Wrapped in Cellophane

Contemporary art museums have the extraordinary ability of making mundane, day-to-day objects seem important and unique. They typically require us, as viewers of art, to adopt a new perspective on what we see and interact with everyday. For example, a chair in the office does not have the same meaning as a chair put on display in a museum. Likewise, a human body exhibit in a natural history museum does not have the same significance as that placed in an art museum. We are required to gain a second level of understanding of things we usually take for granted or of objects we understand only for their utilitarian function. This realization becomes apparent to us only after a brief analysis of an art piece, an understanding of its place in society, and finally, introspection.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, a Japanese-American from California, is an artist that takes provocative photographs and labels them as art. In a Polaroid photograph taken in 1984 and titled “Wrapped Food,” he shows us an image of four red apples covered with clear plastic wrap viewed from the top. A sticker on the apples tells us the price—¥512—as if they were ready to be sold in Japan. The white reflection from the light is most prominent, and the background is black. The photograph is realistic and does not appear distorted in any way. The artist’s signature is at the bottom right of the work.

A first glimpse of the photograph makes us think that the piece on display is not actually a work of art, but merely a picture of something we might see everyday, in the grocery store or supermarket. But the fact that the photograph hangs on a wall in a museum suggests that it is important to society in some way and important to the artist when he took the photograph in 1984. It is our job as viewers to understand Ishimoto’s meaning in “Wrapped Food.” There is a superficial beauty about the photograph, in that the black background focuses our attention solely on the apples themselves. There is also a kind of symmetry in the photograph of the four apples, and because of it, our eyes are not specifically attracted to any particular part of the image. A more careful look, however, shows that the apple at the top right is most illuminated of the four, which makes it seem larger than the other three; the other three fade into the black background, where the ‘black’ depicts a feeling of isolation. The fact that the fruit is wrapped further adds to this mood by creating a layer between the object and the viewer. The photograph takes live and organic objects—the apples, or “food,” as in the title—and makes them cold and distant (as in, food that is just out of reach).

Ishimoto’s photograph, like most art, reflects on the culture in which it exists. The image of food wrapped in plastic speaks to the mass cultivation, production, and packaging of food in cellophane. The concept of mass production was relatively new during the 1980s, when “Wrapped Food” was conceived. The photograph intends for us to realize the significance of mass production in our lives and how the mass packaging of food has led to an artificial quality in the way food is prepared and how we consume it. In addition, the ¥512 sticker price on the four apples wrapped in cellophane plastic speaks to the consumerism that is now so prominent in our culture and our individual lives. For example, we take for granted that we can go to virtually any supermarket and buy all that we want to eat, from fish and chicken to vegetables and desserts. Even the meat we buy is becoming increasingly amorphous, where the original cow, pig, or lamb has become an unidentifiable chunk of meat. Only the label tells us what it is and how much it costs. Ishimoto’s “Wrapped Food” forces us to realize that food is hardly an organic process anymore, where anyone can pick the apple straight of the tree. Instead, food is now a factory process involving plastic wrapping and artificial marketing.

As we continue to visit art museums, it behooves us to gain more than a merely superficial understanding of a work of art. Each work of art speaks to one aspect of everyday life, such as how food is made readily available in “Wrapped Food.” It has the inherent goal of making us, as the viewers of art, reflect on how society functions over a period of time, as well as react to the message that is being conveyed.

Neither a Garbage Man, Nor a Trash Collector. Here Comes a Sanitation Engineer.

The phrase “sanitation engineer” may tempt you to think highly of whoever is worthy of that title, because, as we all know, engineers are the ones who design and develop things for the betterment of everyone and everything else. Being sanitary, too, is important as ever to people. So, with that logic, sanitation engineers are greatly respected and their jobs greatly desired. That is, until we learn that “sanitation engineer” has come to merely mean garbage man. Then, our impression changes faster than we can drop our mouths open in shock, as the job of garbage men is a job unwanted by most. Being a garbage man is widely considered a low-status job. Regardless, in the political context, we now come to regard this worker not as a garbage man or refuse or trash collector, but as a “sanitation engineer.”

What is the purpose of such a term—of such a convoluted way of meaning what we all ordinarily regard as garbage men? Clearly, “sanitation engineer” is an indirect and milder way to mean “garbage man” or “janitor.” This euphemism is a means of providing more respect for an occupation that is typically poorly received. And this is far from being the only euphemism prevalent in society today. American culture abounds with euphemisms, including “motion sickness bag” for “barf bag,” “pre-owned cars” for “used cars,” and “resting in peace” for “death.” Sometimes the use of this kind of verbiage is justified, when talking about a sensitive subject, such as death, or when discussing something that might be offensive to someone else, such as job titles as in this case. In another example, euphemisms in advertisements are used to promote a certain product or service, which would otherwise be found too cheap or too repulsive for the average buyer. Sometimes, these are acceptable. The problem arises, however, when euphemisms are used too often to replace known phrases as to become extremely subtle, vague, and elusive. The bigger problem, though, is when they are so tied into the culture that they become unnoticeable.

It has become clearer and clearer today that in America, a place where countless cultures and subcultures exist and clash, people must be careful about what is said, written, or expressed. As a result, saying what we do not truly mean becomes pervasive in the context of American politics as well as of lifestyle in general; the use of euphemism is everywhere. Sometimes, it allows for variety in speech and writing, using different terms to refer to the same thing. “Euphemism” and “synonym,” however, hardly mean the same thing. The former is loosely defined as a mild or indirect expression used to suggest something thought to be too blunt or offensive to be expressed otherwise. And, of course, a synonym is a word that has the same or similar meaning as another word. It is curious to note how these two words have merged to form something of a cultural norm in America, where the use of euphemisms is not only acceptable, but encouraged. Speaking in a roundabout manner enables us to be sure that third-party listeners will not be insulted or hurt the wrong way in any way. Also, in today’s high society and image-conscious culture, euphemisms are critical to their lifestyle. It would be unusual for such a person to use the word “shit” when referring to cow feces; rather, they would use the terms “excrement,” or “droppings,” for example. In this instance, the use of euphemisms avoids indecency, which is exactly what we are taught to shun. In American politics, using euphemisms to avoid indecency has become a full time job.

It is often said that the primary job of politicians is to get reelected. In order to do so, he or she must appeal to the majority of people, and to do that, we get speeches and campaigns filled with politeness, sensitivity, understatements and overstatements. Euphemism in politics has its own name—political correctness. To be politically correct is to say or write things that appeal to not just the majority, but to everyone. The obvious issue of the differences such as race, gender, disability, religion and political views are largely ignored or toned down with political correctness by censorship or by limited free speech that is acceptable. Words with any hint of negativity are ignored. For example, “illegal aliens” are now called “undocumented workers,” “chairman” are now called “chairperson,” and “trash collectors” are now regarded as “sanitation engineers.” It is a technique used to make people feel important and to sway their opinions one way or another. The inherent characteristic of being politically correct is that it not only avoids the actual meaning, but it also allows the speaker or writer to avoid claiming personal responsibility1. Also, the extent of political correctness has led some people to believe that the words of politicians are essentially lies.

In today’s politically correct America, there is no surprise that euphemisms are ubiquitous. This, in turn, drives the tendency in Americans to equivocate, most notable in the younger generation today. People often avoid saying what they mean in order to not offend others; they would write in such a way so that they may claim no responsibility for their words (i.e. the passive voice, where the true subject is omitted and ambiguity and misunderstanding is present). In speech, this has become so common that it is all right and tolerable. The use and abuse of the word “like” in everyday speech is one of way of equivocating, used by most . For example, one might say “Uh, like I was just going to say that like I think the story was like very compelling. Tom Joad was like a character that like . . .” Beside the general annoyance of this word where it does not belong, it has now become so fixed in the speech of the younger generation that it goes unseen (or unheard) most of the time. There are two severe implications of this. Firstly, children will be brought up believing that equivocation, at the most basic level, is okay. And secondly, they will have virtually no responsibility for what they say or write, when intentionally or unintentionally offending or demoralizing others. The usage of euphemism must be kept in check.

Because of the origins of euphemisms (and of the phrase “sanitation engineer,” as an example), it is a fact that euphemisms are here to stay. Speaking indirectly is a good way to say what we are uncomfortable to say otherwise; it is also an acceptable and preferred way to say what would potentially be insulting to others. The excessive use of euphemisms in speech and in writing, however, is a problem that often goes unnoticed. In an American today where everyone is either some sort of manager, specialist, consultant, or engineer (a clothing salesperson is a apparel specialist, for example), sometimes some words intending to be euphemistic become satirical, like “sanitation engineer,” which is, today, more sarcastic than respectful. In the politics of language and in politics itself, being politically correct is sometimes more important than the actual context; appealing to all and offending none is the American way. At the end of it all, “political correctness” is a euphemism for “euphemism.”