Dirt: TikTok Stendhal syndrome

Is there an internet equivalent of being overawed by art?

A short essay on sublime aesthetic experiences online by Daisy Alioto.

Kyle introduced me to the book Optic Nerve by María Gainza and I’ve since found myself evangelizing it to others. I say this with love in my heart: Leaving the Atocha Station wants what it has. 

Gainza’s narrator describes seeing Alfred de Dreux‘s painting of a deer being taken down by hounds and needing to go outside the museum for air — nearly overcome by what is known as Stendhal syndrome. I have been wondering if there is an internet equivalent of Stendhal syndrome, an art experience so profound that one is physically overcome. (And no, I don’t mean virtual reality sickness.) 

On TikTok, it is the narrowest vignettes that seem to provoke the greatest sense of the sublime. Here are three examples that have very little in common with one another.

Number One

A pair of hands gently assembles a lemon tart with earl grey-infused Italian meringue while State Lines by Novo Amor plays in the background. A blow torch is used to brown the top of the meringue, like a puffy cloud over the dense custard below. The top comment reads: “I feel like I just fell in love, lived a life, grew old and looked back at what I left and was content that it was worth the journey.” There is something like a J. M. W. Turner horizon in the layers of ingredients but the emotion provoked by the preparation and the soundtrack is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Number Two

Three brassy notes off of Piero Umiliani’s soundtrack for La Ragazza Dalla Pelle Di Luna play while snow blows across a lit storefront. The awning reads “Cigarettes - Newspapers.” There are children today who will encounter TikTok before they see an Edward Hopper painting, and I think that’s a fine introduction to the tension between indoors and outdoors in one single, phantasmic frame. “This feels like a dream...I’ve defs dreamt this,” reads one comment. 

Number Three

Two lit candles are tied together with string. The caption reads, “in another lifetime <3 i wish u the best.” As the string burns away it begins to resemble two people desperately holding on to one another. The final connection burns thinner and thinner as wax runs down both of the candles. This last thread slumps and then breaks, withdrawn toward the candle on the right. The comments are full of people who cannot believe they’ve cried over candles, maybe I am one of them. 

I notice my impulse to map each TikTok onto Art with a capital “A,” maybe seeking out some sort of socially acceptable Stendhal response. So I think of Marina Abramović and Ulay parting ways on the Great Wall of China and then meeting again at MoMA and clasping hands, her dress a symbolic red candle. 

These are my frames of reference, but they may not be yours. I am interested to hear what you think about Stendhal syndrome and the internet, especially if you play immersive video games, which I do not. [Ed. Something like the depressing slog of Death Stranding or the vistas of Breath of the Wild could certainly quality.]

I also wanted to tell you about a profound experience I had recently attending a play called Delejos (from afar) by Julie Piñero, designed and performed as a one-woman show for Zoom. It is a show about unfinished futures, and what happens when the process of grieving a person lasts longer than the time they were in your life. 

Piñero’s true story of loss is heartbreaking but also, at points, laugh-out-loud funny. If there is a future for remote theater, Delejos (from afar) is what it will look like; and I am all in. 

Tickets are free but limited. — By Daisy Alioto

The Dirt: TikTok makes the small things sublime.