Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Look of Lunacy?

The long post that follows here is something that I have been thinking about for many years, and have finally gotten around to writing about.  As you may be aware, I have spent a lot of time over the last few years looking at right wing websites.  This includes the more "mainstream" ones, generally financed by rich backers, and a long list of more far out sites that I generally do not cover on my blog, because, well, enough is enough. 

As a motion picture art director, I work a lot with graphic artists constructing imitation documents of one kind and another.  Perhaps because that is part of my job, I like to look for stylistic cues that give away the nature of a document, without reference to its content.   This is an area (at least as it relates to politics) that has not received much attention, although institutions like the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore have fine collections of this material, much of it produced by people who are mentally ill.

In particular, very little has been said about this phenomenon on the internet.  This is probably understandable; websites are a relatively recent thing, and some of the relatively well known visual characteristics of the work of the mentally disturbed are eliminated by the template-driven layout of the vast majority of websites.  For example, the chaotic writing of the Miz Thang example, or the handwritten political specimen shown below are not really possible on the internet. Well, enough preface, let me dive in with some examples:

This first one is the website of Jeff Rense, an English radio broadcaster and perhaps the world's leading proponent of the "Our leaders are really shape-shifting reptiles from outer space" school of political thought:

And here's another, to get us started, the website of the Coast to Coast radio show, formerly run by the world champion conspiracy theorist Art Bell.
Finally, this one, from an openly antisemitic, apocalyptic website called Endgame-The Beginning of World War III:

A few notes about the visual similarities between these sites and others I shall discuss (although, really, they are pretty obvious:)  They generally feature black or very dark backgrounds, often filled with semi-identifiable, confusing images; their layout is very confused and complicated; they feature numerous, colorful, chaotically distributed small pictures, they involve many sizes and colors of type.

Here are a few more examples of the ubiquity of this sort of thing.  First, the website of long-time new age guru Alan Watt:
And a couple more:

Not every site has every single characteristic; for example, here is one without the black background, from major right wing loon Texe Marrs:
Well, enough.  Over the last several years, I have collected a lot of these, but this is plenty for a web post.  I think these examples show the frequency of this sort of thing among the lunatic, paranoid right- something visual and easily spotted which you essentially never see from any other part of the political spectrum.

Now, I am not a psychologist, but let me speculate briefly about the antecedents to things like that.  Again, I will mainly give examples; I don't consider myself competent to make definitive judgments about such things.

Here are a couple of examples of art produced by certifiably mentally ill people.  First, a work from Milton Schwarz, a famous outsider artist:
Next, a work by outsider artist Miz Thang:
Again, I have a lot of examples of this sort of thing, but I will just stop here and note the chaotic collage of small, highly colored images, the multicolored, multisized writing, the dark background in the case of the second example (yes, I have many more like this.)

Let me move on to another form of "outsider art," that which is associated with psychedelic drug use.  Here is one example:
Again, note the black background, the chaotic swirls of color, the intensely colored foreground image.  I could provide a lot more similar examples of this, but I have to make some effort to keep this post manageable.

Now, I would like to show two examples of the transition of this sort of composition into political writing.  These lack the vibrant colors and multiple images of what I have shown above; the first because it is part of a legal filing by a member of a Sovereign Citizen movement, the second because it is a pencil doodle from a meeting, made by a politician who has kindly signed her name to it:
 Here, even in a typed document, we can see the chaotic layout and the use of bolding and other type tricks, which render the thing almost impossible to read.  This may actually be the goal in this case- to make the filing as hard as possible for someone to make their way through it and respond rationally- this is an example of a so-called "paper terrorism" filing, often used by Sovereign Citizens to clog up and disable the legal system.

And then there is this:
I don't need to say too much about this one.  It clearly forms a transitional phase between the chaotic writing and imagery displayed in the Miz Thang example above, and some of the websites I have shown.  Too bad someone didn't give Sarah a box of crayons instead of a couple of pens, or we would really see something here.

Well, what, finally, is there to say about this?  Does it document, as you might very well argue, the decline of a political movement into mass mental illness?  Well, as I said above, I'm not a psychologist, so I won't stick my neck out that far, but I certainly think it is an interesting phenomenon, and I hope you got some amusement out of my bringing it to your attention.

Note:  The websites shown above were assembled in Photoshop, using screen captures.  This was done to provide enough of each site so you could get a feeling for its character.  Nothing about the websites was altered or edited, except for this assemblage.  I hardly think this is a problem, but I thought I would make it clear how these images were produced.


Infidel753 said...

Fascinating. You're definitely on to something here.

johninoregon said...

Fascinating stuff, and I hope someone with psychological training offers an opinion. The Palin note and the Sovereign Citizen legal filing remind me a bit of the nutty postcards I sometimes saw during a youthful stint at the post office -- a blizzard of words without much white space around them.

Green Eagle said...

Well, not a lot of comment on this. Thanks, Infidel and John, for your interest.

I have literally dozens more examples of things like this.

I'm thinking of preparing a much longer version of this post, with a good deal more pictorial evidence, and some more speculation, but I don't know what I would do with it, so it likely will never happen.

Ahab said...

This analysis is fascinating. Those website examples are so brimming with text blocks and images that they approach a horror vacui style. I don't know what this means, but it's worth investigating further.

Cthulhu said...

It would certainly go far to help explain the cognitive dissonance in their ideas and the word salad nonsense that tumbles from their mouths. Too bad you couldn't get a piece of Michelle Bachmanns foolscap for comparison.

Is being a Conservative Republican a mental illness? I'm inclined to say yes. It's certainly worth looking further into.

Stan Black said...

Appearances do matter. Andy the tea billy, crazy crazy, wing of the conservative movement does nothing to help their cause when they portray themselves as truly insane. It's unfortunate, our media, our political leaders, and business leaders don't have the sense to call this group of people what they are; fucking nuts.

Gloria Knotts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is brilliant! We research this kind of lunacy here, and I've cross-posted:

wagonjak said...

Not sure why guru Alan Watts is included with right wing nuts....I guess because of the format of his site.

Anonymous said...

Your visual analysis of these websites is important and can be expanded upon. There is a formal Visual Analysis process that is followed in Art History and with my first study of these materials I can see it could be formally applied here.
This is certainly worthy of a longer article.

The simple form of Visual Analysis I use as an museum art educator is the following. here's an adaptation for graphic design- images like posters. billboards and book covers. Some of this might be helpful.
1 Describe what is is- the visual data like color,font,placement pattern, etc. Don't actually "read' the text just look carefully at all the visual data. This is the equivalent to "listening" to what is being said in a conversation.
2 Curatorial information in a museum is the wall label but on a website it is banner info like the mission statement and the sections like "About Us". But it also is the entire text and interspersed images.
Outline the content as a flow chart or reading map. Which parts are visually referential? Content referential? How is the viewer led thru the data? Is the flow cyclical- does it end abruptly or circle back to the "title".
3 Cultural context of the message and how does it relate to the viewer's cultural context? Consider the use of language- grammar, vocabulary, etc. Is there a source for data about the readership? Who are the writers? Where are they located? What are the sources for the info?
4 Interpret the data. In essence, join the conversation and prepare your side of the dialogue.
Does the reading map give space for conversation? Do ideas progress smoothly? Are the elements declarative and figuratively "closed to comment"? Is there a sense of unease or missing data? Is the "thesis" supported? Is there additional info you bring to the conversation?
4 Judgement

You have thought of most of these elements simultaneously but it is sometimes helpful to use a graph like this anyway- Palli Davis Holubar

Blogadoccio said...

I'd be very careful about drawing conclusions along these lines if I were you.

Years ago, I was married to a woman who earned an advanced degree in "Psychiatric Art Therapy" from a prestigious medical school. Her graduating thesis project involved showing her classmates sets of visual material (drawings and such) created by individuals who were previously classified by trained psychiatrists as either "normal" people (the control group), diagnosed schizophrenic people, or diagnosed "neurotic" people. It was a double blind study, so neither the people displaying the art to the art therapists, nor the art therapists themselves, had any clue about which group the person who had produced a particular piece of art was in. They were simply shown each piece of art for several minutes and asked to classify each artist as "normal," "neurotic," or "schizophrenic."

The conclusion of the study was simple: not a single one of the trained art therapists could accurately distinguish whether the person who produced a piece of art was otherwise considered "normal," "neurotic," or "schizophrenic."

Her study got published and should be publicly available.

My conclusion is equally simple: If trained art therapists can't distinguish between art from "normal" people and art from "schizophrenics," then you probably can't either.

In fact, I'm willing to suggest that any such effort will reveal more about your inner workings than about the inner workings of the people who produced the art you are purporting to study.

Green Eagle said...


I used to listen to Alan Watts years ago, I think on KPFK. Sorry, but I think he fits here for two reasons: what he has to say has absolutely nothing to do with reality, and he says it because it's his way of making a living from the rubes. That makes him fit perfectly with the various right wing personalities like Texe Marrs and Jeff Rense.

Palli: Your remarks are most interesting and will certainly affect how I try to think about this in the future. I want to repeat that I am not an academic, and I do not want to represent what I have to say as anything more than personal observation that may or may not mean anything.

Incidentally, I grew up in Lorain, and was a Frank Lloyd Wright fan from an early age (I first read "The Natural House" and "The Living City" when I was 13.) I ended up with a M.Arch. from the GSD, and time spent as a research student in architecture at Cambridge, but I got sucked into the movie business, and that was that. Now I design space ships, submarines, 16th century Japanese houses, Cambodian temples, and God knows what else.

This remark will seem utterly irrelevant to anyone but you and me, I'm afraid. Well, too bad for them.


I agree with you entirely, and that is why I made it clear in my post that I was not about to speculate about what all of this means.

Now, in my defense, when you say " If trained art therapists can't distinguish between art from "normal" people and art from "schizophrenics," then you probably can't either," I agree with you. That's why my characterization of Miz Thang and Milton Schwarz as mentally ill is based on long-standing conclusions of their therapists, not my own opinion.

And, I am not "purporting to study" this phenomenon. I am, as I made perfectly clear, merely illustrating something I have observed. I feel your construal of my comments is very unfair to me, when I obviously went to considerable lengths to avoid exactly what you are accusing me of.

Finally, I do not know your wife. I am not an art therapist, but I have been engaged in the production of imitation artistic material like this for close to three decades (in my role as a motion picture art director,) and I would like you to consider the fact that because of this, I may see something here which she doesn't.

Anyway, thanks to all of you for taking an interest in my rambling and admittedly inconclusive post. And a particular apology to Anonymous for failing to find a way to work Michelle Bachmann into all of this- God knows she belongs here.

jaycubed said...

Here are some of my favorites:

Markh said...

Hey Eagle- Discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying it. This post was very interesting to me, especially since I found out you are an art director! I am a production designer. Who knew? Here is my IMDB page.

Perhaps we will meet on set someday!

Valentin said...

This is cool!