Posted by Literary Titan
White Lies Matter explores the deceptions and cynicism of America while exploring the “alt- facts” that permeate contemporary society. Why was this an important book for you to write?
Years ago, noted art critic Robert Hughes lamented the fact that America had never had a Goya. That notion apparently remained in my subconscious because by 2013, I realized that my art was focused more and more on revealing the lies and misconceptions that were abundant in American history.
In addition to that motivation, my education includes minors in mathematics, foreign language and art history. And, my professional background goes well beyond teaching classes in art and art history. I have also taught in the University of Florida College of Engineering, created and taught in the Master of Business Administration degree program in UF’s College of Business Administration, and taught Art Law at UF for fifteen years along with Distinguished Service Professor of Law, E. L. Roy Hunt. And, for more than ten years, I worked with Professor of Medicine, Dr. James Cerda studying and writing about the health hazards affecting actors, artists, dancers, and musicians. I was also made quite aware of all of the issues beyond the arts that face our society through my founding of the nation’s first arts policy center, the multidisciplinary UF Center for the Arts and Public Policy and its many subsequent diverse programs.
There was a lot of history you covered in the book and examined in different ways. How much research did you undertake for this book?
It took eight years to complete the book, and every part of it was researched in depth over and over again. As an artist, I was convinced that it was imperative for me to take greater pains than a historian to ensure the accuracy of the text.
What is a common misconception you feel people have about the modern American political system?
As I researched material for the art images, I re-learned a great deal about American history. It also became apparent to me that far too many Americans did not know, did not understand, or did not believe our history. I first noticed this in the 1990s with the polarization of students in several of the art law classes. A significant number of the third year law students were politically to the far right, espoused Evangelical Christianity, and even admitted that they were studying art law in order to learn how to better censor art. In the early 2000s, I created an art class titled Drawing, Politics and Graphic Propaganda focusing on the editorial cartoon. For the several years that I taught this class, students literally split into two separate, polarized, opposing groups. This situation was most apparent during the class critiques when students presented their completed editorial cartoons. Half of them––literally––lined up on the right side of the room, the other half on the left. And that division was completely reflected by the views they espoused during the critique session.
You convey facts with metaphors and various storytelling devices. Was this intentional or incidental to your writing style?
I attempted to inform the viewer-reader both visually and through my written analysis. I recognized that the small slate was the chalkboard of education in the nineteenth century, but it also reminded me of today’s iPad. This double interpretation was important as I began to utilize the image of a small slate as the vehicle to “educate” viewers about this dilemma. The written accompaniment to this digital art series was inspired by a former student of mine, Patrick Grigsby, who observed––during one of my New Year’s Day celebrations with many friends––that when I talked about my digital art accompanied by the images of the slates on my computer monitor, people could begin to understand it.
As far as either the written and art style is concerned, it is quite eloquently summed up in art critic Peter Frank’s 2003 essay on my work entitled “How you see it, how you don’t.” Frank wrote, “Like an opera singer who has carefully cultivated a dramatic stage presence as well as a golden voice, and who has done so in part to be able to pass on such crucial ambidexterity as part of his or her legacy, O’Connor trains us by showing us by example–example that has not been dumbed down, but cleaned up. He entices us into his intellections not by making them less elusive (or for that matter allusive), but by making their elusions (and certainly their allusions) more inviting. If Americans can learn to eat spicy food, they can learn to ‘read’ art.”
Author Links: Website
Artist/art professor John A. O’Connor characterizes his series White Lies Matter: Decoding American Deceptionalism as “a history of American hypocrisy.” Using the image of the slate as a consistent base, White Lies Matter ranges across historical and contemporary America, touching down at flashpoints of inequality, misunderstanding, and conflict. From the gradual decay of national institutions to more immediate political crises, O’Connor’s project traverses a list of illegalities and cover-ups, oppressions and suppressions, tracing links between individuals and institutions in positions of influence. It begins with Christopher Columbus and the First Thanksgiving—mythologies that crumble very easily by now—and moves on through the contradictory and belated embedding of religion in the nation’s founding documents, to the calamitous installation of Donald Trump as its 45th president. White Lies Matter: Decoding American Deceptionalism reveals the deceptions, lies, and cynicism of America and the “fake news” and “alt- facts” that permeate contemporary society. Note: Michael Wilson is a New York-based writer and editor and the author of How to Read Contemporary Art: Experiencing the Art of the 21st Century (New York: Abrams, 2013).
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