viewed as communication.

Sometimes, technology can act as a barrier to genuine human emotion and integrity. I often feel that digital culture has a tendency to create individuals who are more concerned with self-validation than establishing a “real”, albeit digital, connection with others. Although the need to legitimise one’s existence is perhaps a normal part of being human, social media is in danger of breeding a culture of people disengaged from others’ emotions. There are great social media platforms out there but communication devoid of genuine concern and interest is essentially meaningless.

The paintings are by the Expressionist painter, Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Expressionism was an artistic movement which focused on conveying psychological truths and subjective emotions, rather than aesthetic considerations. Schiele depicted intense, often complex, human emotions including re-birth, sexuality, death and self-discovery.

Bodies have their own light which they consume to live: they burn, they are not lit from the outside.” – Egon Schiele

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