Nighthawks: divided while in mutuality

3 min read

Nighthawks (1942), the painting by Edward Hopper, a US realist painter, could be said to represent our modern era. The painting connotes a subtle distance, but yet, it feels anything but subtle: the people present are together, yet apart. At one, yet remaining divided; isolated (in their own thoughts), while in physical mutuality. Are they lonely, while together? Does this speak to 2018, not only 1942? One can easily argue the case.

One of the best-known images of twentieth-century art, the painting depicts an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated. –Art Institute of Chicago

The power of subtle division felt in Nighthawks could be taken as a nod to our modern technological paradox: we are hyper-connected, day and night, but yet are separated by a thin veil of glass. This veil, which conceals what is personal and varied, reveals only what is impersonal and typical. What is impersonal and typical, is what's typically acceptable, which is by implication, what's culturally normative. This is, of course, refrencing social media: we conceal our individuality in exchange for collective approval, even striving to arouse in others envous reactions, all the while, using a voice which belongs to no one, because it belongs to everyone. We broadcast a strong persona, as defined by Carl Jung, which can obscure one's true nature for social approval.

This division—manifest not only in Nighthawks, but in our cultural ethos—does not go totally unnoticed, but nor is it blatantly obvious. It's obscured by its typicality, through cultural expectation. And, by virute of its widespread adoption it leads, and continues to lead, to acceptance. We accept what has been given to us, whether or not we would like it – we simply haven't thought to question it; we haven't given it any meaningful analysis. Like many things, it becomes seamlessly adopted, and etched into reified reality, largely unnoticed.

Research conducted by The Economist—in an article entitled Loneliness is a serious public-health problemdetails the predicament of our times: highlighting the probelm beleaguering many people, of many ages, in many places. Astonishingly, in Japan, this problem is more widespread among the young than the old:

Yet loneliness is not especially a phenomenon of the elderly. The polling found no clear link between age and loneliness in America or Britain—and in Japan younger people were in fact lonelier. Young adults, and the very old (over-85s, say) tend to have the highest shares of lonely people of any adult age-group. Other research suggests that, among the elderly, loneliness tends to have a specific cause, such as widowhood. In the young it is generally down to a gap in expectations between relationships they have and those they want. –The Economist, Loneliness is a serious public-health problem

The difference between the reasons for the young being in the same situation as the old is of note. Expectations. Technology via culture—cultivating the idea of the ideal, while eschewing the acceptability of diversity and individuality—could be, at least, partially to blame for this crisis in human-relatedness. In other words, how can one be comfortable, when one accepts the innumerable expectations perpetuated by comparison? Individuality – it's not only suggested to be undesirable, but to be inadequate, when juxtaposed to the "ideal person," the ideation of a person to which we collectively aim to aspire, even if this ideal isn't clearly defined. These notions are those already perpetuated by our culture, but have gained reinforcement all the more ardently recently, by social media.

Nighthawks exemplifies what has long been known, and which is now culturally expected, as outlined in The Instagrammable Charm of the Bourgeoisie, from Boston Review. The answer to this predicament is identical to the realization of its existence. Appropriate action follows from understanding and acceptance. Where there is ignorance, there is no skepticism. And when there is no skepticism, there is no action.

Nighthawks shows us, perhaps, what has been and what will always be, only time will tell. For Edward Hopper, painting this masterpiece, he was not consciously aware of cultivating the divide from which these cultural analogies are drawn: he didn't aim to portray the people in the painting as "isolated." His strokes of the brush, insofar as they were responsible for creating the divide, were done unconsciously, he once said. Our digital swipes are often the same.

Hopper denied that he purposefully infused this or any other of his paintings with symbols of human isolation and urban emptiness, but he acknowledged that in Nighthawks “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” –Art Institute of Chicago