The Alpine Fellowship 2015

By Casey Larsen

With particular thanks to Snapchat—and as Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott argued in December—“the selfie is here to stay”. So for three days at the end of August, the mobile medium was treated to some unusually high standards of cultural criticism. The Alpine Fellowship, an annual gathering of writers, artists and musicians, hosted its third event, for the first time in partnership with the Fondazione Cini, headquartered on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.

The foundation has been key to the site’s historical restoration. Though once pillaged by Napoleon and turned into an artillery depot, it is still home to a Church designed by Palladio himself. Fittingly, this year’s chosen theme addressed both the sacred and the profane, in the form of “self-expression in the age of instant communication”. And invited to partake were some of the humanities’ finest minds, together with a small number of young artists selected through application.

Novelist Ian McEwan (see above left), philosopher Roger Scruton, publisher Hubert Burda, art critic Julian Spalding and poets John Burnside and Ruth Padel, were among the guests exchanging thoughts (and jokes) on the relation between Rembrandt’s exercises in self-knowledge and the somewhat more carefree efforts undertaken with the click of a finger. For the Fellowship’s co-founder Jacob Burda (see above far left), it attempted to address what is “current and ubiquitous”.

McEwan supported the benefits of resisting one’s appetite for “the deliciousness of cultural pessimism”, a sentiment echoed by screenwriter Mike Lesslie—whose work on Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Macbeth can be seen from October 2—who found that “Seeing the selfie as an evolution of language, rather than a narcissistic end-point, is my biggest takeaway.” And for the painter and Fellowship co-founder Alan Lawson, the event is ultimately for “taking the time: to talk, to listen, to be present”.

In support of this ethos was Victor Chan, a lifelong confidant of the Dalai Lama, whose talk extolled the virtues of focus, patience and empathy. But these aren’t easy to abide by whilst sharing increasingly more about ourselves on Facebook, and although Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t acquired Snapchat, his ventures into virtual reality are the reason he tops Vanity Fair’s 2015 New Establishment List, published in the October issue.

Isn’t life online virtual enough as it is? Chan didn’t mind encouraging the spread of “meditation apps”, like Headspace, so it was good to hear that tech might just as easily remedy the cultural afflictions it often helps to spread. Let’s hope this continues to be the case.

Videos of the talks are now available here.

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