Tears have always sold newspapers, but in a post-reality-TV world the desire for visible feeling on the faces of public figures is stronger than ever, says visual artist Cathy Busby.
It is the “market for real emotion,” said the creator of Sorry, an installation at the Yukon Arts Centre public gallery.
Lie, make a mistake or say something offensive and the process is always the same: get in front of a camera, say you’re sorry and, for God’s sake, try to show some feeling.
“We demand an emotional response that diverts us from the hard truth or the hard work,” said Busby, surrounded by images of giant pixillated mouths.
Each mouth is pulled from media images of public apologies and blown up to near-abstract proportions.
After Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s June 2008, residential school apology,
some criticized how Harper “didn’t look sorry” when he made the speech.
“He’s the head of the nation state making an apology on behalf of the country, to read his presentation in terms of authenticity is the wrong question, in my opinion,” said Busby, who holds a PhD in communication from Concordia University.
The apology should have been judged in the context of whether Canada is truly committed to the residential school apology—not just whether the prime minister looked sad, said Busby.
It’s an “oversimplification that an emotional reading gives us an ‘out,’ gives us a ‘release,’” said Busby.
“We try and find authenticity in media images and we don’t get much going that way,” she said.
Busby’s accompanying book, also called Sorry, lays out an expanded parade of guilty mouths.
Disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer kicks off the book, his lip-biting half-moon frown the stereotypical depiction of apology.
From there, the mouths gradually stray away from Spitzer’s ideal, morphing into sneers, smiles and ending with the unsettling open-mouth of former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld as he apologizes for the abuse of Abu Ghraib detainees.
Whether making a trivial or significant apology, the mouths are frighteningly indistinguishable.
Janet Jackson’s lips are pursed as she apologizes for a “wardrobe malfunction” that revealed her right breast to a Super Bowl audience.
Above Jackson, Ontario Premier Mike Harris’ lips are similarly pursed as he apologizes for the Walkerton tainted-water tragedy.
Under the media lens, all apologies—be they an exposed nipple or a Quixotic war that caused the death of thousands—are given the same weight, said Busby.
A drawn demeanour, a solitary tear. These compelling images of emotion are diversions from the real underlying story, says Busby.
Every time a Canadian soldier is killed in Afghanistan, focus immediately shifts to images of the soldier’s grief-stricken family.
“This is not the point; we’re in there killing people and getting killed ourselves, and the coverage is all about what a big upset this death is,” said Busby.
“Emotion is what we get, but it’s not what we should take for the truth,” she said.
The centrepiece of Sorry are blown-up text fragments of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s residential school apology and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology for Australia’s “stolen generation.”
Rudd’s apology has the beat and pace of a prayer, incorporating a rousing “call and response” theme, observes Busby.
“For the pain, suffering and hurt … we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters … we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people, we say sorry,” said Rudd.
The Canadian apology hits harder with a more “judicial” quality.
Harper nakedly lays out the wrongs of the residential school system before roundly condemning them.
“Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’ Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong,” said Harper.
In the mid-70s, Busby attended the Carcross Community Education Centre, itself a former residential school.
The danger of public apologies, especially in the case of the Rudd/Harper apologies, is that their message, however profound, can be fleeting.
The trick is holding leaders to account for the “transformative” change they promise.
Sorry has already made the rounds of exhibition spaces in both Canada and Australia, but soon, Busby will take her credo of apologetic accountability to a higher stature.
The Harper/Rudd apology juxtaposition is slated to be printed on massive multi-storey banners and displayed on the side of public buildings in both Nova Scotia and Australia.
Contact Tristin Hopper at