The headline published on the ABC website announced: “Five Public Artworks that Changed Australia’s Relationship With Art“.
As a headline, it seems commonplace, if not to say common. It is not anything we would not find produced by hundreds of media outlets every day. As a case study, it is very humdrum. But yet, with a closer read, we quickly discover its assertion is fundamentally dishonest and broken. It is a string of completely abstract ideas that dissolve into utter meaninglessness under scrutiny. It is a strip of text that is both false and incoherent.
This one headline represents the sort of material our eyes glide over every day. This is the soup in which we now swim. It’s the stuff that makes up our daily diet of melodrama, exaggerations, outright falsehoods, or incomprehensible statements. For instance, there is actually nothing in this headline that describes a concrete, measurable, observable thing about a shared reality. It is entirely abstract, and in this it perfectly reflects the tooth decay within modern media language. Like sugar that falls into a damp patch on the kitchen bench, nonsense now seeps into the language of our day.
The first thing to notice is that the only thing in this headline that refers to any sort of concrete object in the shared reality of the world are the “five public artworks”. Even here, this is not strictly true. For while it is true that artworks generally exist in the real world as tangible objects that can be seen and handled, it turns out that a number of the titled artworks no longer actually exist anymore. They exist as photographs, and so are not truly concrete realities either.
Abstraction has become a major problem. It is a major problem because abstract ideas are largely imaginary but are treated as if they are real. This is a nearly ubiquitous feature of modern discourse – imagined concepts like identity for example – are treated as concrete objects. Other imagined concepts like hate have even been given the properties of malignant life and personality. “Hate must not be allowed to speak in our community,” screams the politician to ecstatic applause. Such phrases are not specific, not clear, do not describe a set category of actions, and exist only in a mental space.
We have become accustomed to this sort of highly abstract view of the world. Pyramids of books are written; TV programmes are aired; debates are held; university students wring their hands in anguish – all to a large extent about imaginary objects, concepts, and structures that have no true existence. They are treated as true, nonetheless. And today, much civic talk now revolves around these purely mental objects. One only needs to listen to a group of students discuss microaggressions or intersectionality, often with tears and claims of victimhood, to see where this leads.
One of the most common abstractions would surprise most people: the abstraction of nation. Let us look at the way the word Australia is used in the headline. Political theorists recognise that nations are shared, imagined concepts. If you disagree, you only need to run a few thought experiments to see that this is so.
Think of your country. What comes to mind? For most people, in the first few seconds their mind conjures up a squiggly shape on a piece of paper: a map, which is an abstract representation of their nation. Or they might think of a coloured symbol: the flag, an abstract sign with inferred meaning. They might imagine a building like the White House or Houses of Parliament – usually a building they’ve never visited – which are attributed the abstract properties of leadership, representation, or control.
When people think of their country, they may think of their nation’s involvement in war – the War of Independence or the First World War. Again, it is an imagined story constructed like a classroom montage from snippets of this and that glued together. Lastly, people might think of their nation’s unique animals or plants. Australia is associated with kangaroos; Russia with bears; Canada with moose; and America with bald eagles. But these are incidental associations that have got sucked up like Lego pieces in a vacuum cleaner. All of those animals and plants were around long before the nation was ever dreamed of.
Whatever our minds think when we picture our country, it is as abstract as algebraic symbols. Its boundaries and territories do not exist on satellite photographs of the earth. In some places it is not possible to tell from a satellite shot where one nation ends and another beings. Nations are mental objects that large numbers of people agree to share. They exist in the mind with a vast field of dimensions. For example, personal identity, pride, race etc. Lastly, nations are attributed many of the properties of personhood.
There is, of course, a real continental island called Australia. On a basic level, that is all Australia is. It’s a hunk of land that floats in a blue sea. That land mass has its own weather patterns, landscape, and a range of flora and fauna. Just like any other land mass in the world. But packaged up in the word are a host of symbols, emotions, ideas, and philosophies which crowd into an imaginary space in the mind. Most of these associations have never been directly experienced by the imaginer. Many cannot be directly experienced because they are pure objects of mind.
The elements in the mental space contained by the word Australia include conditioned responses. A patriot sees the flag run up the flagpole and a lump comes to his throat. Why does he experience such emotion? Is the flag a particularly beautiful object? Not really. I have seen children draw prettier symbols and nicer pictures than most national flags.
Since there is nothing inherent in the flag itself to warrant emotion, what is the patriot actually reacting to when he places his hand over his heart and blinks away tears? Of course, he is reacting to an imagined reality – perhaps a mental picture of heroic struggle for liberty. Or a the thought of a nice leafy street with white picket fences and barbecues being sizzled by neighbourly citizens. He may imagine himself indebted to his forebears (although, he usually does not imagine himself indebted to his ancestors from a thousand years ago). The patriot emotes not because he is loved or moved by some concrete demonstration. After all, a flag raising is objectively a boring activity. He emotes due to a vast array of imagined associations with the flag. If anyone disagrees, ask them how many emotions they feel when another nation’s flag is solemnly raised? Probably not many. Maybe none.
The headline goes on to tell us that this Australia is capable of having a relationship with art. We might well ask what Australia means in this context? What part of the constellation of ideas in this imaginary concept does the author refer to? The headline cannot mean the land of Australia itself, for how can land relate to art? How can land change its relationship to anything when new artworks come along? We all recognise that non-animate objects like boxes, stones, and mountains can only exist in relationships of relativity or comparison. For example, the hotter the flames the more likely the stones around it are to crack.
Abstract concepts cannot have a relationship with another abstract concept outside of an imagined world. Only human beings are capable of imagining and juggling abstract ideas in a mental space, therefore abstract concepts can only relate with abstract concepts within the human mind. Yet, here the headline insists that Australia has had a changed relationship with art. In what sense, we may wonder?
Imaginary things, of course, can relate to other imaginary things in whichever way the imaginer pleases. But the flexibility of the mind does not make its mental objects true as far as the real world is concerned. For instance, I can create one abstract idea – let’s call it the jiggermajogger – and set it in relationship with another – the zwizkawakz. In my mind, I can interact with these ideas in whatever ways I like, but this does not mean the ideas really exist, or that the ideas describe real things, or that the relationship I set them into actually exists. There simply are no zwizkawakzes.
If the headline’s use of Australia is a reference to the Australian people, then the headline is false conceptually. There are very few collectives of humans (perhaps none) that relate to objects in the same way at the same time in the same sense. Human beings certainly do not relate to art in the same way, for we all know there are as many responses to art as there are people. Some people even dislike art.
Secondly, the headline is false factually. Most Australians never saw these artworks. By the article’s own admission, one artwork was only seen by a million people – many of them almost certainly tourists and therefore not Australia in the headline’s sense. That leaves out the overwhelming majority of the population.
One artwork was a temporary installation completed in 1969 and lasted only for a very short time. It has not been seen by the overwhelming majority of people since then. Other artworks were also temporary installations. One involved flashing 100,000 people’s names on a Broadway-style sign hung in the Australian museum.
Since most Australians never saw these exhibitions it opens the question as to how these five artworks could be vital in causing Australia to change its attitude toward art. Collectives of people could not change their relationship to something when they had no exposure at all to the (alleged) stimulus of change!
The headline is really a species of magic. It names a mysterious entity called Australia which allegedly had a relationship with art in the past, but as the consequence of five artworks, now has another relationship with art.
The headline has absolutely no clear meaning, and certainly does not point to anything in the real and tangible world. The subsequent article never explains the nature of the changed relationship, probably because the relationship is purely abstract. It does not exist outside of the writer’s imagination.
This is one headline.
It is written in undefined abstract language, and attributes the properties of personality to one of those abstractions. Yet this is quite usual for writing and speech across Western nations nowadays. We drown in a sea of abstract language and ideas that are treated as if they were concrete realities with the properties of reality. Identity politics, for example, frequently treats imaginary concepts like concrete realities.
The superabundance of abstract thought plunges people into an ocean of futile thoughts about non-existent mental objects. This is not to say that abstract reasoning is not useful. But the boundaries between abstract and concrete realities have grown blurred. Abstractions are now like shards of glass – they fly everywhere and are lodged into nearly everything. They are often spiritual in nature.
If we are to be clear in our thought and clear in our speech, we need to recognise the folly of treating imaginary ideas as if they were real. As much as possible, we must seek to avoid philosophising and bring our feet back to earth. The scriptures do exactly this. They train the mind to think rightly about the world and its “imaginations” which were (and are) “evil continually”.