There’s a worthwhile story in the New York Times about the invention of collage, that art form many of us experience in grade school that involves safety scissors that don’t really cut and glue that seems to get everywhere but on the object in question. Ah! Happy days!

What’s cool about Collage is not that it was invented over 100 years ago by the Cubist innovators Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso but what it has to say about the times we live in. These days, when serious people, or at least people with serious jobs, hold forth on space-based lasers, bankrolled by prominent Jewish families, sparking forest fires and…yada, yada, you get it — there’s a dearth of seriousness from the people who are supposed to have a claim on being the adults in the room. Some people actually believe this stuff and why not? They’ve become unmoored from reality due to a decade of adversity.

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A collage by Juan Gris.

Back in Cubist days, Paris society was fragmented too. People hung out in cafes, reading dime store novels, drinking cheap but good wine, espresso, and absinthe, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, and importantly reading lots of newspapers. The article alludes to multiple newspapers in Paris each with well north of one million copies printed daily. So there was fiction, poetry, news, and especially gossip in abundance and it wasn’t always easy to tell one from another. Just like today.

Then as now, people suffered from an abundance of information riches, drinking from a firehose and trying to make sense of the constant stream. Today there’s an abundance of podcasts, newsletters, social media, and networks all vying for our attention to peddle their versions of the truth. No doubt then, as now, the veracity of the content was closely tied to the source, i.e. both the publication and the writer, and we’re talking about something deeper (or shallower) than simple point of view.

In those days, so says the Times in an analysis of a collage by Juan Gris, collage was seen as a way to curate content by literally gluing together fragments and perhaps editorializing through art. Admittedly, curate is a strong word and is not to be taken literally but the snippets of content juxtaposed in multiple planes on the canvas with artifacts from the cafes such as wine bottles give some pieces what Stephen Colbert would call truthiness.

These were chaotic times, they were on the cusp of the First World War after all, much of that content got filtered and reduced and most didn’t make it beyond a daily scandal sheet. But from all of that a few artists and millions of nameless individuals assembled ways to construct coherent wholes and cubist collage comes down to us as a distillation of those times. Those people talked among themselves agreed and disagreed and agreed to disagree with civility.

The thing to ask of ourselves, the people alive in a different crazy time with different content and artistic media at our disposal, is how do we make sense of today’s crazy. The rise of pod casts and cheap or free conversation platforms from Telegram to Clubhouse and beyond including some uses of social media, points to a possible rectifying moment. If you believe, as I do, that social media has failed in its primary mission of bringing people together for the constructive exchange of ideas, then some of the next generation tools that require presence, that don’t let users drop a metaphorical bomb and skedaddle, those tools may be the collage movement of our times.

Yesterday I sat in on a multiway conversation on Clubhouse in which people were talking about the ways to run such conversations — respect others, respect your allocated time segment, echo what others say before you agree or disagree, things your momma might have taught you. Regardless of the medium, I thought that’s the glue for any collage movement of our times.

From these simple truths we might hope to develop consensus based on mutual respect and sharing of ideas that have bases in reality. The communications tools available today almost demand it. Perhaps they are the art form of these times, perhaps they can help us understand and heal. Together.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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