Attacking Art

Although it’s completely unnecessary for survival, most consider art to be an essential part of human life. After all, it is one of the five pillars of civilization. Despite the importance we place on it, offering an adequate description of art can be difficult. Most of us have a general understanding of art, pointing to classical paintings and sculptures such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and statue of David as examples, but what about more contemporary and peculiar pieces like Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 or Ellsworth Kelly’s Cowboy?

One of the ramifications of a poor definition of art is the frivolous labeling of individuals as artists. Classic forms of art include painting, sculpting and pottery, music, dance, acting and literature, but the term has been increasingly used to include modern vocations and hobbies such as photography, graphic design, 3D modeling, architecture, tattooing and rap. In its advertisements, Subway even claims that its employees are sandwich artists, stretching the concept of art so thin as to bankrupt it of meaning.

While it’s true that there is a degree of creativity and skill involved in nearly all aspects of life, that alone doesn’t make it art. If we include every craft, structure, schematic, machine, weapon, tool, toy, sport, code and clothing in the definition of art, then every person on Earth is an artist (as well as most animals). In that case, we would need to create a new term to describe works done for aesthetic and expressive purposes and another to describe those who devote themselves to their creation. However, creating a new word simply because its definition has been corrupted by misuse is no way to build a language.

Debate over the legitimacy of various artists and expressions can be intense, with parties citing arbitrary qualifications to suite their particular understanding of art. However, without a universally-accepted set of criteria to recognize it, how can one claim that something is or isn’t art? Although placing a restrictive definition on something as diverse and interpretive as art may seem impossible, perhaps it’s possible to establish some general guidelines. By looking to history for examples, we can glean at least four crucial criteria:

  1. Originality
  2. Meaning
  3. Skill
  4. Purpose

In order to qualify as art, a piece must be original. If a painter were to merely reproduce a famous painting, such as Picasso’s Guernica, it would not be heralded as a great work but merely an homage. In addition, a mass-produced item, such as a dime, may be beautiful, but it is not unique and therefore can’t be art. It’s also important to note the difference between an artist and a performer, since a performer is not necessarily generating something new. Although a performance may be meaningful and skillful, displaying another’s creation does not make the performer an artist.

The second criteria of art is meaning. The piece must be an expression of an emotion, event or experience, and it must attempt to draw some kind of reaction from its audience. Merely displaying mundane objects like a cotton swab, rock or hammer does not conjure an emotional response. Some may argue that mundane objects can have exceptional meaning, but this meaning is only created by the perception of the object is art, not from the object itself. If placing everyday objects in an art gallery makes them art, then everything on Earth is art, and we run into the same vocabulary issues again. It is possible for mundane objects to be incorporated into art, but this must be done with an intent to convey a greater meaning than that of the object itself.

Another important feature of art is that it requires skill to create. If a piece of art can be easily and quickly produced by most people, then it can’t be art, no matter how unique and meaningful it is. This is why some feel that advanced tools, such as computers and painting machines, erode the legitimacy of art. Consider Microsoft’s Songsmith software, which automatically generates music to accompany a vocal recording. Using this program, a few simple clicks can produce an elaborate, unique song. However, most would agree that music produced so easily is not art, for the artist did not invest time, energy or emotion into its creation. In order for art to be recognized, it must require some level of devotion from its creator. This is part of the reason why traditional forms of art, like paintings and sculptures, are still popular, and it also explains why artists sometimes use strange, rudimentary materials like toothpicks, broken glass and old, discarded sandwiches. The more simple and demanding the instrument, the more legitimate the art.

Finally, the purpose of the piece must be taken into consideration. It must not perform a function that transforms it into a tool or gadget; it must exist for the precise purpose of expression. A creation made with the intent to be used, worn or eaten is an invention or a product, not art. A car may be beautiful, but its beauty is secondary to its function. Sometimes the line between art and invention is blurred. Exotic furniture, fancy cakes and Rube Goldberg machines all have functions, but they are secondary to their beauty.

It’s debatable whether a work must meet all four of these requirements in order to be considered legitimate art, but it’s clear that these are important factors to consider. One criteria not mentioned here is beauty, which is supremely subjective and difficult to define. There are also many legitimate works of art which few would consider beautiful, like William Blake’s Great Red Dragon paintings. It could be argued that there is beauty in the hideous nature of such works, but if the definition of beauty can be expanded to include the ugly, then it’s not a useful classification.

Establishing clear definitions before engaging in any debate is essential, but it is especially important when arguing about something as trivial as art.


Dredging Children

Right now there are 43 million working women in the United States. While the feminization of the workplace is good news for women seeking to establish a career, it has created a significant shift in our understanding of family and gender roles. The traditional expectations placed on women to raise children and tend the home have eroded, and while this has granted freedom to women, the fact is that child rearing is a necessary part of life. With more women choosing to make their careers a priority, the task of raising children is now falling on a relatively new and untested mother: the child care system.

There are about 20 million children between the ages of 0 and 4 in the United States, and around 13 million of them are enrolled in regular child care. There are 819,000 daycare facilities nationwide, varying from nannies and small neighborhood operations to large-scale facilities. Enrollment may be expensive, costing up to $16,000 per year (depending on the location and level of care). In total, the United States will spend about $70 billion on child care in 2013, which averages to $5,384 per child. This may not seem like an extraordinary amount of money, but with nearly 30% of families headed by only one parent, and the median annual income for single mothers being a mere $32,000, child care can become a serious expense.

Many parents note that, apart from affordability, there are availability issues that often require them to place their children on waitlists. Although the child care industry continues to grow, it’s failing to meet the demand. This puts parents in difficult situations, sometimes forcing them to choose between working and caring for their children. Because of this, many parents are forced to use unregulated child care, which has resulted in some alarming stories of neglect, abuse and even death. In a recent interview, The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn summed up the state of child care this way, “We have this awful situation where the daycare we have isn’t good enough, and yet it’s also too expensive for many families to afford.”

In a somewhat ironic turn of events, women are increasingly finding themselves turning to child care as a career. A vast majority of child care workers, upward of 95%, are female. With 1.5 million women professionally caring for children, perhaps the migration of women into the workplace is less of a liberating endeavor than initially thought.

A possible solution to these issues could be to replace child care facilities with child care factories. Fully automated, open all hours and built to meet standardized health and safety requirements, the child care factory uses modern industrial machinery to streamline the process of caring for young humans. Although mechanization may be a nemesis of job creation, it’s worth noting that the influx of 43 million women into the labor force did not collapse the job market.

The above image is an example of the general layout of a child care factory. Parents enter the lot in their vehicle, drive around to the rear of the building and place their children in the drop-off window. After doing so, the parent receives a receipt later used to obtain the child. Once placed in the window, the children are then stripped, tagged and cataloged into inventory while gleefully tumbling along a conveyor belt before plummeting a short distance into a large ball pit. The children, or items, then spend the duration of their visit blissfully suspended in the pit while a mixture of classical music and educational material plays from speakers overhead.

While in the pit, cameras capture the events while the items’ vital signs are monitored by the tags they received upon entry. If an item exhibits an abnormal heartbeat, breathing rate or other signs of medical crisis, they would immediately be removed from the pit, and the appropriate parties would be notified, whether that be the parents, paramedics or supervising factory staff. Also, if a parent was inclined to check the status of their child, they could monitor the factory’s inventory on the company’s website or call an automated answering service, which would politely guide them through a series of unnessecary options.

The side view above shows some of the inner workings of the factory, including the ball-sanitation pump, which continuously removes and sterilizes the plastic balls before returning them to the pit. Also visible is the dredging claw and pneumatic cylinder. The claw is comprised of a pleasant, robust material as to avoid damaging children as they are gently snared in its soothing hooks.

The items also receive nourishment from the nutritious coating that is continuously applied to the balls after cleaning. This solution provides the perfect balance of vitamins, minerals, fat and protien that a growing child requires. And since children can’t help but attempt to put everything in their mouths, they actually feed themselves.

When a parent is ready to pick up their child, they simply drive through the pickup window and scan their receipt. The item is then located using tag and a portion of the claw extends to dredge them from the pit. The item is then placed on a conveyor belt and sanitized before appearing at the pickup window along with its clothing. The parent then places the child in the vehicle and continues about their business.

Industrialization has proven to increase safety in areas such as food production and product assembly, so it seems feasible to entrust our offspring to its lifeless, metallic arms. After all, we never leave prized possessions with strangers.

Survey Says

Imagine that you’ve just returned home after an arduous day at the office. Using what little energy remains, you hobble to the living room and slump your limp frame on the sofa. Then, in an attempt to drown out the haunting echoes of your obnoxious coworkers, you switch on the television and dial in to the local news station. Thankfully, you tuned in just in time for a very special report.

“A new study shows that our city has the third worst child poverty rate in the state.”

“Third worst,” you wonder, “what’s going on in this town?”

Of course you would wonder such a thing. After all, a city ranked third worst in child poverty must be doing very poorly at dealing with the issue, right? Although this is a possibility, the study itself actually says almost nothing about the state of child poverty in the city. Let’s find out why this is the case.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that the position of having no position on an issue is a position – a position of neutrality that reflects a lack of emotional investment. Second, although most studies are conducted with the intent to produce unbiased information, it’s worth noting that they are often funded or even conducted by organizations with a vested interest in the results, which undoubtedly leads to selective publication or manipulation of data. Third, and most importantly, we should be aware that studies alone are largely meaningless, for without context and implication, information does little to inform. This is because the manner in which information is collected through studies is not relevant to the common person. It must be made relevant by interpretation and presentation, such as a selective ranking used to imply poor performance.

If we were to explore the data in the example mentioned earlier, we might find that the city third worst in child poverty was only a narrow margin behind the top ranked city, or maybe we would learn that the city showed great improvement over the last year, perhaps more improvement than any other city. It’s possible that the top ranked city is declining while the third lowest ranked city is showing significant improvement, in which case we should probably show more concern for the declining city. We also don’t know the history of the cities, which may heavily influence child poverty rates. There are so many missing pieces of information that could change our reaction to the study that such a report is hardly worth our attention. Also, as we learned before, there can only be one winner, so ranking results will always produce disappointment. After all, if the third worst city were to improve to fourth worst, some other city would then inherit the rank of third worst.

News reporters, politicians and talk show guests regularly cite statistics in order to persuade listeners, but this is often done by ignoring certain studies. An example of this would be the Summer of the Shark, which occurred in 2001. Sensationalist coverage of shark attacks during the period eventually resulted in calls to pass legislation to address what seemed like a growing number incidents. However, the number of attacks in 2001 was actually 76, down from 85 in the previous year.

Sometimes statistics are misused not by ignoring studies, but by drawing connections between unrelated statistics. It is commonly cited that a person more likely to die from a coconut dropping on their head, than from a shark attack. However, this statistical analysis fails to take many factors into account, such as geography and recreational preference. For example, a person who regularly surfs on the coast of South Africa, where there many great white sharks and no coconuts, should not feel safe because of the statistic. Another example would be if female swimmer took comfort in knowing that 80% of drownings victims in the United States were male. This statistic doesn’t necessarily mean that women are better at swimming. If that were the case, then white people should also feel safe, since their drowning rates are significantly lower than those of other races. These are yet more examples of how a probability may be improperly understood to imply a possibility. It’s also strange that people are quick to preach the dangers of certain behaviors, like skateboarding and combat sports, yet feel comfortable with far more deadly activities, like eating and swimming.

Some studies don’t just provide data, but are based on correlations and attempt to identify a relationship between two variables. Unfortunately, the conclusions drawn from correlational studies can be highly subjective and even dangerous. Take, for example, a recent survey that identified that people who regularly consume popcorn are less likely to experience heart attacks. Although the findings may be accurate, the study’s correlation does not, in itself, identify popcorn as a reliable heart attack prevention agent. The deduction most make is that consuming popcorn prevents heart attacks, but the study does not offer an explanation as to why those who consume popcorn have less heart attacks – we must draw that conclusion ourselves.

One such conclusion is made by those who note that popcorn, among other snack foods, contain antioxidants – molecules that are thought to prevent diseases such as cancer. This conclusion seems to explain the correlation, but it’s just as likely that those who eat popcorn are more likely to exercise or that they don’t eat as much of other, less healthy snacks. Maybe popcorn does cause heart attacks, but it just causes fewer than ice cream. The study doesn’t tell us how or why the results occurred, which leaves the door open to interpretation and bias. It’s possible that this study was funded by a popcorn company that selected, or even paid, scientists who favor an antioxidant-rich diet to share their opinion. Perhaps the publication of this study will actually result in a greater number of heart attacks due to a massive increase in popcorn consumption by misguided people attempting evade the very fate they incur.

The job of researchers to collect and publish data. The job of writers and publishers is to decide what it means. So next time you hear a study or statistic cited, question the conclusion that follows. It’s entirely possible that it’s worth ignoring.