In some ways it probably seems a bit old fashioned to talk about “truth,” especially when it comes to art. Within contemporary art circles keen on postmodern practices that reject essentializing truths, an artist or viewer hanging their hat on truth probably would seem quaint, even laughable.
After all, “truth” has often been a weapon wielded by the powerful over those they would dominate or destroy. Acknowledging the ways the truth can be abused and distorted has been the project of artists like Jenny Holzer with her “truisms” and entertainers like Stephen Colbert who coined the term “truthiness” in 2005.
In perhaps a small way, I can relate to those who have been harmed by those claiming to know the truth. As a young person, I was forced to reject ‘truths’ which I had been taught and raised to believe - ‘truths’ that had come from the one person on this planet I trusted more than anyone else. Children are more likely to confuse what is real and not real, but this ability improves as they mature. Some kids believe in Santa Claus, only to eventually figure out that their parents weren’t being completely honest with them. Instead, I believed I lived in a world that didn’t really exist. It may be difficult to understand, but as a child of a mentally ill single parent suffering from untreated schizophrenia, I inhabited the same strange and horrifying ‘reality’ as my mother. I had to discover on my own, painfully slowly, that our isolated, hidden world was not real, but a shadow cast by my suffering mother’s delusions and fueled by media, especially politics and televangelism. For a long time I was intensely angry, thinking I had been lied to and I blamed her for our struggles. It wouldn’t be for many years that I would understand that it wasn’t her fault and forgive her and myself.
Perhaps these formative experiences determining the nature of reality, and perhaps my own curious nature, have lead me to value skepticism, evidence, and logic. And I don’t see these values as irreconcilable with my artistic values of subjectivity, ambiguity, and irrationality. I love reality and all of its complicated and confusing paradoxes and tensions. I’ve learned enough about the world to know that I don’t know much. I can live in a world with more than one truth, even many sometimes conflicting truths. What I cannot and will not do, is live in a world where “Truth isn’t truth.” Truth may be an ideal towards which we are constantly striving and forever failing and yet can never relent from that ambition. Yet our reality is increasingly influenced by our belief in what we see. Our contemporary politics demonstrate not our ability to think critically as individuals perhaps as much as the persistent power of propaganda and populism to move the masses. But as we have been shown again and again in history, only disaster is the consequence when truth conform to the whims of power. Truth must always trump power. The truth has to matter.
Thanks to the Internet, our current mass media revolution, the creation and distribution of manipulated and fabricated images has exploded. Photo trickery once reserved for celebrities and models in magazines and advertisements is now in the palm of people’s hands thanks to Instagram and Snapchat filters. Pursuit of “the perfect body” has essentially been weaponized. Anyone can portray an idealized version of themselves in exchange for clicks of validation and attention. Those clicks translate to addictive chemical signals in the brain as well as cash money. While fact checking and gatekeeping may still be the purvey of reputable news outlets, web publishing has all but eliminated any barriers to entry. The tools and means to manipulate photos is at the fingertips of billions. Soon, the same will be true of video. For now, there is still an underlying reality - even if it is beneath layers and filters or just beyond the frame. It is a distortion but not a simulation - yet.
Are these photo manipulators artists? Are the creators of the filters? Are they creating a lie to help us realize a truth, as Picasso stated? Are these examples of Photoshopping and filtering similar or different from other examples of image manipulation? Do you think there are negative consequences when the public is constantly exposed to these kinds of images?
Since the days humans first manipulated fire light to tell epic tales with shadows cast on cave walls, we have used illusion to entertain and embellish, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Since the development of computer-generated imagery (CGI), filmmakers have become incredibly adept at creating reality-defying special effects resulting in unprecedented spectacles like this year’s Avengers: Infinity War and past blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and the Matrix. Over the years, special effects technology has gradually become cheaper and more accessible, granting amateurs abilities film studios once dreamed of. For example, a fan-made modified version of the 2018 film Solo: A Star Wars Story was recently released online with the lead actor’s face replaced by that of a CG Harrison Ford, the actor who originally brought the character to life, realizing a fantasy of some franchise fans.
In fact, there is an entire hilarious genre of replacing the faces of other actors with that of cult-favorite Nicholas Cage. We’re a long way away from Méliès and Harryhausen.
Already, fake images and hoax stories can go viral and spread across the globe in an instant. In contrast to the 5,000 copies of a rhino print in the 1500s, a hoax image can be seen by millions in seconds. It’s possible for “fake news” to influence elections here and elsewhere.
And what does the future hold? For a truly sobering vision of the future of altered video, the following research demonstration shows how it is currently possible to puppeteer the faces of a world leaders. This increased access and ease raises serious questions and concerns. Perhaps you too can imagine some of the terrifying scenarios such technology could cause? Oh dear.
As I write this post, I can barely even keep up with current events let alone make predictions. Just this November, the Chinese government unveiled a realistic AI newscaster to ‘inform’ the public.
Pretty impressive when compared to the most advanced foax-caster of just 10 years ago. Indeed, today AI can create people out of thin air. Welcome to the simulation.
Are we still in the realm of art, you might wonder? Below is an AI generated artwork, the first to be sold at auction. Do you think this is art? Do you think AI could be a new artistic medium? Who is the artist? Is it the AI, the programmer, or the person who came up with the idea? Can a machine be an artist? Are you excited for the possibilities of humans and machines collaborating on artwork? Do you think machines will eventually take over making art from artists? In the future, do you think it will matter if a human or AI made an artwork? If this is art, are the modified movies art? Are the puppet politicians and newscasters art? Why or why not?
"The boys and girls now in our classes have grown up with technology since infancy. They live in a world of speed and change and mechanization. What is quite often incredible to their teachers they can accept as a matter of course!" These words, written in 1966 by art educator Vincent Lanier sound like they could've been referring to students today. Lanier was an early advocate for studying visual culture and new media, which at the time was television, and starting where students are. While positive steps have been made in the last 50 or so years, are we really any better as a field at confronting the questions raised by popular media and technology? Are we helping our students live critically in today's (and presumably tomorrow's) media saturated world?
Is it time for artists and art teachers to engage seriously with the idea of truth once again? If you are placing your faith in the current generation’s ability to discern the difference between real and fake images, I have some bad news. A Stanford study released in 2016 examined the ability of middle, high, and college students to evaluate evidence online. 15 assessments were given to thousands of students asking them to identify the differences between news and ads, reliable and unreliable sources, and good and bad information. The researchers described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak,” and “[a] threat to democracy.” I can confirm Stanford’s results anecdotally. I gave some of the same assessments to almost 50 students in two of my classes this semester. My results mirrored Stanford’s. Interestingly, three semesters ago when I gave my early childhood students the choice of which topic we would skip, critical thinking was at the top of their list (behind STEAM/Design Thinking). Does that imply those of us wanting to teach critical thinking to our students will have a more difficult time engaging them in the topic? Would you try giving the Stanford civic online learning assessments to your students?
In response, I asked my early childhood educators to tackle critical thinking head-on in one of their art-integration mini-lessons this semester. They were required use art making or looking to teach their peer groups (organized by desired grade levels) how to tell the difference between fact and fiction, real and fake, or subjective and objective; or about common misconceptions or misunderstanding (and how common they are) in their subject areas. To prepare, we discussed many of the examples I’ve mentioned so far here and Part 1 and practiced some critical thinking strategies for kids, especially questioning strategies. Afterwards, students broke into groups based on preferred subject to watch videos on questioning strategies and practice with each other (links at the end).
When they shared their lessons, I saw an impressive variety of topics and strategies intended to help their future students improve their critical thinking skills. Their ideas gave me hope and encouraged me further to continue to explore critical looking in future classes. But we need to do more. What can we do in our classes to help our students look more critically? Part of the answer are some of the things we already do to help our students learn to use their eyes, but perhaps with an extra dash of skepticism. If I had to come up with an arbitrary list to help us have more thoughtful experiences with images, it might go something like this.
For more reputable suggestions on how to improve encounters with artwork and images, you might prefer consulting several works by Jame Elkins, including How to Use Your Eyes, or perhaps the classic Ways of Seeing by John Berger.
But perhaps it’s impossible to improve on the elegant simplicity three questions popularized by art educator Terry Barrett that I learned when I was studying to become an art teacher:
We can also look to the work of artists and media critics whom try to expose the workings of popular media. Many engage in parody and satire such as organizations like Adbusters. But I'm increasingly interested in can be found in the work of performance artist Joey Skaggs and his use of pranks
Do you use strategies to improve critical thinking in your classroom? Which strategies work for you? How do you approach this topic?
People being fooled is as old as time, and as long as there have been images, they have probably been used to fool and mislead. The ability to trick is rooted in our cleverness and can be used to catch a meal (or mark) in a trap or delight the eye in a trompe l’oeil painting. But as technology increasingly improves our deceptive capabilities, we must be cautious with our observations and reserve judgment rather than jumping to conclusions. We must make decisions based on the best evidence possible and maintain a healthy skepticism so that we resist being easily fooled but are not debilitated by constant doubt. We must lead with honesty and integrity and demand the same from our institutions and leaders. We must all open our eyes and see more carefully.
I reject “post-truth.” I reject those that might think critical thinking is not important for their grade level, subject, or classroom (or students in general). I reject the idea that after 13 or more long years of education we as a society can accept an inability to think critically from our graduates. What is the point of all of this education if our students aren’t able to make informed decisions based on good evidence? And while every teacher can claim they are developing some part of the brain, the eyes are the art teacher’s domain. In what other classes and how often are children being taught how to see? If we don’t teach critical looking, who will? If our students can’t discern between fact and fabrication, how safe will any of us be, let alone the truth? It might not be the job some of us signed up for as art teachers, but can we afford to ignore that responsibility when our basic values may be threatened?
We will undoubtedly continue to struggle to learn that there must be more to believing than simply seeing. We can never fully prepare our students for what the future has in store. But I believe we can help our students by teaching them the tools necessary for critical looking and thinking. We can teach our students how their brains work while dispelling myths and misconceptions. It is up to educators, and especially art educators, to ensure that our students have opportunities to develop critical looking and thinking skills. All our futures may depend on it.
Compared to all this, those color wheels just don't seem that important.
Continued from Part 1: What is Real?
Questioning Strategies for Teachers*:
Bloom’s Taxonomy List of Q Words*
Question words for critical thinking
What's Going On in This Picture? from The New York Times
"Intriguing images stripped of their captions and an invitation to students to discuss them live." (Thank you Kimberly!)
An imaginative YouTuber devoted to skepticism and debunking Internet hoaxes while educating and entertaining
*Links primarily for K-5 as I’m currently teaching Early Childhood majors. I’d appreciate any links you could share to middle and high school critical thinking resources!
Thank you for reading! If you like what you read, please like & share!
#criticalthinking #medialiteracy #visualliteracy #art #arted #arthistory #artfuture #teacherprep #teaching #learning #technology #truth #posttruth #truthoverpower
I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.