Miracle Polish by Steven Milhauser

What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life.

See why Millhauser’s my new favorite fablist—read the short story, “Miracle Polish,” by Steven Millhauser on


Happiness, and the difference between desire and satisfaction.
The cave; seeing things as they are or how you want them to be.

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable)
mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable)
Art & Development

Expertise: All in due time

Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.

—Atul Gawande, “Personal Best.” New Yorker, October 3, 2011.

My first half-marathon, a few weeks ago, was exhilarating and grueling. I’m tackling another 13.1 miles this weekend in Staten Island.

Here’s a paradox: I’ll be better informed, faster, and stronger for this race. Yet I can also perceive more acutely how slow I am. I will, quite realistically and very literally, be at the back of the pack.

But as Gawande reminded me today, this is all part of a process. My unconscious incompetence has been revealed (and will continue to be revealed, I’m sure) so that my incompetence can be conscious at least. Like those clumsy, hairy, adolescent geese I used to see on my runs at Lake Merritt, this is a humbling, awkward phase, where there’s nothing to do but keep going, so that one might inhabit conscious competence one day.


Positive Psychology and Positive Thinking

In developing my exhibition, “Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors),” last spring, I studied positive psychology. During the closing dialogue, “As Is: Pop and Complicity” (read the transcript), I realized that the term positive psychology is easily confused with popular psychology—understandably, since the distinction is not entirely clear, when my readings of positive psychology take form in trade paperbacks—and positive thinking. Certainly, positive psychology is optimistic; through research-based cognitive behavior modification, it aims to increase happiness, and to engage in that kind of self-awareness and change is to embrace to possibility that one can positively change one’s attitudes. However, to mistake positive psychology for mere positive thinking is a mistake.

In “Power Lines: What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire?” (New Yorker, September 13, 2010), Kelefa Sanneh reviews two recent books on positive thinking. He takes a critical look at Rhonda Byrne, the positive thinking guru and author of “The Secret” (2007) and “The Power” (2010), starting off with Byrne’s appearance on Oprah. Maybe I’m an elitist, sheltered in a ‘Bay Area Bubble’ unconcerned with such mass culture, but the phenomenon of “The Secret” remained a secret to me until now. Is this what people think I mean when I say positive psychology?

Sanneh contrasts Byrne’s quasi-but-un-religious, ultra-simplistic mysticism with Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” (2009; also released with the more specific, less ‘sticky’ subtitle, “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking is Undermining America”). When the leftist activist fired this shot, it alarmed me, but as Sanneh points out,

For Ehrenreich, the alternative to the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of justice—except you don’t have to choose…. She promises that we can find a deeper, richer form of happiness by ‘shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.’

This, of course, brings to mind the three components, according to Paul Martin, author of “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate” (2008) of happiness: pleasure, the absence of displeasure, and satisfaction—becoming an agent, enacting one’s will in the world. Striving and accomplishing goals through acting in the world—not mere positive thinking—leads to deeper happiness? Yes, I’d agree with that. I am now more inclined to believe that Ehrenreich—whose undercover reports on working class struggle instantiated institutional privilege in America in “Nickel and Dimed” (2001) I enjoyed—is explicit in her aim at unthinking positive thinking, rather than all psychology concerned with happiness.

So while the terminology may overlap, along with the general optimistic outlook and “woo woo” self-improvement vibe, positive psychology and positive thinking are very different. For the latter, read Byrne and watch Oprah. For the former, read psychologists and researchers like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi.


Thank you for showing me what not to do

Ken, my printmaking professor, was great because he’d often demonstrate what not to do. Much of the time, he didn’t do it on purpose. In showing how to clean up an inkwell, for example, he might fumble a putty knife or splash the mineral spirits. But the gaffs were common, and it taught you how to recover when you invariably made the same mistakes. More importantly, Ken’s teaching was infused with kindness and good humor, and his unconventional ways were ultimately effective and valuable.

I am a big proponent of artists setting goals and identifying role models: Who do you look up to and why? Are they successful? Happy? Do they treat people around them well? Do they look like they’re having fun? Identifying and answering these questions for yourself helps to shape a vision for the kind of life in the arts that you want to lead.

On occasion, there are opportunities to identify negative traits and behaviors that you would not like to emulate. Perhaps these come courtesy of an unscrupulous colleague, who abuses the art field’s unsanctioned nature to claim a status that wasn’t actually gained. Or maybe a supervisor whose treatment of colleagues is unethical or morale-killing.

I choose to view the art world as a series of communities populated by bright, hard-working individuals who are in it because they appreciate art and want to share their enthusiasm. There are, unfortunately, unsavory individuals who would prove me wrong.

In the book “Why Smart Executives Fail,” Sydney Finkelstein, of Dartmouth, observes that “spectacularly unsuccessful” people (mere failure doesn’t qualify; you have to wreak havoc and ruin lives) have certain traits in common. These people see themselves and their companies as “dominating their environments.” They demand total allegiance and have the answer to every problem. (James Surowiecki, “Local Zeroes,” New Yorker, March 28, 2005)

These people are exceptional. It’s up to the rest of us to minimize the damage they do, and to defend the perception of artists, arts workers and the art field. We do that by upholding our values, and being vigilant, accountable, and optimistic.


More art, less story

Louis Menand’s in-depth look at the work of Andy Warhol in the current New Yorker Magazine (January 11, 2010) is stellar.

Warhol is easily one of the 20th century’s most popular artists; it’s too easy to underestimate the influence of his work, and as Menand argues, the philosophy and rigor behind it.

Menand calls conventional understandings of modernism into question, pitting Clement Greenberg against Arthur Danto. He includes some surprises: Pop pre-existed Warhol, our quintessentially American Pop artist had European influences, and the fundamental conceptual differences between the works of Duchamp and Warhol.

Especially when, as V puts it, periodicals are more interested in the story rather than the art, cheers to the New Yorker for their faith in the reader’s intelligence and interest in art history and criticism.

Art & Development

Here’s to women and risk-taking

Housewarming. The ribbons are embroidered with SoEx Rules.

Housewarming. The ribbons are embroidered with SoEx Rules.

CHEERS to the female-staffed SoEx, for successfully pulling off the grand opening of a beautiful permanent home.


CHEERS to Stephanie Syjuco, for successfully bridging her interest in black markets with a commercial art fair, to critical acclaim. It’s a dicey proposition to put other artists and galleries’ livelihood (and by extension, one’s own popularity and career if there’s a bad fallout) at stake but Stephanie forged (ahem!) ahead with a great idea, and it’s proven to be a timely commentary on the art market and the economic climate. Read about Copystand, her project at the Frieze Art Fair on and

These feats are admirable. It’s pretty extraordinary to be so committed to a vision and a practice. You could say that being an artist is like being a small business owner — the fact is, most people don’t have the stomach for the financial ups and downs, much less the creative ones.

There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.

Calvin Tompkin’s recent profile of contemporary artist Urs Fishcher in the New Yorker left me with two major takeaways. Curiously, they had nothing to do with art practice — Fischer seems too mercurial to extract much substance in that area. Rather, I was quite impressed with Urs Fischer as an organization.

Tompkins described a visit to Fischer’s studio, where the staff ate lunch — loaves of french bread and cheese — communally in the studio kitchen. I loved this. If I ever have staff, I’d like it to be the kind of work environment where a convivial meal is part of the day. (I’d add tea, fruit and chutney to the pantry.)

Second, Fischer employed close friends whose honesty and judgment he could rely on. Only very successful international artists can command fees that allow for full-time staff, yet I find the idea of paying people who I love and trust, and treating them well as colleagues, to be really beautiful and inspiring.

It’s wildly ambitious for me to imagine myself in Fischer’s shoes. Yet these mental notes form a welcome alternative to the model of the lone artist toiling away in isolation and struggle.