Tuesday, December 09, 2008

So this is what righteous people look like

A disturbing exhibition is currently on show at the The California Museum of Photography, Riverside. Jona Frank's "In the Paths of Righteousness" features photographs of students at the Presbyterian Patrick Henry College in Virginia. The mix of buxom, corn-bred optimism (which I guess comes with being American) and utter fatuousness (which I guess comes with taking the Bible a little too literally) displayed on the faces of some of the people portrayed by Frank is potent and frightening

Exhibition homepage here, article in Süddeutsche Zeitung here.


mikeovswinton said...

And exactly how can you tell that its "utter fatuousness", or for that matter "optimism" that is displayed on the faces of these people? So you don't like them because they are Christians. Fine. I don't like the stuff on the bumper stickers on their car. But your comments here are similar to the attempts by Lombroso to invent a science of detecting criminality by looking at people's heads.

J. Carter Wood said...

And exactly how, Mike, is stating an opinion about the expression that some of the people depicted (the qualification is in the original post, if you cared to read it carefully) like Lombroso's extensive systematization of criminal types?

Besides, if you'll notice, the original post was more critical of Biblical literalism than of Christianity as such.

The link between such literalism and fatuousness seems pretty legitimate to me.

Or do you think that expressing any kind of generalisation about any group of people in any way is somehow wrong?

Because that would seem rather silly to me. And to us.

The Wife said...

Yeah, yeah - if in doubt, make sure to bring in Lombroso. To tell you the truth, dear Mike, my association had been Cicero: "Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi" - The face is the mind's image, just as the eyes are its interpreter.

This idea was popular and pervasive long before the more disturbing early forms of criminology (and I'm pretty certain that it still is).

As far as I am concerned - I recognise the vacant/illuminated gaze of the ideologically brainwashed.

Incidentally, Lombroso's ideas are far from laid to rest. What else is profiling but a form of psychological Lombrosianism? So, if you're into Cracker or shows of that ilk, you better not sling around poor old Cesare by way of an argument.

mikeovswinton said...

I'm sorry, but you are just not on. You are purporting to detect mental states from works of art. I am aware that the luminaries you mention think you can do it. I'd add Norman Whitfield; "The truth is in the eyes coz the eyes don't lie." He was talking about white liberals seeking black votes against Nixon. ("Beware the pat on the back - it might just hold you back") Great song, but he was wrong too. You can't know that these kids are optimistic from their photos. You can't even know that they actually believe the things - like the literal truth of the Bible - that they are supposed to believe. Did you believe everything your teachers and parents (they will be at that College because their parents want them to be) told you? They could just be pulling faces for the camera, and now having a good laugh at the whole thing.

If you are bothered by these folk, then do you think that generalising about them in the way you do might be a useful strategy for changing them. Or are they beyond change?

J. Carter Wood said...

I appreciate your persistence, but we are very much 'on'. 'Purporting to detect mental states from works of art' is a bit high-flown for what the original post does, but OK, as you will.

(Though this is a far cry -- it might be worth pointing out -- from your original claim that it was tantamount to measuring these young people's jaws or ears or whatever and then judging their propensity for crime. Geez, first we're compared to Lombroso then to Norman Whitfield. The latter, though is certainly an improvement.)

We may just have to disagree on the extent to which it is possible to read people's intentions, views or, indeed, 'mental states' from the expressions on their faces.

You can't always do so, but sometimes you can. Indeed, our minds have an extensive, innate and subtle ability to do just that. This not only facilitates our daily interactions with others of our species but also helps to explain our fascination with, say, portraits.

In any case, I can't see why in the world it's illegitimate to comment on the impression that a someone's face in a photograph makes on you, whether that be positive or negative.

No, we don't 'know' that those students are filled with self-righteous conviction about the literal word of the Bible...but we do believe that some of them look that way.

Which is what the original post says.

And we have had enough personal experiences with Biblical literalists (or at least wannabe literalists) to recognise a certain truth in the eyes, as Norman Whitfield aptly put it. (On that topic, I don't think Norman was entirely wrong to warn black people about a certain well-meaning condescension on the part of white liberals. Seems a wise enough point to me, so I'm not sure that that example is helping your case.)

For whatever reason, you seem to be very sensitive about these things.

However, we're not, and if you poke around a bit at this blog, you'll find that we are the sort who are comfortable making judgements about people, political parties, artworks, books and films and there are times when we even reach for the odd generalisation (say, with regard to our fellow academics). Moreover, we don't always limit our expressions of opinion to those that offer constructive engagement with people and opinions we find misguided, troubling or wrong.

Sometimes, we just mock them.

If you don't like that sort of thing, you are free to find your infotainment elsewhere.

As for finding a 'useful strategy for changing them', that's thinking a bit further than the original post intended. We don't for a moment consider ourselves to be powerful enough to compete with the awesome power of The Lord.

mikeovswinton said...

Now I think that we are getting to the point. You state that you can't see why its wrong to comment on the impression that a person's face in photo makes on you. Fine. But; can you be totally clear that your impression in this case is completely divorced from the fact that you are told by the paper and the gallery that these photos are of people who belong to a category - Biblical Literalists, perhaps - that you deprecate. Take any of these photos of young people out of this context and would you be able to detect optimism and fatuousness? For all I know in the ones where there is just one guy he might be thinking "That Photographer is a heathen and is going to Hell. Unlike me." Or, like Homer Simpson; "Mmmmm Candy Floss." Or even "This is boring. When can I go home." Remember that this is a work of art. These photos may not actually be what they purport to be. A friend at College always told me that in the Carl Andre Bricks piece the work of art was actually the reaction of the viewer to the Bricks. Your post may be the work of art here.

J. Carter Wood said...

I'm not so sure that we are getting to 'the point', as you seem to have made three different points in as many comments: your last was rather a world away from your first, which likened the expression of an opinion to pseudo-scientific criminology, and your second had something to do with not judging a book by its cover and encouraging us to engage with these young people and 'change their minds'.

Now you want to make the startling claim that we might not be fully objective in our viewpoints.

Mmm. Hmm.

Thanks also for going to the trouble of informing us that, you know, these are art and not an unfiltered glimpse of reality.

That never would have occurred to us, as unaccustomed as we are with things like interpreting, say, culture and literature.

So, there's your quota of public service sorted for the week.

But as fun as your counterfactual hypothetical case is (imagine we didn't know the identity of the subjects, etc. etc.), I don't see the purpose.

We do know the provenance of these photos and something about the people they represent. We do also have pre-existing views toward the group of people named (of the sort we've never been shy about expressing).

These two factors may indeed go together in a way that encourages us see naively optimistic fatuousness whereas others -- for example another group of biblical literalists -- might see something more neutral, normal or positive.

Yes. We know this.

And still, somehow, we manage to have and express our opinions about things. Without ever imagining that everyone else is going to see it the same way as we are. Without ceasing to be aware, as we are, of the art-like qualities of...art. Without expecting to be lectured about such things by someone in a rather hectoring manner.

Do you always go to this much effort to point out the bleeding obvious?

It might be an interesting thought experiment to consider how one might see the images without knowing the context...but, on the other hand, I'm not so sure my reaction would be all that different. There is something inherent in the images, in my (partial, prejudiced, intolerant, mean-spirited, perhaps somewhat unforgiving) opinion that lends them an unsettling quality.

Feel free to disagree, as I have no doubt you will.

mikeovswinton, on a seat in the corner, crying said...

As Roberto Duran said, Non Mas! You win. Yes, I really do believe that you can see what people's mental states are on the basis of a 3" by 2" [ insert correct specs if I'm wrong - you may have a ruler handy] computer image of a photo hanging on a wall in California.

As for me, I'm buying some of them sunglasses that cover all your eyes and reflect back at whoever looks at them. I'm going to wear them all the time, in case anyone ever photos me. It'll be a bit of a problem when I renew my passport, but no one is going to steal my soul. Sorry, generalise meaningfully about my mental states.