« "Fallacies Ain't Too Pretty, Neither" | Iconoduel | "How's a boy get to be so damned fragile?" »

August 11, 2005

Give Me A Break!

4 out of 5 respondents surveyed failed to identify this man as the "real journalist" in a specially prepared photo lineup:

John Stossel, Tireless Libertarian Stud

The fifth changed her mind as soon she saw him in action.

* * *

Worry not your pretty little heads over the old "what is art?" question, Mr. Einspruch et alia.

You see, by power of internets, 20/20's John Stossel and the web team at ABC News have struck upon an objectively scientific means of answering that most insidious of aesthetic queries: 200 x 200 pixel jpegs.

My kid could do that...

(I just aced the quiz, myself. How'd you do?)

Stossel explains:

We ran a test.
On ABCNews.com, we showed four reproductions of art works that are considered masterpieces of modern art along with six pieces that will never make it into any museum. We asked viewers to decide which work was art and which was not.
We also conducted the test with New Yorkers at Manhattan Mall. We asked people to tell us which artworks they'd expect to see in a museum. We included copies of the famous paintings, plus some other items.

(It's far too rigorous a methodology for my tastes, but then I'm not a television journalist.)

The results (as no doubt predicted ahead of time by one John Stossel himself) were far from pretty: "John Stossel found that a lot of people can't" distinguish modern art from "child's play" (emphasis mine). Downright damning.

That "most" of the "real artists" surveyed selected "at least some" of the kids' paintings as art is supposed to be damning on its face as well. As is the fact that the most votes overall, far from going to the "famous" artworks (which are really nothing of the sort in any real sense), went to "a piece of framed fabric '20/20' bought at a thrift store for $5." Nevermind that this lowly thrift shop fabric was obviously selected because of its resemblence to some truly well known art. Some might call such a move deliberately misleading, but let's not get carried away here. (Really, though, why not just go for the soup can bought from the supermarket?)

Nevermind that the tiny sample size was stacked with mostly non-art images. Nevermind that the reproductions of the "modern masters'" works are laughably inadequate (especially when it comes to their Ellsworth Kelly sample). Nevermind that general opinion on someone like Twombly is hardly a settled matter. And nevermind that Stossel's M.O. rarely rises above the standard anecdotal strategies of gotcha journalism.

No, clearly there's something insidious going on in this decadent, elitist art world and it's costing you, dear citizen, big big bucks:

The politicians may say they're starved for funds, but they're still giving your hard-earned tax dollars to museums that exhibit these kinds of things.

* * *

Now that our moustachioed libertarian hero has denuded the out of control, pork barrel boondoggles that are our public museums, perhaps he can still find time to tackle our latest federal Energy, Transportation and Farm Bills. Not until he's done taking the FDA out back over serving size and a remarkable lack of enjoyable sunscreens, or courageously busting up the myth of gaydar, though.

Related: My TV proves that public education is utter bullshit, too.

"Give Me A Break!"
Posted by Dan at 04:46 PM


Who cares about this?

Frankly, I think the answers for the "kids art" are incorrect making this test invalid.

Posted by: George on August 11, 2005 at 10:29 PM

"4 out of 5 respondents surveyed failed to identify this man as the "real journalist" in a specially prepared photo lineup"

ROFL! I would have guessed aging soap opera leading man circa 1988 (series now cancelled).

Why do they think the kids' art isn't art? And what's wrong with the fabric? I woulda framed it and put it on the wall. Ever heard of found art?

It pisses me off when they go out of their way to reinforce stereotypes of "modern" art.

Glad you're watching this stuff, Dan, so the rest of us don't have to....

Posted by: Cynthia on August 14, 2005 at 11:03 PM

> Glad you're watching this stuff, Dan, so the rest of us don't have to....

Well, I didn't actually see it air myself. All thanks should go to Edward Winkleman.

> I would have guessed aging soap opera leading man circa 1988 (series now cancelled).

Some see a porn star, but '80s soap star works, too, I think. Unfortunately, neither is the truth.

Though originally making his name as the consumer advocate who broke a hard-hitting exposé of fight-fixing in professional wrestling (following in the bold footsteps of one Roland Barthes and paying the price), Stossel is of course now best known as the ideological hack on ABC's 20/20.

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting offers an archive of info on this self-styled, common-sense bane to the Liberal Media Hegemony and PC thugs everywhere.

I love this bit on his impartial questioning style:

Stossel's treatment of sources varies greatly depending on whether or not they agree with him. His "question" to an OSHA consultant (1/21/00): "Your critics say you're a bunch of clueless busybodies trying to micromanage everybody's life." In a segment on New York's welfare-to-work program (3/9/98), Stossel tells workfare participants that "you didn't get a real job on your own. Everybody says this is a great program." As if to prove that work was plentiful, he proceeded to show them the help-wanted ads.
Or consider Stossel's retort to Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, referring to the group's criticism of the chemical Alar (4/21/94): "Isn't it possible you killed people by making apples more expensive?" Interviewing a lawyer who focuses on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (11/8/02), Stossel suggested that he was really just running a shakedown racket: "What would you call it if I came up to you in a parking lot and said, 'Give me money or I'll smash your car?'" "You're a scaremonger," he scolded genetic engineering critic Jeremy Rifkin (6/29/01). "Why should we listen to you?"
When guests push Stossel's line, however, he even lets their inaccuracies pass. In a part of his "Is America No. 1?" special (9/19/99) dedicated to the wonders of Hong Kong's free-market success, one of Stossel's favored sources claims that Hong Kong is "the only government in the world that makes a surplus, a big surplus." In fact, 11 countries were achieving the very same feat in 1998—including the U.S., which at the time had been running a federal budget surplus for more than a year—major news that seemed to have escaped Stossel's notice.

Almost makes one want to ask John if he's stopped beating his wife.

Or how about this:

Sometimes Stossel responds to uncomfortable facts not by spinning them, but by omitting them. In one instance, producers resigned from a Stossel special after their findings were dismissed because they cast doubt on Stossel's "preconceived notion" of the truth. The show was "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" (4/21/94), a 90-minute special about the evils of government regulation.
Positing that America's ability to "compete in a world economy" could be compromised if we worry too much about "dangerous-sounding" things like "pesticides, pollutants, bioengineering, electromagnetic fields" and so forth, Stossel reassures us: Today, "we live longer than ever." Therefore, advocates like Ralph Nader--who is portrayed as a fear-monger who "screamed about everything"--have it all wrong. The real danger is regulation, since "regulations may shorten lives by making people poorer."
It's tough to argue with such relentlessly simplistic logic, as Stossel's own staff found out. As reported by Karl Grossman (Extra! Update, 6/94), a source close to ABC said that two of the three producers hired to work on the special resigned because their findings were unwelcome.
Producer Jan Legnitto found that government product-safety regulation was cost-effective, while Vicky Sufian's research on comparative risk indicated that some regulations actually served to protect people. Neither finding supported Stossel's anti-regulatory stance, so their research was dismissed. Both producers asked to be released from their contracts and left the program.

And then there's the matter of a provocative appearance Stossel put in at Brown University in the midst of a high-profile sexual misconduct case in the mid '90s:

"I was taught I could do anything I wanted as long as I didn't force a woman," Stossel said. "If a woman is drunk, it's sexual assault? Is every person supposed to be sober when they have sex? There'd be a lot less sex in America if everyone had to be sober."
"How can a woman consent when she's drunk out of her mind?" a student said.
At that point, several members of the coalition had moved to the steps of Faunce Hall.
"Walk away. Walk away," they urged the students surrounding Stossel.
"If I were dating you," Stossel said to Behrent, "and put my arm around you and put my hand on your breast—"
"That is totally irrelevant," Behrent broke in.
"Is it okay to walk up to a woman and touch her?" Stossel said.


The rally turned ugly when instead of simply filming the events and interviewing students, Stossel grabbed a microphone and asked the protestors to define rape.
"To me it's a man holding a woman at gunpoint or knifepoint," he said. "There seems to be a new way of looking at it. I'd like some of you to talk to me about it."
The rally devolved into a shouting match between Stossel and several students, who accused him of manipulating the news.
When Stossel's report aired in March of that year, it was titled "When Yes Means No," and featured footage of angry students, including Klein, screaming. On air, Stossel announced, "There is something of an authoritarian atmosphere surrounding women's issues on this campus."
T.V. viewers saw Brown presented as a PC-netherworld filled with angry activists out to frame the innocent. Campus feminists, Stossel's piece concluded, were authoritarian and unwilling to accept critiques of their women-as-victims mentality.

(Yet more here.)

Zero credibility.

Posted by: Dan on August 15, 2005 at 03:40 PM

So, it seems rather impossible for anyone to come up with a stark answer to the problem of modern art appearing easy to do.

What are some answers? No, your child doesn't have an MFA from Yale?

My sister saw the segment and told me about it. I guess by being my sister, she isn't totally un-initated. But she is very stubborn in her opinions of such things, and does genuinely like contemporary art and going to museums.

Recently, at a museum she was talking to me about one such contempo piece people are supposed to hold in contempt. And she said she liked it for some random reason, not because of formalism or high minded meaning. Maybe it reminded her of something funny, or of a memory. She didn't think it was OK to like it because of that. And that "art people" like myself would think she was stupid, or disapprove. Of course it is OK to like it for some random reason! Some "art people" would be mad, others would love the reasons for liking the piece, so whatever.

Like art for why you want to. Even if you think your kid could do it. And remember, they didn't. And you can still like it if you want to. Oh, and if other people want to like it, but you don't, that's fine, let them have their own opinions.

Posted by: Erik W on August 17, 2005 at 11:43 AM

While the validity of Stossel's test may be disputed, it is certain that he was not the first to suggest such a test.

I wrote a very similar quiz in September 2003.

The date can be verified using the web archive.

Over 20,000 people had downloaded it before ABC broadcasted their very similar quiz.

Posted by: Mikhail Simkin on September 30, 2005 at 08:31 AM

Referenced in this post:

A Perfectly Cromulent Blog: Which arm?
ABC News: 20/20
ABC News: A Blueberry Muffin for Three?
ABC News: Is It Art—or Not?
ABC News: Is It Art—or Not?: Slide 5
ABC News: Is It Art—or Not?: Slide 9
ABC News: Test Your Gaydar
ABC News: Why Is the Best Sunscreen Blocked by FDA?
ABC News: You Call That Art?
Artblog.net: danto abuses beauty
Edward Winkleman: The MSM's Disrespect for Art
NBC: The Tonight Show with Jay Leno—Jay Walking
Warhol Museum