Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Art, Truthiness, and Public Health Week

Knowing that “More Real?  Art in the Age of Truthiness” was the featured exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), I squeezed in a museum visit following a shorter than expected meeting in the Whittier Neighborhood. Since public health prides itself on being data-driven and evidence-based and since I’m interested in how art can enhance public health, I easily justified this visit during the work day as part of my personal celebration of Public Health Week. 
On the entrance wall to the gallery was the statement:  “Videri quam esse” (“To seem to be, rather than to be.”) For those familiar with Comedy Central, this is the Latin inscription over the fake fireplace on the set of The Colbert Report. That’s when I realized that this exhibit evolved from one of Stephen Colbert’s sketches called “The Word” in which the word “truthiness” was coined. According to Colbert, “truthiness” is what we know with our heart or feel with our gut regardless of the evidence, logic, or facts. In the sketch he disparages books because “they are all facts and no heart…People think with their head but know with their heart.”  They “feel the truth.” 
As I wandered through the exhibit, I was fascinated by photos, paintings, sculptures, videos, and other creations which made the point that the relationship between truth and fiction is often quite murky. I came to learn that this this grey area between reality and fabrication is the realm of “parafiction,” an evolving perspective in the fields of art, literature, and social studies. It didn't take me long to appreciate that public health is also influenced by “parafiction.”
Wearing my public health hat as I viewed the exhibit, I quickly comprehended that one of the challenges that public health is facing is that we are truly living in the “Age of Truthiness – where things we wish to be true are preferred to things we know are true.” As I walked among the art, I began to assemble in my mind the beginnings of a public health parafiction list. 
  • We have the best medical care system in the world so, if we just assure universal access to that care, we will be a healthy society.
  • Technology has successfully addressed many of our health issues so research will bring us technical solutions to most of our health problems.
  • If individuals simply took responsibility for their lifestyle behaviors, our health problems would be resolved.
  • An intact family with a mother and father is all we need to have a healthy society.
  • Market forces, if allowed to function freely, will help us achieve the Triple Aim of improved population health, lower health care costs, and a better patient experience.
  • Government is the problem, not the solution.
  • Being the fifth healthiest state in the country is an accurate reflection of the health of all Minnesotans.
At that point I was at the end of the exhibit and had a mind full of questions, feelings, and opinions. Since stimulating these kinds of reactions is part of the reason Art exists, this exhibit was a form of great Art. This is also why Art can be such a powerful public health tool. 
Energized, I chose to view two other minor exhibits being featured in the MIA:  “Picturing Poverty: Artistic Views of the Poor in the Baroque Era” and “The World at Work: Images of Labor and Industry, 1850 to Now.” As I looked at the Art in both of these galleries and saw how the perspective of the artist colored the images of the poor and working classes, I realized that “truthiness” is not a modern concept. When the same scene of poverty or manual labor can be idealized, romanticized, or criticized depending on the artists’ point of view, I began to understand that parafiction is probably part of the human condition. 
As I left the MIA and headed back to work, I thought about Oscar Wilde’s statement that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” After spending a couple of hours viewing “truthiness” in Art in the context of my experiences in public health, I believe Wilde’s statement should replace “far more than” with “and.” Art and life are synergistic. They feed off each other, influence each other, and ultimately create something new. 
Our job in public health is to continue to search for the truth and link that truth to the life experiences of real people. The real challenge is to not let our focus be narrowed by our opinions or ideology or even our specialized scientific expertise but be expansive enough to bring in alternative perspectives that may offer a whole gallery of different ideas. 
In this “Age of Truthiness” we need to be advocates for truth but we also need to be humble in our advocacy and understand that truth and public health are not static and not the sole domain of one agency or profession. As Thomas Merton said in his “Dialogue with the enemy,”The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly ...of all error.
Public health is “the constant redefinition of the unacceptable.” In that task we need data, information, and experiences to lead us to the truth. And we need an open and skeptical mind as to what is truth. That’s what makes public health so fascinating and important because as John Keats said in “Ode On a Grecian Urn,” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” 

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