American Cynicism

A·mer·i·can [uhmer-i-kuhn]

–adjective of or pertaining to the United States of America  or its inhabitants: an American citizen.

cyn·ic [sin-ik]

-noun a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.

‘American Cynicism’, acrylic on canvas, 24”x36”

Selfishness is our cancer. The deeper it becomes rooted in our culture, the farther we get from a cure. ‘American Cynicism’ exposes our disease.

Three images make up this composition; Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ (1942), Tom’s Restaurant (featured in the sitcom, Seinfeld), and a photograph of a starving African child. The brightness of the neon lights spelling out ‘RESTAURANT’ draws your attention to the painting. Seinfeld fans will immediately hear the signature bass-line jingle initiating the upcoming restaurant scene in their mind. The scene inside the restaurant becomes the second focal point.

The restaurant scene in ‘Nighthawks’ includes four characters around the bar; a man in the leisure suit, a man and woman seated next to each other on the far end, and a waiter behind the counter, seemingly taking an order from to at least engaged in conversation with the couple. I chose to delete the couple and the waiter serving them in the painting. The imagination of the viewer decides what has happened to these characters. One might assume the couple left together to spend the rest of the evening in a more private setting. Perhaps the waiter is taking a few dishes to the kitchen, on a smoke break, or has left the diner all together. The items left on the bar provide possible clues to his whereabouts.

To the right of the man at the bar lies an envelope-shaped item with a couple of dollar bills protruding from beneath it. This envelope is actually the waiter’s paper hat, folded flat, forgotten out of haste when the waiter left. Beneath the hat lies his latest tip, left by the man seated at the bar. The waiter has rushed off to his second job, something required to cover the bills after the economic downturn of 2008. Without knowing who it was serving him or why he disappeared, the gentleman slides a small tip under the waiter’s hat, protecting his reputation from being stained by any hint of greediness.

Regardless of the situations each character missing from the original ‘Nighthawks’ scene, the gentleman in a leisure suit remains; alone and unaffected by the others’ departure.

In the far corner of the restaurant sits a guitar, microphone, and amp, waiting for their musician’s attention.

These are included in tribute to my time playing with a band in college. Known to our followers as The Zen Pimps, our full name was The Zen Pimps (for social change). By playing blues, jazz, folk, and classic rock music, our intentions surpassed just making good music; we were out to make a difference. I believe that drives artists in every genre (the good ones, at least); more than recognition, more than money, great artists want to leave everywhere they go a little better than when they arrived. Through influencing lives we come in contact with, the value of our work is found and increases each time someone “gets it”; but is that enough? Countless artists present their message of social woes and vocalize a need for change, but how many then change themselves? “American Cynicism’ is a call for artists, including myself, to become the change we all want to see.

The viewers eye continues moving down and to the right, exiting the restaurant and stopping on a small, dark figure outside the window, resting against the exterior, concrete wall. Upon closer inspection, a severely malnourished young boy on a folded blue mat comes into focus. The warm colors in the restaurant set against the coldness of the concrete exterior sends a stiff chill up the viewer’s spine as the boy’s condition is exposed, amplifying the cold, dispassionate nature of the outside environment. The interior walls are bright yellow, the bar a warm burnt umber, inspiring a most welcomed sense of warmth and comfort. The tables are clean, as if freshly wiped down. All upholstery inside the restaurant is purple, symbolizing the wealth and royal status of its patrons. Lastly, closed blinds, blocking our sight of anyone who may hope to come in, cover the window of the entry door.

The boy stares to his right, as if watching for someone who will come around the corner of the restaurant. Perhaps they will be carrying a Styrofoam clamshell tray, containing half-eaten leftovers, still a little warm; a stocked treasure chest by his standards. Better still, maybe the passerby will be of generous nature and offer the spoils from their dinner out to him? A left over biscuit or a handful of french fries would be greatly appreciated. No matter how strong his focused stare wills it to happen, few who pass by even acknowledge his existence, much less donate the remnants of their recent meal. Yet his hopeful stare is unwavering.

Last, the your eye travels up to the advertisement on the wall above the boy.

The poster show here was, at one time, on the exterior wall of Tom’s Restaurant in New York. I do not know exactly what it was promoting, my own cynical nature assumes it was a credit card or other financial “tool”. I could not ignore the irony of that slogan, given the message of the painting. The image beneath the slogan, also included in the original ad, has been modified to send a different message. The top left corner of the card in the poster has some white marks, resembling text. There is no real text here. The markings imply letters but do not actually form any. Despite none of the alphabet existing in this location, for many, the mind translates these markings into a word, money. The top right corner contains the white silhouette of the head of an animal, a goat. The bottom right holds a full silhouette of another animal, a sheep. The text in the bottom left explains the inclusion of these details, directing the viewer to read Matthew 25:31-46, found in the first book of the New Testament in the Bible.

The purpose of ‘American Cynicism’ is not to leave the view depressed over their own nature or the state of society. Instead, I am aiming to inspire a change in attitudes, to encourage people that being honest and emotionally vulnerable with others is not only OK, it is a necessary part of life. Is it safe? No. Is it comfortable? Rarely. Unfortunately, the only option aside from vulnerability is isolation. Either we open ourselves up and really connect with people or we are left to tackle life alone.

The analogy of the goats and the sheep Jesus uses in Matthew seems to also reflect this due to the nature of the animals being referenced. When handled as a group, goats tend to display less clumping behavior than sheep, and when grazing undisturbed, tend to spread across the field or range, rather than feed side-by-side as do sheep. Goats isolate themselves from each other, sheep stick together, which better describes you?

Ironically, my goal in developing this piece was to expose the social parasite that is cynicism, calling for individuals to adapt to living selflessly. In the process, I discovered deeper aspects of my own cynical nature I had tried to suppress. Join with me in acknowledging your selfish tendencies, then follow through by taming those attitudes and encouraging your community to do the same. Together we will change the world.



  1. Thank you for this great piece and explanation. I found your painting by googling “cynicism” for a fitting image to serve as the header of my blog on the genealogy of cynicism, and I linked it back to this Web page.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome! I’m happy our paths crossed and my painting was a good fit for your blog! I appreciate the link back to my page! I’d really like to check out your blog when it is published, please send me the link! Thank you, Zammel!


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