Romanticism, a topic most-likely brought up in the context of a literature or art class, is an idea conceptualized in late eighteenth-century Europe. It came to fruition in response to the heavy saturation of science in society at the time, responding with a focus on individuality and the idolization of the natural world. It’s often associated with the famous poetic names of William Wodsworth and John Keats, as well as the artistic ones of Francisco Goya and Casper David Freidrich. And while movements inevitably fizzle out and die with the introduction of the latest and greatest societal fixation, I have reason to believe that Romanticism has grown stronger than ever after its resurrection from the grave.
The infinitive “to romanticize” has cultivated a slight negative connotation following the capital ‘R’ Romantic movement. It suggests a falsified perception of reality, glorifying the beautiful aspects of life while ignoring those that are harsher or uglier. The verb is tossed mockingly, cautioning against the perspective of everyday life under the guise of rose-colored glasses. Though, in recent years, I’ve noticed a second wave of Romanticism, especially on social media platforms.
The twenty-first century has observed a number of societal tidal waves, from the devastating impact of a global pandemic, to the inevitable encroachment of the climate crisis, to the constant presence of technology in our everyday lives. In some ways, we exist in the modern-day equivalent of the Enlightenment. And while our knowledge of the world has enhanced greatly since then, modern technology makes it possible to know the answer to nearly every previously incomprehensible question. It’s equal parts fascinating and horrifying, and somewhere in the vastness of our own human intelligence, the beauty of the surrounding world gets taken for granted.
I think second-wave Romanticism took root in the height of the global pandemic. Each person scared, alone, and isolated from the outside world. On one hand, it was one of the most horrific periods of time for young people, especially considering that this was most likely the first worldwide travesty they had experienced. For the first time, we had to take stock of the world around us, realizing that everyday life now excluded the familiar aspects that we once had taken for granted. Finding beauty in the surrounding world became a kind of treasure hunt, and when you found something that moved you, you held onto it for dear life.
Incidentally, 2020 introduced a new social media phenomenon: the photo dump. While now recognizable on nearly every Instagram user’s feed, in terms of general posting trends, photo dumps arrived as a somewhat revolutionary take to the usually over-edited and disingenuous facade of an online presence. Instead, unauthentically posed “candid” shots turned into a non-context compilation of everyday snapshots. They take shape in a messy conglomerate of zoomed-in and occasionally unflattering images, ranging from screenshots of private message conversations to blurry pictures of the moon to highlighted book quotes. While they make little sense to their viewers, their lack of context highlights an endearing attempt to showcase the little beauty identified in the midst of one’s daily routine, taking a twenty-first century crack at Romanticism.
Additionally, this trend also shifts over to another one of the most popular social media apps, TikTok. The app began as a successor to the former Musical.ly, where users could lip sync to funny audio clips or their favorite songs. Though since the pandemic, the app has exploded into something much more with millions of daily active users scrolling from one fifteen-second video to the other. In a similar vein as the photo dump, a new trend circulated the app as a pseudo-daily-vlog, showcasing simple clips from small moments in a user’s life, from making a quick meal to catching the sunrise on the way to work.
Though modern-day Romanticism also has a not-so-glittery underside. In a twenty-first century romantic’s endeavor to highlight moments of beauty, they can also conveniently gloss over the dark underbelly of reality as it is, especially in the vein of social media. Social media earns its controversy from the fact that it models real life, but ultimately fails to present the truth. With photoshop and editing softwares, most users present falsified idealizations of what they wish their lives were instead of what they actually are.
Particularly on TikTok, photo-video montages make aesthetics out of very real situations. I remember scrolling on TikTok and seeing a video with a caption that expressed the user’s desire to live in post-Soviet Russia, glamorizing the run down apartment buildings in a kind of off-color heroin chic fantasy. The comments were full of understandably angry users, some of them from Russia, who expressed a discomfort at the idealization of what exists as a very real, very unromantic reality. There’s a danger in romanticism, and with it, a great irony. In a romantic’s attempt to appreciate the world’s natural beauty, they pick and choose which aspects are deemed picturesque.
This trend even has its impact on prospective students looking to come to the United Kingdom from around the world. In fact, several tiktok accounts dedicate themselves to the romanticism of British universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, and even our own University of St. Andrews. Their most liked videos, however, are not their two-minute videos dedicated to advice for the application process, but instead picturesque montages of medieval architecture, rainy views from the library window, and cozy-up shots from the student accommodation buildings. These accounts demonstrate an aestheticized life, one that the creator implicitly suggests the viewer could also live if they attend that particular institution. In this way, Romanticism can also be beneficial in its ability to showcase the rare beauties deemed worthy of more appreciation.
Following the pandemic, it’s understandable how a fundamental artistic and literary movement gained momentum yet again. When the world seems devoid of romance, why not live your life in constant pursuit of it? Even in blurry photographs of road signs and zoomed-in cheeky grins of your dearest friends, there’s a beauty that exists that no one else may understand except for you. Romanticism’s purpose is just that: to showcase the beauty of the world as you see it.
While the world may eventually move on to favor a more modernist or surrealist cultural wave, Romanticism has clearly taken root in recent generations, establishing itself as something much more than a standardized aspect of school curriculum. And while it’s come a long way from written appreciation to social media trends, it represents the twenty-first century’s take on a long lost appreciation of the ever-changing world. So we substitute couplets for Instagram captions, though beauty will always remain, and with it, the opportunity to romanticize.