Some years ago, I was in Fez, Morrocco, with my wife Shirley. We had hired a guide and were being escorted through the Medina, the ancient part of the city that had 160,000 inhabitants and no telephones (although our guide assured us that he could reach anyone in the old city within two hours by word of mouth). We stopped momentarily to look into a courtyard through an open door where about fifty boys between the ages of four and five were seated on the ground reading out loud. “How long will these boys be at school?” I asked our guide. “Generally, two years. After that, almost all of them will go to work. “What do they study?” I asked. “The Koran.” “Nothing else?” “No.”
The memory of that scene and conversation has haunted me for over twenty-five years. These poor boys would never be able to question their own beliefs and could never understand how those beliefs had been systematically pounded into their brains. Every culture has its own way of indoctrinating its citizenry. In our culture, this indoctrination occurs through the use of advertising, television, schooling and the way news is reported. Because this indoctrination is so difficult to identify, it becomes essential to question all the beliefs we cherish most.
We live in an ocean of persuasion, most of it unrelenting and invisible. I once described making a low-calorie Greek salad for my wife and myself on a warm spring day in the country. After I chopped the tomatoes, onions, peppers and cucumber, I found a package of French feta cheese in the refrigerator, which I crumbled into the bowl. I glanced at the back of the package. It read: 70 calories per serving. Below that, in smaller type, it read: “Number of servings per package–7.” I had just added 500 calories to our modest lunch.
How does a tablespoon of feta become a serving? Everyone here today knows exactly how this happens. It’s so trivial, so banal it hardly seems worth mentioning. Of course, I should have paid attention and read the label before I dumped the feta into the salad. Multiply this trivial event a million times and you begin to understand today’s constant and relentless subversion of what is real.
As someone involved in the communication business, I often find myself confused by whether I am an agent of propaganda. The most obvious examples of my own interest in persuasion are a series of buttons I’ve created for The Nation–the magazine, not the country.
A while ago, I was looking for a definition of art’s purpose. I came across one that I liked; in fact, I liked it so much that I used it for the title of a film that was made about my work. It’s from Horace, the Roman philosopher and critic, who wrote, “The purpose of art is to inform and delight.” I’ve been thinking about the purpose of art all my life and Horace helped me to arrive at an understanding. Art is a survival mechanism for the human species. Otherwise, it never would have lasted so long.
But how does it work? How does it affect us? Primarily, it makes us attentive to the reality of our own life. The first cave paintings made its viewers attentive to the spirit and character of the animals their lives depended on. Sixteen thousand years later, Guernica made us conscious of how cruel the death of the innocent could be. Picasso and Cezanne help us understand that things can be looked at from several points of view at the same time. When we pass a landscape and think of how much it resembles a Cezanne painting, we become aware that Cezanne has made us attentive to how we see a landscape. Picasso and Seurat anticipated and illuminated the science of the 19th century, demonstrating that a landscape is an accumulation of color fragments and spaces. Art may be the only truth we can ever know.