A painter, a poet, and a historian weigh in on the state of romance in the 21st century.
The past decade or so has been filled with foreboding about the impending death of romance, but much less time has been spent examining what romance is, and whether it's even a concept worth saving. A poet, a painter, and a historian all believe the vocabulary of romance is changing, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Painter Jessica Libor is a romantic in every sense of the word. The goal of her art is to capture what she calls the enchantment of love.
Jessica Libor: I think that romance is the primary way that people do touch magic in their lives, because it does feel magical when you fall in love. There's nothing like it. I think it's not the only way to have magic in your life, though. I was attracted to the romantic ideal of being an artist. I liked the idea that, for most artists, it wasn't about money as much as it was about expressing yourself and creating something that could last for generations. So, there was this longing to make a difference, I think, that I was really interested in. That's what really drew me to it. And I think that I liked that artists always seem so different than the rest of society and that that was okay, and I was like, "Yeah, I like that."
One of Libor's signature works, Tender Missive, is an installation made from facsimiles of love letters written by important historical figures.
Libor: There is a huge drawing on the wall, and it's of a forest, and it gets deeper as you go through it. And it's kind of, like, tangly and a little bit complicated, but beautiful. And, to me, that represents a feminine energy. It's there, and it's beautiful, and it invites you in, and it invites you to figure it out. And all these letters from men, it's more the masculine energy. They do something. They want to figure it out.
Such tender missives may read like fossils of a bygone era, particularly for those of us who have bought into recent hype surrounding the so-called death of romance. Moira Weigel, author of the book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, begs to differ.
Moira Weigel: It's not over. It's changing, and there are negative aspects to that, but there are positive aspects to that as well.
AJC: The negatives are?
Weigel: I think the negatives are that, in romance, as in more and more of our lives in general, I think that some of these mobile, sort of on-demand digital technologies have made it easier to treat other people as kind of disposable in the same way I might call an Uber because I need to go somewhere. I can call up someone to meet up for a romantic or sexual encounter and then be done with them.
Tommy Pico: It's really easy for people to only have relationships with themselves. The person who you're talking with on OkCupid or Grindr or Tinder or Bumble or whatever, to a certain extent is a projection of you. And in your mind, they're gonna hold you when you want to be held and let go when you don't want to be held, and they're not ever get sick or weird or awkward, and you're only together as long as you want to be together, and when you don't wanna be with them anymore, they're gonna be gone.
Libor: I think it's totally a false sense of abundance, because you can be on any of these apps. You can have all these people that you could connect to, and I don't think that you're gonna have a great love story with all of these people. But because you have so many options, you never actually invest.
And invest is the right word for it. Back when society was organized around agriculture, marriage was a purely economic transaction. Your daughter would marry the son of a neighbor so that your two families could pool their resources. The period when marrying for love enters the mainstream is called, creatively, the Romantic Era—defined by an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement, that emphasized emotion, individualism, and, as industrialization took over, a nostalgic appreciation for nature.
But this preoccupation with the past wouldn't slow down the future, which arrived like a train crash. Well, in truth, more like the collapse of a railroad bubble. Overbuilding led to the Panic of 1893, the worst depression the U.S. had seen to that point. Desperate for work, young men and women migrated to the cities, where for the first time, couples had the chance to self-select. But though this invention of dating removed parents from the courting equation, Moira Weigel says it did nothing to separate love from money.
Weigel: I think that this is a brilliant commercial invention in the 20th century, and it serves bars and movie theaters and places that sell tickets to people who go out looking for love—as well as dating apps, this is our latest incarnation of it. But I think that it's this tremendous economic engine to tell everyone that you know, you just have to go on enough dates, pay for enough dinners or movies or if you're a woman, the traditional scenario, buy enough skirts and makeup, and take care of yourself in this way, and that will lead you to this transcendent form of happiness that just comes out of nowhere.
AJC: And lasts forever.
Weigel: And lasts forever, which is not how it is.
AJC: Hasn't technology changed the culture of the ideal, the perfect one, "my prince is out there" kind of thing? Has it made us more cynical in that regard do you think?
Weigel: I think ironically it's made people even more romantic in a certain way, because, rather than going out and seeing who you like and interacting with them, it sort of facilitates this idea that if you just look long enough on OkCupid, spend one more night adding information about yourself and searching a little longer, that it's gonna 3D-print you your perfect mate who's there. So, in a funny way, I think that the business of those apps and sites thrives on a certain kind of romanticism and really encourages it, and whereas I think in reality, you know, relationships happen in time. It's so funny. I mean, bell hooks, who's this wonderful writer, about love, says, "Love is a verb." You have to think of love as a verb, not a noun. You're not looking for love, a noun. It's a process that you undergo with someone. So, I think the things that seem least romantic to me about those apps is this sort of illusion of that you could somehow not have to waste the time of falling in love, that you could just find the person.
But it turns out plenty of time is wasted anyway. A 2014 New York Times study found that the average Tinder user is tied up with the dating app for long stretches of their day, time that Tommy Pico believes he'd be better off investing elsewhere.
Pico: I feel like, if I was going to be in a relationship, it would've happened by now. I mean, I've had—the longest I've ever been in a relationship is eight months. And I feel like if, at 33, if that was going to happen, maybe it would've happened by now.
AJC: But when you were in that eight-month relationship, did you have that fuzzy warm feeling all the time? Was this person in your head all the time? Did you think a lot about him? What was the relationship with the person when the person wasn't there?
Pico: Hmmmm. Relief? Being with somebody is hard because I feel like I'm with myself in a way that I cannot escape.
Pico's outlook represents just one of the many ways expectations around romance are changing.
Libor: For me, romance is about making something or someone special and showing that. Any way that you figure it out to show them is romantic. I don't think it needs to be flowers and chocolates and a romantic dinner. It could be any number of things. It doesn't need to be a cliche. I think the most important thing is that you just try and that you show the person that they mean something to you.