Australian Fine Artist

Truth, according to philosophy, will depend on which philosopher you listen to. Plato thought that an eternal truth, or Form[1], existed that was beyond human ability to reproduce in art, and difficult to explain. We often ask for, or even demand truth, or “the truth” in the legal system, and society in general, but is it subjective and how do we know when it is being manipulated or subverted for various reasons?

I ask this because art, especially fine art has grappled with this concept for thousands of years. Additionally, we expect unbiased truth from our communicators and leaders, and are sadly disappointed at the least when they fail to meet these expectations.

Heidegger claimed that “When truth sets itself in the work, beauty appears. This appearing (as this being of truth in the works and as the work) is beauty.” [2] Which sounds good, but truth in the real world is not always beautiful, sometimes it is ugly and painful. So, how does this relate to journalism? How are the two related, and what comparisons, or contrasts can be drawn between the two?

Let’s look at art from another perspective. Art can connect with people by revealing a story, or narrative, it can be emotive – making you feel joy, sorrow, anger, empathy, it can attempt to tell a truth as interpreted by the artist. However, as we may know from eye witness accounts of crime, ten people witnessing the same event can provide ten different versions, because human attention, memory, and vision is not perfect, and we are influenced by our personal life experiences. The artist, therefore, rarely tries to tell “the truth”, they tell “a truth” for the viewer to see and analyse for themselves. This is subjective, whilst being analytical, and always as a product of the artist’s creative imagination. We are not meant to look at a painting like the charge of the light brigade (Scotland Forever, 1881) by Lady Elizabeth Butler as an historically accurate representation. It is meant to raise the emotions and patriotism of the viewer, to praise heroism, not to report the facts. In 1922, she is quoted as saying as much.

Now let’s look at journalism in the 21st century. What is its purpose? As it can come in a variety of forms, investigative, commentative, feature writing, and opinion piece, for example, how do we separate one type from another, and do they overlap, allowing opinion to bleed into investigative and ‘hard’ news?

Personally, when I watch the 7pm news on ABC for example, I want unbiased facts, and just the facts. There isn’t a lot of time to tell all of the events of the day, so I have little patience for emotive rhetoric padding out stories taking up precious air time. If I want opinions, I will watch or read clearly labelled opinion articles and blogs. Conversely, I know that when I access opinion pieces, in addition to a certain amount of fact, that can be verified if I care to do so, there will be subjective ideas and critique from the author/speaker.

Journalists tell us stories, like artists, they can be interpreted via the fallible senses of a human, but the difference between artists and journalists is that it is the job of the news to as much as is possible, present ‘the facts’ without bias, or favour. Personal and corporate opinion needs to remain in the area of the blog or opinion piece, and not discolour the picture being presented so that fact and bias become so intermingled that one cannot be distinguished from the other.

A small example occurred today. The report was about the impeachment of President Trump. The reporter talked about the only other times presidents had been impeached. The reporter said that Johnson and Clinton had both been impeached, and later acquitted – facts. They then went on to say that Nixon ‘fled’ from office when faced with three articles of impeachment. This is just a small thing, but the addition of emotive language into reporting changes how we hear it. Nixon resigned – fact. Why not state the fact?

Of course, we want journalists to be empathetic when a disaster is being reported, BUT, they must also remain objective. Stephen Ward wrote, “Reporters are not automatons, but emotion in journalism can be manipulated.” That is why there are professional standards, which I think, are being eroded by the infiltration of subtle emotive rhetoric and bias. Ward seems to have a pessimistic outlook for 21st century journalism, when he writes, “Journalism of the early 21st c., irreproachable from outside, differs in essence and is completely reflected on by the realities of the informative era, so that through functional transformation, certain objective pre-conditions of self-destruction arise. Among the symptomatic signs of devaluation of professional standards, the most expressive and most notable ones, according to a destructive force, are tendentious, purposeful global changes of conceptual tasks (to control and construct – depending on the model of journalism: whether informative or analytical), on secondary tasks (to entertain and advertise). Sometimes it is combined as an incomprehensible hybrid.”[3]

Just as we are swayed by the emotive content of a painting, designed to do so by the artist, some journalists of today are attempting to sway feelings and emotions by surreptitiously including emotive language into their reporting. As you look at a work of art, for example, The Third of May, 1808 by Goya, and feel your empathy and possibly anger rise witnessing the murder by firing squad of members of the Spanish resistance, examine how you react to the next stories presented in the newspaper, online or on the TV. Is your reaction valid, and authentic, or is it being manipulated by the emotive words placed amongst the facts by the journalist? Are they reporting the story based on the facts, or are they attempting to sway your opinions, and future action, with clever manipulation of words to ‘paint a picture’ distorted by their interpretation and biases?

Remember, a painting’s purpose is usually to make you cognitively think and imagine, and relate to the artist’s story on a human, and usually emotional level. It is the ‘artist’s truth’, unlike the task of the ‘hard news’ journalist, which should be to present you with, as far as is humanly possible, ‘the facts’, irrespective of their personal opinion.

References

[1] Plato’s Republic

[2] Mersch, D. (n.d.) A Short History of “Truth” in Art Retrieved from https://www.diaphanes.net/titel/a-short-history-of-truth-in-art-4090.

[3] Ward, S. (2010). Emotion in Reporting: Use and Abuse. Retrieved from https://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/2010/08/23/emotion-in-reporting/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: