Research

hug it out!

Making exhibitions requires a lot of teamwork, so I’ve been practicing sharing epic high-fives. Just the other day, K, R and I shared a spinning jump triple. That momentary gesture turned a feeling of mild accomplishment into floaty elation.

In “Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much,” (NYTimes.com, February 22, 2010) Benedict Carey examines the psychology and neuroscience of meaningful touches.

Momentary touches, [researchers] say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words….

“We used to think that touch only served to intensify communicated emotions,” Dr. [Matthew] Hertenstein [a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana] said. Now it turns out to be “a much more differentiated signaling system than we had imagined.

As an artist working with installation and phenomenology, I’m really interested in embodied experiences. As Lakoff & Johnson explain in “Metaphors We Live By,” metaphors are not merely linguistic devices, but cognitive tools; we think using metaphors grounded in our physical experience.

High-fives express shared excitement or accomplishment (“Nice one!”). It conveys that this experience is good, and yay for sharing it with me. It is harmless hedonism, of taking pleasure in the present. It’s dorky, hip, sweet, and maybe a little ironic, but maybe also infused with feel-good, unabashed enthusiasm (like Ugo Rodinone’s “Hell Yes!”). I hope I never feel too old to share a high-five.

As usual, I’d like to participate in an art world characterized by community and reciprocity. Supportive touches express mutuality; maybe more curators, artists, critics and collectors should be hugging it out.

…In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”

“We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”

Carey also quotes Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.” Incidentally, Keltner’s mentor was San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman, who was profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in an eye-opening article about emotions and facial expressions (“The Naked Face,” New Yorker, 2002). If you’ve heard of the wide, genuine, impossible-to-fake Duchenne smile, then you’ve been touched by Ekman’s influence.

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Research

Recent writing on art

Clear. Consistent. Coherent. Concise.
—A note seen taped to a journalist’s computer

As a writer, I’m more journalistic than academic. I’m drawn to elegant brevity. I believe that criticism can be both intellectually engaging and beautifully written. See examples below.

Excellent writing on art, culled from recent mainstream publications:

Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers” (NewYorker.com) October 20, 2008.
Why do we equate genius with precocity? Gladwell asks. He examines two case studies — Picasso (young genius) and Cezanne (late bloomer), and the writers Jonathan Safran Foer (young genius) and Ben Fountain (late bloomer) — and suggests the conventional wisdom that artistic talent is innate is a disservice to late bloomers, who require more time to mature and create their greatest work.

This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counselor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to accept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

Impressively, Gladwell arrived at a conclusion that no one likes to talk about, but is a difficult real-world lesson artists often learn along the way: Not only must late bloomers persevere for decades on end, so must their patrons — or, in the case of Ben Fountain, and many artists I know (ahem!) — their spouses and families.

Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.

…This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. … We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

Special Galleries issue, New York Times, November 14, 2008
Roberta Smith takes on Chelsea; Holland Cotter peruses the LowaEside; Karen Rosenberg pads around the Upper East Side; and Ken Johnson spanks Soho. OK, that last part isn’t true…. (or is it?)

I’d love to get this kind of expansive overview of New York galleries once a month, but I take what I can get. What I don’t understand is, why aren’t there more surveys of other cities’ art galleries, of comparable clarity, consistency, coherence and concision? Well, it’s New York, you argue. Exactly my point: There’s so many more galleries in New York, that reviewing a city like San Francisco should be a piece of cake.

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