Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Teaching Visual Satire - Signs Of Intelligence

Source: ASIDE
During a relaxing log-cabin getaway last month in Woodstock, New York, we stumbled across a series of curious signs peppered throughout the region. Our cousin Emily pointed out the signposts near the Village Green. At first, they looked like any other NY state historical markers. Upon reading them, though, we realized that instead of documenting an important event, the signs offered subtle commentary about political issues and cultural touchstones. They flawlessly mimicked actual markers and stood out as shrewd pieces of art.

The signs, it turns out, are the creation of Norm Magnusson. A prolific local artist, Magnusson calls these projects "art of social conscience." He envisions an I-75 Project in which similar markers would be placed in rest areas along the length of the interstate. Examples of his current creations include: "On this site stood Karen DeWitt, who could not afford the prescription drugs that would have saved her life;" and "On this site stood Robert Oknos, who thought that global warming would not affect him in his lifetime." On his website, Magnusson notes that his creations "gently insert themselves into the public realm," and he enjoys the surprise of passersby who stop to read them. Says Magnusson:
"These markers are just the kind of public art I really enjoy: gently assertive and non-confrontational, firmly thought-provoking and pretty to look at and just a little bit subversive."
Magnusson's signs tell stories in just a few words about the folly of being politically dismissive. His works feature all of the hallmarks of satire: an unexpected message, an acerbic tone, and immaculate verisimilitude. We were most impressed by the amazing authenticity of the pieces. It's almost as though he used the same machine shop to render such medal-worthy metallurgy. These signposts have caught the eye of several other outlets (here, here, and here) as well.

An actual New York State historical marker:


Source: Wikipedia

One of Magnussons' markers:


Source: ASIDE
Satire can be one of the trickiest genres to teach in the humanities. Good satire requires a nuanced reading. It by definition necessitates a two-stage understanding. A student must comprehend the historical and/or literary background forming the foundation of the piece, and then he or she must accurately read the author’s opinion to discern reality from exaggeration. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in 1729 set the bar for intellectual send-ups. But practitioners such as Aesop, Pope, Twain, Orwell, Pynchon, Trudeau, and Colbert have all offered wry hyperboles on government and humanity.

Source: ASIDE
Visual satire is an emerging niche and can be a useful inroad to introducing students to social lampooning. Political cartoons, comic strips, graffiti, and billboards all offer media for witty commentary. Both younger and older learners can be guided through a visual dissection of these displays. We like the 4 Steps To Understanding An Image as a helpful tool for parsing complex pictures. The best visual satire does not need panels or word bubbles, because it thrives in its potent messaging of creative design and its skewering partisanship.

For modern epitomes of visual satire, we think of "South Park" or "New Yorker" covers. Parodies and caricatures are enjoyable spoofs, while racist illustrations and minstrel shows of the Civil War era are unsettling examples. Online YouTube takeoffs of music videos are increasingly popular in their lip-synched ridiculousness. And many infographics are now gaining traction in their mockery of infographics themselves.



By the way, if you find yourself in the Woodstock area in late July, we highly recommend the Ulster County Fair for its welcoming atmosphere, riveting pig races, and dusty horse pulls. Also, Mexicali Blue in New Paltz offers some of the tastiest burritos we’ve ever had. Our favorites were the chili lime chicken and the achiote pork with coconut aioli.

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