Art & Development, Research

Optimism the public art project, metaphors, gratitude, the identity of art

Reed Seifer, “a graphic artist and designer,” partnered up with Creative Time to put optimism—at least, the printed word—into the public’s pockets. See a photo and write-up: Michael M. Grynbaum’s article, “The Days May Be Grim, but Here’s a Good Word to Put in Your Pocket” (NYTimes, Nov. 19, 2009).

I’m all for optimism and public art in mundane settings. To be a bit critical, though, I think the ambiguity of a single word—any single word—seems very apparent in this project, maybe too much for my liking. That’s because the work appears in reproduction in an advertising space, and uses the tools of advertising (copywriting, concision, graphic design, mass production). It seems to be simultaneously a bit of marketing for optimism as well as marketing for itself as a single author’s project. If it is a work of conceptual art, I think it’s about as sticky as a chance procedure, as temporal as an incidental “piece.” While I’m interested in conceptual art, and I make idea-driven art, I’m pretty attached to how an art object embodies its idea.

While at times I’m acutely aware of the distance I feel from material reality / meatspace, I’m also accepting that our embodied selves inform how we understand the world. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1978) is proving to be a useful text for me. It outlines the orientational and ontological means of cognition that are rooted in our physical and phenomenological experiences.

I have been thinking about gratitude and generosity a lot lately. Some of this has to do with art practice; some of it concerns life.

I’ve maintained a gratitude journal—to record that which I am grateful for—for half a year now. I first learned of the practice during my residency in Manchester this Spring, when I researched positive psychology. I started it as much to satisfy my therapeutic curiosity (to see if gratitude journals would work and make me a happier person) and as part of my commitment, as an artist, to exploring optimism.

One thing I have learned, so far, is that gratitude begets generosity. I’m reminded that I’m a lucky person; that makes me feel happy, and I’m motivated to share that lightness of spirit. These small gestures—among friends, loved ones, co-workers—are nothing; merely the stuff of everyday life; utterly forgettable and yet, for the brief times they last, thoroughly pleasurable. These are truly modest pleasures.

These gestures aren’t art. Yes, they originated in, and feed, my art practice. There’s certainly art theory and practice about generosity. And I’m still interested in Lewis Hyde‘s notions of the gift as a tool for forming or reifying social bonds. So it had occurred to me that I could make art out of these gestures—shoot some photos, name them as pieces—but that needlessly complicates them. Without a name the gesture is not a Work. But as a not-Work the gesture remains as a gesture—temporal, simple, modest. I’m appreciative of these qualities. I had come to appreciate works that are nervily barely works; in this case I like gestures that are so slight they aren’t even works. So it seems like I’m—for the moment—interested in the practice of art practice, or maybe as Barthes might put it, the Text over the Work. Indeed, Barthes’ joissance—pleasure without separation, or the pleasurable loss of awareness of self—seems to correlate with Zimbardo’s keen interest on the loss of self in instances of “finding the flow” of activities (a modest pleasure itself).

One surefire way you could have made my eyes roll in art school is to pose the question, “Is this art?” This is a worthy discussion for young artists, but it’s can also be a tedious riddle, with no definitive answers and an overabundance of circular logic. Curiously, I’ve found myself uttering this same question in my work as a preparator. There are times you unpack a crate of art, and where the Art Object begins and ends is not always apparent. It’s funny to handle stray materials with white gloves, focus and care, until their identities are determined, and it becomes “safe” to handle them with bare hands, reintegrated as parts of the mundane material reality of everyday life.


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