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Analyzing The Relationship Between Artistic Influence And Political Opinions

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As we discuss Murray Edelman’s essay “From Art to Politics,” the concept that we have debated the most has been his take on the influence that previously experienced narratives and images have on our perception and interpretation of information. Edelman writes, “Narratives and images govern seeing and believing, and they do so all the more effectively when the role these art forms play is subliminal, as is usually the case, rather than visible and evident” (2). This essay will seek to interpret this concept, argue for this idea, and also supply visual evidence to support that argument.

The idea that “narratives and images govern seeing and believing” is a very strong assertion to make. This concept implies that our minds store opinions and scenarios from all forms of art that we are exposed to: “novels, paintings, stories, films, dramas, television sitcoms, striking rumors, even memorable jokes” (Edelman 1). We then recall those experiences as resources when new information is being presented to us. Therefore, we are constantly being influenced by the sets of images surrounding us, and these impressions will continue to influence the way we perceive and think in the future. This concept is especially relevant when applied to political situations: “art is the fountainhead from which political discourse, beliefs about politics, and consequent actions ultimately spring” (Edelman 2). In this statement, Edelman continues to assert that our opinions, in this case political ones, are drawn from this collection of images that our mind has accrued.

The second component of Murray Edelman’s concept that can be considered arguable is that these narratives and images influence us “all the more effectively when the role these art forms play is subliminal, as is usually the case, rather than visible and evident” (2). Subliminal can be defined as existing or functioning below the threshold of consciousness. Edelman has taken the governing power of these images and further applied it to the level of sub consciousness. This can be interpreted to imply that one can never really think for themselves or make an unbiased decision: every thought, opinion, or belief is actually based on images that have been previously impressed upon them. In this way, our “observations take their meaning from memorable images that derive directly or indirectly from art rather than from objective observation, which cannot take place in any case and is itself a myth” (Edelman 3). Therefore, no matter how neutral or detached we feel that we approach a situation, Edelman believes that our reaction is in fact biased, or perhaps even predetermined, based on our exposure to previous images. Furthermore, subliminal messages cause our minds to recall instilled images without us even realizing it. Edelman goes on to say that in relation to political images “each category calls up particular images and models” (5). Thus, not only do we store away these images in our minds, we categorize them in such a way that makes it easier for us to draw from them in the future, depending on the applicable situation. According to Edelman, political analysts use this assumption when preparing political maneuvers. Consider the current presidential candidates’ campaigns. In the image at left from a recent Mike Huckabee advertisement, notice the subtle (or not-so-subtle) use of the cross behind him. During the ad, the camera pans from left to right, so that by the end of the message the cross is completely behind him, or symbolically backing him. Could this not be considered a use of subliminal symbolism that would provoke certain thoughts and feelings for this candidate without our conscious realization?

Due to the powerful nature of this subject, Edelman’s concept is relatively disputable, as has been evident in our class discussions. Some people may reject his ideas completely, while others completely concur. Still others may find themselves unable to deny the logistics of this theory, yet find its meaning unsettling. I place myself in this final category. After all, can it be proven that images and narratives from our past are not influencing our present thoughts? Does it not seem reasonable that our mind would consider these things when forming a thought or opinion without us being aware of it doing so? We rely on our brain to understand the words we read, recognize the objects that we see, and many other actions that have become inherent. Consider that way in which we learn how to do those things: repeated exposure and recognition of how to react upon seeing a certain image. For example, think about the word “child.” Does this word form a mental image for you? Our minds are able to not only form this image, but also associate that image with attributes such as innocence, love, youth, immaturity, and simplicity. Is this not very similar to the conclusion Murray Edelman is drawing about the way in which we learn to develop our thoughts and opinions concerning politics? If this one simple word recalls so many images and feelings and even memories, consider how powerful a politically loaded combination of images and messages can be.

One subject that interestingly relates to Murray Edelman’s concepts is that of semioticsвЂ"the study of signs and symbols. Consider again the illustration used with the word “child.” Semiotics teaches that the actual word is called the signifier, and the image we mentally picture of a child is called the sign. Concerning the relationship between the signifier and the actual subject (in this case a living child), semiotics tells us that the only relationship between the two is the desire for there to be one. The signifier is completely arbitrary. The only reason that a young human being is called a child is because many years ago someone decided to do so and forever since it has been universally accepted. Now apply this study of semiotics to components of political artwork that have almost universal connotations, such as colors and symbols. For example, consider the Leon Golub piece below. The dominant feature is obviously the red background, which instills in observers a sense of fear or danger, thereby reinforcing the action in the painting. If we think about this painting alone, we may develop questions about what is happening: What has the victim done to deserve this punishment? Does he even deserve it at all? Who has given his executioner this authority? According to Edelman, artworks like these “provide plot patterns into which we translate



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