Errol Morris said at a Chicago Humanities Festival Q&A in 2006, on the iconography of Abu Ghraib, that human stupidity is one of the only things he really believes in, which introduced me to a flippancy I wasn’t familiar enough with Errol Morris to expect or appreciate at the time. Maybe that stupidity manifests itself in my hope that a book or piece of art could change anything for the better.
After all, it’s not up to the book or the art. Either might be a sign of the times or maybe even a time capsule, but responsibility ultimately falls upon the sleepy shoulders of the audience who must be united and organized in action for any degree of positive social change to occur. (Half the Sky is a book I would love to see work as a catalyst for such change.)
Morris also introduced me through his First Person series (2000, Bravo/IFC) to Christopher Langan, a bodybuilding former-bouncer who said:
You can’t run a democracy with a citizenry that really doesn’t know how to make valid decisions. Most people don’t even know what decision theory is, they don’t know what maximization of utility is. We live in a highly complex technological world and it’s not entirely obvious what is right and what is wrong in any given situation unless you can parse the situation, deconstruct it. People just don’t have the insight to do that very effectively. We have to have an educated and intelligent citizenry, which I regret to say we don’t necessarily have at the present time.
(Langan’s IQ reportedly hovers around 20 to 30 points above Einstein’s.)
The inability to parse or deconstruct a situation parallels popular support of industries and policies which fail to benefit the citizenry they claim to serve or enrich; auto and oil destroy ecology, fast food destroys the body, advertising destroys focus and attention span, yet we buy into all of it because we’re sold images and ideas of lifestyles we wish to emulate, objects we wish to possess. Nothing new there. Images which more accurately reflect the real terms by which we live don’t have nearly the momentum of Hummer or iPhone, perhaps because those culture-critical images are given to us by artists like Pamela Johnson, who you won’t find on reality television or endorsing shoes, which means you’re less likely to find her at all.
Langan’s words brought me immediately to Tom Schwandt, professor and Educational Psychology Department Chair at the University of Illinois, who on November 9, 2007 in Baltimore, Maryland, delivered the plenary address at the annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association before 1,600 of his colleagues. Entitled Educating for Intelligent Belief in Evaluation, the address began:
My topic concerns what it means to educate for intelligent belief in evaluation, understood here as a particular attitude and outlook on self and society. Intelligent belief in evaluation is demonstrated in a thorough understanding of what is involved in evaluative reasoning as well as a robustly held, warranted conviction that such reasoning is vital to our well being. Intelligent belief in evaluation is closely allied with the idea of public reason.
After offering his diagnosis on the state of critical thinking in society, Schwandt detailed various phenomena that contribute to what a poor a state he believes it is, starting with the substitution of spin for reasoned assessment.
Spin on both political and scientific issues has reached an art form. It is clearly a bipartisan undertaking, and it is, paradoxically, both fostered and checked by the proliferation of web blogs. Examples of how all quarters of society are infected by spin abound: In July 2007, the Washington Post (DeYoung) reported that the U.S. Joint Forces Command paid the Rand Corporation $400,000 for a study entitled Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation. According to the clinical psychologist who authored the report, the key to boosting the image and effectiveness of U.S. military operations around the world involves both shaping the product and the marketplace and then establishing a brand identity that places what you are selling in a positive light. The study concluded that the military’s “show of force” brand had limited appeal to Iraqi consumers and that a more attractive branding of the military’s efforts would be “we will help you.”
All via cupcakes and waffles, remember, the painted syrup gluing bits of information together in my head. Continuing with spin and getting back to what we eat, Schwandt goes on:
In 2007, the television program 60 Minutes drew attention to the work of Richard Berman, the former labor management attorney and restaurant industry executive who now works as a Washington lobbyist and serves as executive director and president of the Center for Consumer Freedom, that claims it is devoted to defending “the right of adults and parents to choose what they eat, drink, and how they enjoy themselves.” According to an article in the American Prospect (Sargent, 2005), Berman wages a never-ending public-relations assault on doctors, health advocates, scientists, food researchers, and just about anyone else who highlights the health downsides of eating junk food or being obese.
He also targets groups that want animal-treatment standards for the meat industry and trial lawyers who want to sue the food industry. Such people, Berman notes on the center’s website, are “food cops, health care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats and violent radicals who think they know what’s best for you.” However, while Berman presents himself as a defender of consumers against overbearing bureaucrats and health zealots, he is really defending the interests of another group: restaurant chains, food and beverage companies, meat producers, and others who stand to see profits hampered by government regulations, or even by increased health awareness on the part of consumers. Berman’s spin campaigns have been mounted against efforts to deal with obesity, mercury in fish, raising the minimum wage, union organizing, and the attempt by MADD to lower the blood alcohol limit for drivers.
McDonald’s has served billions worldwide. Coca-Cola has ruined water supplies in India and most likely elsewhere. Neither of them is hurting for business, though. I don’t know if a six-foot tall painting of hamburgers will change minds about what we consume, but I admit that I want it to. I admit that I want art and music and literature and film to be capable of inspiring people, to kickstart conversations as well as revolutions.
Later in his address, Schwandt also says: “As philosophers of science have noted for years, evidence arises in the context of a certain set of beliefs.” I began to consider my own beliefs (though “beliefs” may be too generous a term; “suspicions” might be more accurate), which must be vastly different from those of the person who looks at a six foot-tall painting of waffles drenched in syrup and sees anything less than ominous. We filter every piece of data we receive through our beliefs, and that information is either clarified or discolored in the process. But who is to say whether or not clarification or discoloration is to the detriment of the information or individual processing it? Is nothing as it appears because everything appears differently to each of us? And is it, among other things, this open-ended interpretable quality that repels so many people from art? We are all a world away in thought, each in our tiny spheres which have a different circumference measuring a different experience.
For me, the American Still Life paintings transcend the physical, intestinal compulsion for consumption and touch the fat-coated heart of more than bodily sickness; they point toward a cognitive dissonance which reaches back to the moment we stopped raising, killing, cooking, and knowing our own food; to when we stopped building our own machines and homes, to when we began disconnecting ourselves from our world. I could be alone in taking so much from Johnson’s art, but maybe that’s also part of the beauty of the collaboration between artist and art viewer. You plug in and take what you can to embolden and enlighten yourself, or even to simply argue a point. Internal dialogue ensues, and hopefully external dialogue as well.