“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
As the story goes, after going to trial for annoying too many people, Socrates chose death over living an unexamined life; a life without philosophising. To Socrates, philosophy, literally ‘the love of wisdom’, was the tool which brought meaning to life and ultimately, was the meaning of life. He believed his wisdom was his understanding that although we are all equally ignorant, he alone was aware of his own ignorance: “What I do not know I do not think I know.”
SUBTTLD (Subtitled) is a project with the mission to help us live examined lives. Using art and news as the vehicles to prompt us to look critically at our world, SUBTTLD translates art through news and news through art. Its mission is threefold:
To promote engagement, participation in and to democratise art
To encourage us to draw meaning from news, to care and understand rather than blindly consume information
To inspire critical thinking and analytic observation in all aspects of life and particularly in digital media consumption
After completing my undergraduate degree (B.A. Advanced, University of Sydney) in Art History & Theory, followed by a Master of Design (COFA UNSW), I discovered my real passion for the space between the two. My interest lies in the capacity of art to serve function; art with intent.
My belief is that the audience, rather than the author, has the responsibility to impose intent, to draw meaning, to make art serve a function for the self. It is the artist who has the skill to communicate, and the intended narratives and contextual readings of works still have their relevance, but it is ultimately the viewer who finds significance in art, informed by their personal history and their innermost or immediate needs while experiencing art.
The elitism historically associated with art and its institutions is being challenged from every angle, making way for a more inclusive and diverse art world. With every wall that is broken down, art finds itself closer to its nascent state; art born from a desire to communicate and share knowledge through storytelling; art for people. Contributing to this mission, SUBTTLD aspires to help democratise art, to make every person feel entitled to read works as they please, to not feel constrained by stringent academic definitions and contextual analysis of works displayed on white walls, silent rooms and gilded frames. I hope for people to be encouraged to visit galleries, to engage in art, to discover the bodies of work of new artists beyond the tourist checklists and cultural capital accrued by attending openings or taking photos in front of over-saturated masterpieces.
In the process of uncovering the ways art can work for people, intellectually, psychologically and emotionally, SUBTTLD aspires to nurture relevance for art in everyone’s lives, dictated by individuals not by institutions.
In the 1870s, French novelist Gustave Flaubert began what he described as an encyclopaedia of human stupidity, The Dictionary of Received Ideas. It was an ironic summary of the over-simplified articulations of the world disseminated by newspapers. Belonging to a generation where the invention of the steam printing press meant everyone had access to a great deal of current information, Flaubert believed “the press had made it very possible for a person to be at once unimaginative, uncreative, mean-minded and extremely well informed”, as summarised by Alain de Botton in The News: A User’s Manual (2014). “The news had, for Flaubert, armed stupidity and given authority to fools.”
This is even truer today with the infinite amount of both information and misinformation available to 3.2 billion people, almost half the world’s population, through the internet. Botton highlights the real issue saying: “News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.”
Just as art has the capacity to pull meaning out from our experiences, it also has the capacity to help us internalise and understand the world around us. While today we know so much more than we ever did before, we understand very little. In exploring our addiction to the news, de Botton investigates art’s potential role in journalism. He proposes: “Accurate information about foreign countries is now not very hard to get hold of; the real issue is how we might come to feel sincere interest in any of it… Art may be most usefully defined as the discipline devoted to trying to get concepts powerfully into people’s heads.”
In the process of rewriting the relevance of artworks, SUBTTLD will aspire to use art to help us translate the news and find personal significance in global headlines.
"We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies."
- PABLO PICASSO
In John Berger’s About Looking (1980), he considers how the use of photography has become “habitual, an unexamined part of modern perception itself.” In today’s social media era this statement carries new meaning as we live with the hovering proverbial tree in the woods: If it didn’t make it to Instagram, did it happen? How we consume but also how we experience has been fundamentally constrained by a glass ceiling - the glass screens which hold our worlds. We limit ourselves to superficial and hyperactive consumption of experience and information.
Berger also considers the impact of photojournalism “whereby the text follows the pictures instead of vice versa” and the role of advertising as a crucial economic force. We have been trained by both journalistic and advertising media to swallow and trust the images we see before considering the information behind it. We have been taught to see reality in place of artifice.
Art, however, is unapologetically artifice. It is intended to be read.
One of the most valuable lessons art teaches us is how to read the world. It encourages us to look deeper, to take time, to seek patterns, to analyse and deconstruct, to debate and learn plural perspectives, to understand symbolism and to question our accepted realities. The value of analytic thinking and observation is growing in the face of inexorable digital media that misrepresents opinion as fact and hateful criticism as intelligent critique. In this era of ‘fake news’, we have an urgent onus to educate ourselves and take accountability for the information and thoughts we dissipate, distinguishing between the two. By practicing this we should in turn learn to apply the same principles to the content we consume, scrutinising sources, purpose and constructed messaging. We, as consumers of information and media, are the answer to the dangers of ‘fake news’ by simply taking responsibility for our own education. The more practiced we are at reading artifice, the more likely we will carry these lessons on to perceive digital media as the artifice it is, to understand information as distinct from consuming it.
Art can teach us to lead the examined life that Socrates would approve of.
- CLVH (Cecilia Humphrey)