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Keeping True in the Disinformation Age: The Art of Misinformation

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

(Part 2) By Jane Breckwoldt

When broaching the subject of misinformation in the world of art, the most prevalent and obvious is the use of media and the onslaught of “Fake News”. Political cartooning, videos, social media, on-line journalism, and even the evening news. The term is a relatively new one, around since 2016, but the idea of “misinformation” and “disinformation” has been around for decades, perhaps even centuries.

Misinformation is a word used which implies that the reader or viewer did not necessarily interpret the information correctly. Disinformation implies that information was deliberately given to misinform, which could very well lead people to believe the information or at worse weaponize or politicize the information. Within wartime the intelligence agencies were said to spread disinformation to confound an enemy. Today anyone can become the so-called enemy.

But in the world of art, does this really happen? Do artist truly set out to misinform the public? Would a painter deliberately set out to spread disinformation? It begs the question of how and why.

The history of art is replete with cases of misrepresentations. There is a lesser known, but often sited case where Leonardo da Vinci is lying dead in the arms of the Pope (site: “The Death of Leonardo da Vinci” by Jean Auguste Doninique Ingres, Musee de Beaux-Arts de la Paris, 1818), however, it was well known at the time of his death, that both Leonardo and the Pope were nowhere near each other’s company, nor even the near vicinity. Since the heart of persuasion is emotion, it led the people to believe that theirs was a close and favorable relationship, which was not necessarily the case. It also led subsequent artists to paint the same theme, again and again, misrepresenting the information. The seed of misinformation was planted.

Francisco Goya’s “Third of May,” is another painting which comes to mind when reflecting upon the use of empathy in art. (“El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid” completed in 1814). We see a man standing with his arms outstretched, pleadingly, begging for his life, while a troop of soldiers aim their guns in his face. The painting was completed years after the invasion of Napoleon’s troops invaded Spain, so even if Goya were witnessing this act, the painting was composed many years later. What many people fail to notice is that the man being shot has a hole in his hand, a sign of “the stigma,” and his outstretched arms reflect the image of Christ on the cross, meant to invoke empathy and compassion for the subjecting eyes of Catholic Christians. Although it has been noted that most people at the time did not approve of the painting, it has gone on to be the prized possession of the Museo del Prado in Spain. Is this misinformation? Or was Goya just evoking empathy within the minds of viewers in order to exemplify the horrors of war? Probably both. Most people at the time were Catholic Christians and would have been familiar with the imagery. Many churches today use a cross without the man, but at the time, even many Protestant churches used this imagery. (Begun with Martin Luther in 1517) But in Rome, a few hundred years after the death of Jesus, it was a major part of the belief system that his death and resurrection was the foundation of this new religion. Empathy was a way to recruit members into this new religion and since most Romans were poor, and many of them were slaves, it was easy to espouse the idea of a savior, especially because of war. The iconography of a suffering man became the visual in every temple or church.

Like Goya, Pablo Picasso also used his art to evoke sympathy against the horrors of war in his painting called “Guernica” (completed in 1937 in Paris, now located in Museo Reina Sofia, Spain ) This work is so abstract that unless explained, a person unschooled in the history of art might not understand it’s meaning. It is a very large piece in black and white, and was painted in protest to the innocent slaughter of animals, and people, in WWII in the Basque region of northern Spain. You can see the angst and fear in the characters. One might say that the work could be misinterpreted, but the intention was not misinformation, it was sympathy. He had been encouraged by a friend, the poet Juan Larrea, who had read an account of it in the newspaper.

Along with sympathy, there are other aspects in art that are not readily apparent. This could be said of the many depictions of Jesus and the Mother Mary in Christian art throughout the centuries. Artists, generally employed by the church, used local models as a reference for Mother Mary, so she is depicted as fair skinned and, in many cases, blond and blue eyed. This might have been an attempt of the church at the time to indoctrinate the people of the period, mainly illiterate, with a European portrayal of a Caucasian family. It would have been difficult for local people to relate to a Middle Eastern looking mother and child. So artists painted scenes that people would be comfortable with. Even the landscapes into which they were placed, were local environments. This evokes feelings of compatibility and security, important emotional tools. However, Byzantine icons painted on wood, especially prior to the Middle ages, show Jesus with a much darker skin tone and features that resemble a man from the Levant. Most of these are in museums and churches in Greece, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. It might be said that this is definite misinformation, but mostly it is merely misrepresentation.

Strangely enough, today we can order anything we want on-line, and our holy family can be depicted with any skin color or facial features that we choose, no matter how accurate or inaccurate it might be. There is very little description in the scriptures which allow us to form an appropriate depiction of any of the characters in both the old and the new testament. Artists can now render the biblical characters to your choosing, either Nubian Prince, or Scandinavian Goddess. It becomes the buyers choice.

Another strange anomaly which occurs in Christian art is the use of wings, especially the wings of birds with feathers, to depict angels. Of course, we see wings on beings depicted in Egyptian art, which had been painted centuries earlier, so it was not surprising. In the Basilica di Santa Maria in Rome there is a fresco which is dated 432-440, where we find angels with wings, dressed in togas. Likewise, there are 12th century icons of angels and archangels donning the garments of the royal family, or the clergy, and they have black wings. Sometimes our angels are even garbed in military attire, bearing wings to set themselves apart from ordinary people. Even the Quran mentions angels, and early depictions show them with multicolored wings. (circa 1500’s). Misinformation or merely fantasy? Since angels were considered diaphanous creatures, floating through the air, mysteriously appearing and disappearing, are wings mortal man’s way of cognizing this strange metaphysical phenomenon? It is hard to know. But from famous paintings such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation” painted in the Italian Renaissance between 1472-1475 (Uffizi gallery, Florence Italy) where it has been noted that Leonardo did study the wings of birds, to trinkets found in gift shops today, angels have wings. How can we know how this trend began?

In the current art world, we would hope to believe that it is easier to know what an artist is thinking or the rationale for creating a piece of work. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In many cases it is impossible to know the artists intentions. Perhaps they even change. Even if an artist explains his or herself, and it is recorded, the general public can still form unsolicited opinions. Herein lies the makings of misinformation.

The artist Marina Abromovich (Serbian, born 1946) is a great example. She has constructed enigmatic art and performance pieces in which the use of signs and symbols are used. Innocent or nefarious? We don’t know. Signs and symbols are ancient. Like most signs (the markings) they become a symbol when meaning is attached. This subsequent meaning can be interpreted in extreme opposites. A five-pointed star becomes a symbol for feminism, the Vitruvian man, and patriotism. But if inverted, it becomes devil worship, or the symbol for evil. The “information” transforms itself into “misinformation” and possibly “disinformation”, if that is the intention of a second or third party. It’s almost like the children’s game in which we all line up and say a phrase into a person’s ear, and in the end the words are not even close to the original phrase. If the intention of a critic is to inform, it is always subject to misinterpretation and therefore misrepresentation. If the reporting is malicious, it becomes disinformation, and for that we must beware.

Sadly, most of us are educated to believe what we hear and read. We are trusting, kind, and honorable human beings. We want to have faith in the media, in the news, videos, and podcasts. But today we even educate our young children to check their facts, look closely at sources, and get other opinions. (“Ask your librarian” reads the poster). Sometimes well-meaning adults forget these important steps. Visual art can have a deep impact on our psychological understanding of a subject and it has been proven that the media arts can create a false narrative far greater, and faster, than anything we read. We must be continually reminded to use critical thinking at every turn.

The art of misinformation has become so pervasive today that we have begun to mistrust more than we trust. Or the opposite can be said, and the naive and ill-informed will believe anything. And then pass it on. It’s imperative, now more than ever, that we question everything and use our discernment when judging. Empirical knowledge becomes the platform from which we must spring, and we need to remind ourselves of this at every turn. Even empirical knowledge requires scrutiny and discussion. Clearly, we must have the integrity to uphold this tenant if we are to solve the complex problems of the world.

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