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  • Emilio Mordini

TOXIC INFORMATION


The Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year 2018 is toxic. Toxic, which means ‘poisonous,’ showed “45% rise in the number of times it has been looked up onoxforddictionaries.com” and it was a popular “descriptor for the year’s most talked about topics.” “Toxic” derives from ancient Greek, toxikon pharmakon, “poison for use on arrows.” Pharmakon (neuter) was the word, of pre-Greek origins, used by Greeks to designate medication as well as poison. Toxikon originates instead from toxon "bow," meaning something which pertains to archery. Toxic is thus an evil which strikes like an arrow imbued with poison. In such a sense, information is probably one of the main toxics of our epoch.

Information can be toxic because of its quantity. Both information indigestion and starvation could be deadly. Too many details tend to become redundant and self-contradictory, causing confusion and overall loss of meaning. Too little information means preventing people from making up their own minds, facts are either cherry picked to offer ready-made answers, or so few and fragmented that developing original, circumstantial, thinking is impossible (people are obliged to rely on their existing beliefs, knowledge, and biases). Information can be toxic also because facts are disproportionately reported. Imbalanced reporting overemphasizes or overshadows details, providing a distorted view of reality although no single point is fake. Finally, useful information must to be proportionate to its purposes (its relative magnitude must be in balance and make sense the way it is) and instructional (it should include instructions on how aligning and prioritizing single pieces of information).

Information can be toxic also because of its context. Out-of-context and out-of-date information are misleading because the context (including the temporal context) is an essential frame of reference. Without such a framework, information is easily misinterpreted, and people can be led merely to draw the wrong conclusions from elements which are, in themselves, factual. Information can be manipulated, and become toxic, also when it is included in malicious contexts which purposely frame it to mislead the receivers. Simply by juxtaposing two pieces of information, one could readily suggest new meanings and partisan interpretations.

At last, information can be toxic also because it is fake. It seems obvious, and it would not be worth mentioning, were it not that the distinction between false and true information can be puzzling as well illustrated by the apologue of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). In the 1910s and 1920s, his paintings were enthusiastically celebrated by most art critics and collectors. By the late 1930s, de Chirico had changed his painting approach, adopting a neo-Baroque style, which was much less appreciated and he resented what he felt like an injustice to his talent. He was in such an angry mood, when, in 1947, decided to ask the court the impounding of one of his painting belonging to a private collection, Souvenir d'Italie II, claiming that it was fake. De Chirico accused a distinguished art collector, Alberto Della Ragione, who purchased the painting in 1933, to have substituted the original with a copy, falsifying the signature. In a first trial, the court rejected de Chirico request, confirming Souvenir d'Italie II authenticity. Courts of second and third instance ruled in de Chirico’s favor, stating that the painting was genuinely fake. Overall the trial lasted about ten years, and it left many unsolved questions.

After de Chirico’s death, it became apparent that, since the 1930s, he had been faking his early paintings, both to supplement his income and to mock experts. In 2013, two art critics, Gerd Roos and Paolo Baldacci reconstructed the whole story. Souvenir d'Italie IIwas truly fake, painted by de Chirico himself in 1933, when Willhelm Wartmann, director of the Kunsthaus Museum of Zurich, decided to organize an exhibition focusing on de Chirico metaphysical period. De Chirico was particularly intrigued, yet he had very few paintings available, so he decided to paint two fake Souvenir d'Italie, backdated on 1913, and an another “false” painting backdated on 1916, hastily and poorly imitating his previous painting style.

In his documentary F for Fake, Orson Welles told the stories of Elmyr de Hory, one of the 20th century's great art forgers, and Elmyr's biographer, Clifford Irvin, who also wrote a praised Howard Hughes (fake) autobiography. Elmyr and Clifford’ stories run in parallel with the story of Oja Kodar, a charming girl who was in love with Picasso and whose grandfather faked 22 Picasso’s painted pieces; and with the story of Welles himself, who started his career with the radio program War of the Worlds, a fake news bulletin announcing Martian invasion of Earth, causing panic among its listening audience. The plot is made still more intricate by being Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ most celebrated movie, inspired by Howard Hughes’ biography. In the end, Welles closes his documentary with a quotation from Picasso, “art is a lie that makes us see the truth.” Indeed –adds Welles with a sneering grin - Oja Kodar, and her grandfather, have never existed, and Picasso’ quote is fascinating “provided that Picasso had truly told it.”

The world is full of nuances and “if there is such a thing as truth it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers.”


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