Writing history is an act of interpretation based on the past. Creating art about history further separates past events from the final work.
What happens when an artwork tells a story that distorts an actual event? What if that “distorted” artwork communicates a historical “truth”?
Below is a famous image from a civil rights protest in Birmingham. The image tells a powerful story. It turns out that the actual events leading up to the image and the people involved tell a much different story than one we would infer simply by looking at the image.
There is a sculpture, based on the above image, that tells an even more dramatic story pictured below. What does it mean if the artwork, though powerful, does not accurately tell the actual story of the events it is depicting? What if it tells the truth of the brutality of the crackdown on the civil rights movement through inaccurately depicting an event? What does all this say about the power of artwork? The connection between history and art?
Below is a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast that discusses these issues and is where I found this story.
I found another blog post discussing these issues in greater detail. Really interesting discussion as well in the comments section.
When the Truth Gets in the Way of the Story You Want to Tell
“Put simply, we don’t like complicated stories. We like our stories cleaned up and sanitized and well tailored for public consumption. We like heroic knights vs. evil villains. We like incorrigible racists and bigots vs. tolerant human rights champions. We like credulous believers vs. rational freethinkers. We like medieval jihadis vs. freedom fighters. We like damned vs. saved. We like lazy welfare sponges vs. hardworking taxpayers. We like sinners and saints and darkness and light and red and blue and black and white. And if reality doesn’t serve up the story that we want? If the truth turns out to be a bit blurrier and more inconvenient than we’d prefer? Well, we’ll just tell the story how we want to.”
“Instead, researchers believe memories form in the connections between neurons and across neural networks. Each neuron sprouts extensions like train lines from a commuter hub, looping in about a thousand other nerve cells neurons. This architecture, it is thought, makes the elements of memories available across the whole tangled web. As such, the concept of a blue sky, say, can show up in countless, notionally discrete memories of outdoor scenes.
“Reber calls this effect “exponential storage,” and with it the brain’s memory capacity “goes through the roof.” ”
“AMERICANS BORN IN the United States are more murderous than undocumented immigrants. Fighting words, I know. But why? After all, that’s just what the numbers say.
“Still, be honest: you wouldn’t linger over a story with that headline. It’s “dog bites man.” It’s the norm. And norms aren’t news. Instead, you’ll see two dozen reporters flock to a single burning trash can during an Inauguration protest. The aberrant occurrence is the story you’ll read and the picture you’ll see. It’s news because it’s new.
“The neuroscientist Sheena Josselyn can evoke and erase memories in mice using new tools that precisely control the brain.”
“The power to control memory is both exciting and frightening. It evokes the dark images of science fiction movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which a couple erases painful memories of each other. But the research also has the potential to unlock the mystery of memory disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), perhaps leading to new treatments.”
“Confabulators don’t mean to lie or mislead, but some fundamental problems with the way they process memories mean they often struggle to tell fact from a fiction concocted by their unconscious mind.
“His dilemma, although extreme, can help us all to understand the frailties of our memories, and the ways our minds construct their own versions of reality.”
“But forgetting isn’t just a loss that comes with age. It’s a normal part of the memory process. We don’t need to remember a lot of what happens to us – what we made for dinner two years ago, where we left the car the last five times we parked in this lot. Those are examples of things that aren’t useful to remember anymore.
“There’s also the question of memories that are actively hindering our lives. Research suggests, and my work with memory-related conditions corroborates, that some people have an inability to forget traumatic events. This characteristic is partially responsible for conditions including depression and PTSD.”
“Some of your most cherished memories may not be as reliable as you think they are. So an artist who has spent the past three years collating 2,000 examples of false memories tells Kate Hilpern”