Art & Development

2012: grow your intelligence

Psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton shares a nice thought about the optimism and pessimism of learning to carry into the new year. (Via Greater Good Science Center)

A key aspect of the “grow your intelligence message” is the implications it has for the experience of difficulty. If one believes that abilities and intelligence are fixed or wired in us, then experiencing difficulty on a task can only mean one thing: that one must not have the correct wiring, genetic makeup, or inherent ability to succeed at that task. It’s very easy to come to this conclusion in the face of failure: I received a message from a student of mine the other day who apologized for not doing well on an exam, and she remarked, “I must not be cut out for this.”

However, if one believes that intelligence is malleable and can grow with practice, then the very psychological meaning of difficulty changes: It now suggests you are activating your intelligence, that you are flexing and practicing your skills. Difficulty is to ability like water is to a growing plant; as such, you become resilient in the face of trouble.

[Note to self: Practice making art. Experiencing art. Having patience. Being kinder. Enacting principles. Reaching goals. Taking risks. Embracing adventure. Being grateful.]

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Research

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 NewYorker.com.

Why?

Mirrors.
Optimism.
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)
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Art & Development

Jonathan Haidt on the uses of adversity

In The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), psychology professor Jonathan Haidt explores the uses of adversity. His points seem to validate my issues with pundits’ declarations that the recession would be beneficial for artists (elaborated in “Portrait of an Artist, Wily and Engaged” on Art Practical). Haidt explains:

People need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest level of strength, fulfillment, and personal development

However, we oughtn’t

celebrate suffering, prescribe it for everyone, or minimize the moral imperative to reduce it where we can.

Based on numerous studies, Haidt concludes that some conditions for the uses of adversity can be inferred:

For adversity to be maximally beneficial, it should happen at the right time (young adulthood), to the right people (those with the social and psychological resources to rise to the challenges and find benefits) and to the right degree (not so severe as to cause PTSD).

To refine my position by way of paraphrasing Haidt, it’s inappropriate to celebrate the adversities that artists endure during recessions, especially considering the artists who lack the social and psychological resources, or find the adversities too severe, to continue practicing art.

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Citizenship

oakland: my fair city

I have a lot of love for Oakland, California, where I lived from 1994 to 2010. Here are a few new reasons to love Oakland:

General Strike poster

Love this General Strike poster. The illustrations, typography, and colors are pitch-perfect. Hard to make out the artist's name: R. Black? Source: OccupyOakland.org.

John Robb, from Fairfax, California, managed almost singlehandedly to shut down a Chase bank branch.

"John Robb, from Fairfax, California, managed almost singlehandedly to shut down a Chase bank branch" reported Adam Gabbatt, blogger for the Guardian (UK). Photograph: Adam Gabbatt/guardian.co.uk

“I got here at 10.30am, one my own,” Robb told the Guardian from his position seated in front of the entrance.

“Security kept pushing me away, but I stayed by myself for another 30 minutes. Then someone else arrived, they still pushed us away. Then the big march came past and we called everyone over, they came and the bank locked the doors.”

…Some protesters voiced their desire to smash the bank’s windows; other protesters stood in front of the bank and prevented them from doing so.

(As told to Adam Gabbatt for the Guardian, Nov. 2, 2011)

Skeptics demanding OWS’ demands ought consider this:

Occupy Oakland shuts down a Chase bank during today's General Strike.

Occupy Oakland shuts down a Chase bank during today's General Strike. (Source: Facebook, photographer unconfirmed.)

I think the message is pretty clear. If this doesn’t do it, how about this: We’re fed up with Big Banks, Wall Street, and rising inequity that grossly rewards the top 1%.

Not in Oakland, but it's a solidarity movement. This Brooklyn Bridge occupier's irresistible optimism is positively winsome. Source: OccupyWallStreet.org

Not in Oakland, but it's a solidarity movement. This Brooklyn Bridge occupier's irresistible optimism is positively winsome. Source: OccupyWallStreet.org

This photo is from a movingly penned post which proclaims:

And in our own backyard, in thousands of backyards, from Augusta and Jackson, Springfield and Sioux Falls, Vegas and Santa Rosa* and Green Bay: Americans celebrated the occupation in its infancy. Jobs with dignity. Housing fit for families. Education. Health care. Pensions. The very air we breathe. What can those who want democracy demand from the king, except his crown? Regime change is in the air. America is looking at itself, it’s place in the world and who we are to be.

This is not a demonstration. It’s participation.

(—Jed Brandt and Michael Levitin, originally printed in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, and reposted on occupywallst.org.)

(*My first hometown!)

Plus…

OWS artwork by the illustrious JL. Source: @justinlimoges.

Hallow's Eve papercut by the illustrious JL. Source: @justinlimoges.

While 10,000+ occupiers were reported to peacefully protest all day yesterday, an unruly few have marred the nonviolence with acts of vandalism, early the following morning. Once again Adam Gabbatt from the Guardian reports:

Adam Gabbat for the Guardian: "10.33am GMT: Some of the Occupy protesters have been repairing the damage done by a small group of people who did employ violence." Posted about 30 minutes after another posting about the "third use of tear gas," presumably the haze in the photo? (Photo: Adam Gabbatt; source: Guardian.co.uk.)

Adam Gabbat for the Guardian: "10.33am GMT: Some of the Occupy protesters have been repairing the damage done by a small group of people who did employ violence." Posted about 30 minutes after another posting about the "third use of tear gas," presumably the haze in the photo? (Photo: Adam Gabbatt; source: Guardian.co.uk.)

I suppose the saying about spilt milk could be updated in regards to broken glass. Still, the intention to make amends—however futile—for those who don’t understand the reasoning behind a nonviolent strike, is heartening. Cynics may lump all of Oakland and her protestors together, but they act independently, and many, as we see above, act with good intentions.

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News

Through 8/31: Window Work @ DXDX Studio, Plymouth, UK

Have a look! One of my Positive Signs has been interpreted as a window drawing in Plymouth, UK.

Window Work, DXDX Studio, Plymouth, UK

Window Work, DXDX Studio, Plymouth, UK

WINDOW WORK is a programme of artworks in a display window of an artist run studio space.

The current WINDOW WORK project asks artists (through an open call submission process) to propose a text work, diagram, drawing, instruction piece, design etc that can easily be drawn (translated) onto the main studio window using chalk pens.

The selected works are drawn/traced/copied onto the window by studio members who follow simple instructions provided by the artist.

Window Work
8/16–8/31
DXDX Studio

Regent Street, Plymouth, UK

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Research

Highlights from the Positive Psychology conference

Last weekend I attended the International Positive Psychology Association’s Second World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia, PA, with the support of a Travel and Study Grant from the Jerome Foundation. It was an invigorating experience. I gained new concepts, an inspired list of books to read, and a clearer understanding of this growing field.

Positive psychology is a new realm; I’ve encountered skepticism of it based on its name only. But the conference (which I’ll call ‘IPPA,’ pronounced “IH-pah”) featured rigorous empirical researchers and practitioners across clinical psychology, education, business, and the humanities. With 1,200 whip-smart attendees from 62 countries, I felt as though I was part of an emergent domain that will revolutionize psychology as well as culture. I’ve been reading books about positive psychology since 2009; IPPA made me excited to learn more and help advance the field as it intersects with the arts and humanities.

What is positive psychology? Perhaps this is best explained via the words of its founding psychologists, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000), as quoted by Robert Vallerand:

“Psychology should document how people’s lives can be most worth living.”

To paraphrase James Pawelski, IPPA President as well as the Director of Education and Senior Scholar at the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at UPenn, one of the leading centers of research and scholarship:

Positive psychology is not merely a psychology for sunny days. It is also a psychology for rainy days…. [As a young person witnessing the aftermath of the recent terrorist acts in Norway said,] ‘If one man can create so much hate and death, how much good can we create together?’

I think it was also Pawelski, in discussing the positive turn in humanities, who expressed that

We see positive psychology as balancing (negative) psychology

which for the 20th century has been fixated on trauma, illness, and pathology. As in physical medicine, it is high time to expand beyond treatment towards wellbeing. As Chris Peterson put it:

“Health is more than the absence of illness”

and so too, psychological wellbeing is more than the absence of pathology. The positive psychology view according to Martin Seligman is that

People are not driven by the past, but can be drawn to the future.

Again, Pawelski:

Rather than seeing the positive as simplistic, positive psychology makes the positive more complex.

What I looked forward to. Many of my drawings in the Positive Signs series, as well as some concepts in my essays on Art Practical, were inspired by Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity. During my residency at Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild immediately preceding IPPA, I read Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. So I was very excited to hear Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi speak.

Seligman (left) and Csikszentmihalyi (right) are named IPPA Fellows.

Seligman (left) and Csikszentmihalyi (right) are named IPPA Fellows.

I was also excited to meet potential partners, especially those whose work intersects with the arts. I suspect that principles of positive psychology can be useful for contemporary artists by informing:

processes, by becoming aware of flow activities;

artwork, via increased understanding of relationships created in the art viewing experience and new theories of phenomenology; and

attitudes, especially in regards to experiencing career setbacks and successes.

Highlights. I was very excited about:

Clearer definitions. University of Illinois researcher Ed Diener identified

preconditions of happiness as optimism, positive experiences, and lack of negative affect.

Gallup Scientist in Residence Shane Lopez pinpoints hope.

“Hope is goal-directed thinking (goals thinking) in which people perceive that they can produce routes to desired goals (pathways thinking) and the requisite motivation to use those routes (agency thinking).

Hope — The ideas and energy we have for the future.

High hope people believe that the future will be better than the present and that they have the power to make it so.”

Matt Gallagher, a clinical psychology researcher at the University of Kansas, distinguishes between hope and optimism:

Hope (Snyder) — Agency and pathways towards goals

Optimism (Scheier & Carver) — Globalized positive/negative expectancies

Emphasis on personal agency [is the] crucial difference

Matthew Gallagher's research on the unique effects of hope and optimism on wellbeing.

Matthew Gallagher's research on the unique effects of hope and optimism on wellbeing.

He also explained the difference thusly:

When you mash optimism and self-efficacy together, you get hope.

Erica Chadwick, PhD candidate from the Victoria University of Wellington, shared this definition of savoring from Fred B. Byrant and Joseph Veroff (2007):

If a savoring process is elicited when a positive emotion is experienced, then savoring could well be the mediating mechanism through which a person’s cognitive repertoire is expanded when a positive emotion is experienced. Furthermore, when people savor, they often broaden the range of feelings they can have and contexts in which these feelings can occur.

Happiness is not frivolous. Hope can’t wait.

Lopez’s Gallup studies revealed that

Hope, engagement, and wellbeing do not correlate to income.

Clearly this is not an argument against equity, but a call to foster hope without delay. That’s because, as Lopez pointed out,

“When we link ourselves to the future, we behave better today.”

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) is a fundamental psychology concept visually represented as a pyramid. The idea is that basic needs must be met first, and in order of importance, with self-actualization as the pinnacle—and endmost—need.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Source: Wikipedia)

At IPPA, Diener argued that

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be addressed at all levels, not necessarily in the order Maslow suggested.

Ed Diener's revision of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with the needs congruent and concurrent.

Ed Diener's revision of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with basic needs side-by-side with psychological needs.

Edward Deci, who studies self-determination theory, focused on

three basic human needs: the need to express competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which can be intrinsic, extrinsic, or emotionally motivated. Extrinsic motivations can actually undermine intrinsic motivations for engaging activities.

Edward Deci's Self-Determination Theory describes three basic psychological needs. Competence is the sense of effectance and confidence in ones's context. Autonomy is to behave in accord with abiding vaules and interests, and engage actions that would be relatively self-endorsed. Relatedness is feeling cared for, connected to, and having a sense of belonging with others.

Edward Deci's Self-Determination Theory describes three basic psychological needs. Competence is the sense of effectance and confidence in ones's context. Autonomy is to behave in accord with abiding vaules and interests, and engage actions that would be relatively self-endorsed. Relatedness is feeling cared for, connected to, and having a sense of belonging with others.

I especially appreciated Deci’s point that

Autonomy does not mean complete independence; you can be autonomously dependent

because that points to how artists can be autonomous and forge their own paths with the support and encouragement of their peers.

This sentiment was echoed by Karen Skerrett, who studies qualities of resilience in couple relationships:

Resilience is not self-sufficiency.

Deci added that

To foster greater internalization, create social contexts that allow people to feel competent, autonomous, and related. But it must fit with who people are

Which seems like a worthwhile consideration for artists developing participatory and relational projects.

Diener also identified,

“The number one predictor of enjoyment: ‘I learned new things, and I got to use my new skills today.’

In advance of a positive criticality. Since even my wholly optimistic work can inspire projections of skepticism, I was especially keen to hear Pawelski share Csikszentmihalyi’s opinion that

Positive psychology is a metaphysical orientation towards the positive. In other words, the positive is just as real as the negative.

Dan Moores illustrated this with a humorous talk called Ecstatic Poetry and the Limits of Suspicion. In it, he conveyed

we have a hermeneutics [study of interpretation] of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), while lacking a hermeneutics of affirmation.  

Such a hermeneutics disserves

“The ecstatic poetic tradition [which] connects many cultures and reaches across vast stretches of time. It represents a positive affirmation of the values of happiness, human connections, festivities, and relatedness to transcendent sources of meaning. The tradition contains countless poems depicting peak states of being and positive, life-affirming emotions, such as serenity, awe, wonder, rapture, joy, gratitude, and love. Such poetry is written in praise of the goodness of life, the abundance of nature, and the intimate interrelation of the whole cosmos.”

Unsurprisingly, Moores shared a Romantic poem. This spurred a sense that contemporary art trends that revisit Romanticism and Transcendentalism (the “New Sincerity”) may find inspiration in this intersection of positive psychology and humanities, if the scientific approach isn’t too much at odds with the intuitive nature of such artmaking.

Elevation and awe. Jonathan Haidt, who studies moral political psychology, presented research

on emotion and elevation, correlating ‘up’ with altruism and admiration

Jonathan Haidt's chart showing how Elevation and Disgust are Opposites. People moving up blurs the human/animal divide, stirs unpleasant physical feelings in the gut, and motivates people to separate, close off, and reject, so is negative. People moving up blurs the human/god divide, providing a warm glow in the chest, and motivates toward merging, opening up, and copying virtuous example, and so is positive.

Jonathan Haidt's chart showing how Elevation and Disgust are Opposites. People moving up blurs the human/animal divide, stirs unpleasant physical feelings in the gut, and motivates people to separate, close off, and reject, so is negative. People moving up blurs the human/god divide, providing a warm glow in the chest, and motivates toward merging, opening up, and copying virtuous example, and so is positive.

It’s similar to the up-down cognitive metaphors in Lakoff/Johnson’s linguistics, which I diagrammed in Positive Sign #24.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #24 (Conceptual Metaphors), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #24 (Conceptual Metaphors), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm. Source: blog.sfmoma.org.

Veronika Huta, who studies awe, inspiration, and transcendence at the University of Ottowa, independently confirmed that

Elevation is correlated with, and is an indicator of, virtuous, pro-social behavior.

Connecting neo-Romantic art and studies of awe was UPenn graduate student Ann Marie Roepke’s diagram relating horror and awe, similar to the 19th century view of the sublime.

horrow/awe to need for accommodation to growth.

Slide by Anne Marie Roepke showing horrow/awe to need for accommodation to growth.

Passion. Robert Vallerand, from the University of Montreal, studies obsessive and harmonious passion.

Harmonious passion manifests as a strong desire to engage in the activity that remains under the person's control. The person can choose when to and when not to engage in the activity. It is in harmony with the person's other activities and life contexts, and it leads to positive emotional experience and to flexible persistence.

Robert Vallerand describes harmonious passion as a strong desire to engage in the activity that remains under the person's control. The person can choose when to and when not to engage in the activity. It is in harmony with the person's other activities and life contexts, and it leads to positive emotional experience and to flexible persistence.

Robert Vallerand describes obsessive passion as a strong desire to engage in the activity that eventually gets out of control. The person can't help him or herself; the passion must run its course. It creates conflict with the person's other activities, and leads to negative emotional consequences and to rigid persistence.

Vallerand describes obsessive passion as a strong desire to engage in the activity that eventually gets out of control. The person can't help him or herself; the passion must run its course. It creates conflict with the person's other activities, and leads to negative emotional consequences and to rigid persistence.

There’s a clear analogy to the arts here, where artists may develop a detrimental obsessive passion driven by extrinsic motivators, rather than a harmonious passion fueled by intrinsic motivation that leads towards increased subjective wellbeing.

Robert Vallerand shows that obsessive passion and harmonious passion can both lead to performance, but only harmonious passion will include enhanced subjective wellbeing.

Vallerand found that obsessive passion and harmonious passion can both lead to deliberate practice and performance, but only harmonious passion will include enhanced subjective wellbeing.

Since I think emerging artists can put pressure themselves to see extrinsic rewards to their progress, Vallerand’s final message seems especially relevant.

Vallerand's take home messages: Try to cultivate harmonious passion for one activity. Take the activity seriously without taking yourself seriously. Include other fun activities in your life. Understand the functionality of obsessive passion. Learn from setbacks, improve and grow within the activity.

Vallerand's take home messages: Try to cultivate harmonious passion for one activity. Take the activity seriously without taking yourself seriously. Include other fun activities in your life. Understand the functionality of obsessive passion. Learn from setbacks, improve and grow within the activity.

Information graphics. What follows is a sampling of visuals which appealed to me.

Hans Henrik Knoop's flow chart linking wellbeing, learning, and creativity, delightfully overlaid on a fountain.

Hans Henrik Knoop's flow chart linking wellbeing, learning, and creativity, delightfully overlaid on a fountain.

Neural synchrony imaged by Stephens, Silbert and Hasson, displayed in a talk by Barbara Friedrickson.

Neural synchrony imaged by Stephens, Silbert and Hasson, displayed in a talk by Barbara Friedrickson.

Sara L. Trescott presented a poster entitled Pain and Happiness: A Shifting Mathematical and Psychological Paradigm.

Sara L. Trescott presented a poster entitled Pain and Happiness: A Shifting Mathematical and Psychological Paradigm.

The most frequently presented graphic seemed to be a flow chart whose correlations are represented in nominal tenths or hundredths, rather than the visual hierarchies I would have preferred. It might well be a data-minded scientific idiom. Perhaps visual representation would be misconstrued as non-empirical shorthand.

I believe this is Lucia Helena Walendy De Freitas' poster on The Influence of Optimism on Subjective Wellbeing: A Study Based on College Students and Workers Samples.

I believe this is Lucia Helena Walendy De Freitas' poster on The Influence of Optimism on Subjective Wellbeing: A Study Based on College Students and Workers Samples.

Bee Teng Lim's Powerpoint flow chart showing the impact of amplifying savoring.

Bee Teng Lim's Powerpoint flow chart showing the impact of amplifying savoring.

These graphics, indeed, the positive psychology endeavor as a whole—recall a passage from Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in which the author responds to an engineer’s algebraic formula:

“I was struck by how impoverished ordinary language can be by contrast, requiring its user to arrange inordinate numbers of words in tottering and unstable piles in order to communicate meanings more infinitely more basic than anything related to an electrical network. I found myself wishing that the rest of mankind would follow the engineers’ example and agree on a series of symbols which could point incontrovertibly to certain elusive, vaporous and often painful psychological states—a code which might help us feel less tongue-tied and less lonely, and enable us to resolve arguments with swift and silent exchanges of equations.”

Two projects deserve special recognition for employing terrific graphic design. Both were large-scale public initiatives promoting wellbeing, thus the success of the endeavors was dependent on accessible design and copywriting.

Nic Marks discussed a project with new economics foundation promoting wellbeing in London.

Nic Marks presented Do-It-Yourself Happiness, a Well London project.

Nic Marks presented Do-It-Yourself Happiness, a Well London project.

Plus, Marks conducted a drawing exercise in which workshop attendees drew each other without looking at their papers, which enacted the five steps the public initiative promoted. I loved the exercise, as participants’ responses were immediate, hilarious, and relational.

Participant's blind portrait of another participant.

Participant's blind portrait of another participant.

Chris Peterson and Nansook Park, both from the University of Michigan, shared their ___ Makes Life Worth Living campaign, a university-wide year theme. Students wore t-shirts with the blanks filled in.

___ Makes Life Worth Living.

Conference photos. And inspired by Richard Baker’s quiet and stirring photographs in Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I clicked a few images documenting the visual vocabulary of the conference.

Post Reception Still Life

Applied Positive Psychology symposium.

Poster Session 1

Stripes

Poster Session.

Gina Haines' poster on positive psychology and phenomenology featured a foil mirror.

Gina Haines' poster on positive psychology and phenomenology featured a foil mirror.

Certificate of Attendence

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Art & Development

points of reference, starting with the rückenfigur

Yesterday with ABC, I re-visited Glenn Ligon: America, the beautiful mid-career survey at the Whitney. It’s a stellar show, and I experienced anew this installation:

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source: Whitney.org.

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source: Whitney.org.

The word rückenfigur refers to portraits with figures looking at a landscape with one’s back to the viewer, as in the famous Caspar David Friedrich painting below. Rückenfigur is one of Ligon’s  masterful America neons, and it’s an elegant use of text, in title and in form. Ligon’s neon features individually-reversed letters; the word is clearly “America” at first glance, but it is not backwards, yet individual letters, like the “R” and “C,” clearly are. This causes an experience of uncertainty, of not comprehending what is plain before you, similar to trying to grasp the vast culture of the US.

Additionally, the sign is painted black on the back side; viewers see no soft glow on the wall, just hard linear neon, an effect that is extremely rare among this nearly ubiquitous type of sign. Listen to the audio guide that accompanies this work.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source: Wikipedia.org.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source: Wikipedia.org.

The rückenfigur also appears in Ligon’s self-portraits, installed as a series of five photographs rendered in screenprint on canvas. Of the five images, four are of the back of the artist’s head.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist  ©Glenn Ligon. Source: Whitney.org.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist ©Glenn Ligon. Source: Whitney.org.

ABC—always an inquisitive and passionate interlocutor—and I discussed these images. She guessed that they were gestures of turning towards a landscape of sorts. I surmised that the artist was giving us his back, refusing to be identified, pinned down, or boxed in, or perhaps, embracing or representing the anonymity or blankness of social perceptions. They seemed to be about ambivalence, or making the viewer project his or her own assumptions onto the image to me.

Ligon is an artist of remarkable subtlety; the exhibition tells a compelling story about an artist who expresses pointed political stances through others’ language. The show is gorgeously paced and installed; I even became fond of the Marcel Breuer-designed galleries, to which I was indifferent to (though I’ve always loved the lobby, with its grid of chandeliers with half-silvered bulbs). America continues through June 5 at the Whitney, then travels to LACMA in the fall of 2011 and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012. Mark your calendars.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

In thinking about the rückenfigur, and the negation of turning one’s back, I recalled the Claude glass, or black mirror, which I’ve blogged about before. The Claude glass is a pocket mirror of black glass that Romantic painters would use to restrict the tonal range of the landscape. To use the mirror, painters would turn their backs to the landscape and reflect the landscape in the glass. They’d paint the reflection, not the actual landscape.

Thanks to Google Images, I came across a series of beautiful photographs of a Claude glass in action by Carter Seddon. The site is under construction, but if these photos are any indication, I’d advise: Get it together; the pictures are good.

 Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror” single comes to mind. View the arcane and lovely filmic video on YouTube.

Detail, untitled, 2008, site-specific window intervention: window film, gels, acetate

Late one night in 2008, I was installing Activist Imagination at Kearny Street Workshop. One of my projects required tinting a window with black film. After nightfall it was much easier to see my reflection than it was to see what I was doing. The Arcade Fire single came on, and my mood surged; I was overjoyed by the coincidence.

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).

Memory and time…. Earlier today, I participated in the artist’s talk for The Black Portrait at Rush Arts Gallery in NYC. It’s an exhibition to which I contributed mirrorsblackportrait, a kinetic sculpture of two mirrors, one painted black on top, one painted black on bottom. During the talk, I mentioned the Claude glass, and the idea that suppressing perceptions might have the paradoxical effect of opening up a space for viewer’s experiences. Then, I had the good fortune of receiving kind and thoughtful feedback from other artists in the show. KO told me that as the sculpture turned, his mind stitched the memory of the lower reflection with the memory of the upper reflection. SS added that in revisiting a memory, it becomes strengthened. In this sense the work is also about time and recognition.

KO also mentioned a fascinating project of his involving flea markets, and how the lives of objects often outlast the lives of their owners. This reminded my of my favorite Daniel Spöerri quote, which is just as fresh and relevant to my practice now, as it was when I first read it five years ago:

We are all fetishists snared by the object…. The object is the vehicle of the affections… until they reach the flea markets of the world, where these objects continually pile up stripped of their magic and cut off from the memory of their history… All that remains of these preserves is the container the artists made for the time, the “can” the preserves came in…. The container will never interest me as much as the contained, but where would I pour my wine without a glass?—and it is in between these two poles of the inseparability of the two that my anxiety of finding a definite solution will oscillate, which could be interpreted positively as the desire for instability and change.

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

To this, SS added her memories of going to the racetrack as a child. She recalls it as a site populated by outsiders, rife with belief in luck, superstitions and talismans. The idea of imbuing an object with magic or meaning carries over in to so much of what artists aspire to do.

Another attempt to refine a sensibility: CV recently pointed out that my work is not about optimism and pessimism per se, but that it’s about the moment of discovery. I think she meant that my work offers experiences that elicit responses, which highlight optimistic or pessimistic tendencies.

As my work has shifted towards happiness and sentiment, I’ve encountered skepticism—disbelief of my earnestness. And as a viewer, I am not always sympathetic to earnest works of art. Social practice gardening, for example, can seem a bit cutesy, and not very thought-provoking to me. So how could I expect or encourage viewers to take my earnestness at face value, and to not assume that sincerity is antipathetic towards criticality?

I recently posed two questions, and received two very good responses from friends. As I interpret it, AV answered in terms of what an artist or his/her work of art should exhibit to a viewer.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AV: Genuine commitment.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AV: Naive idealism.

AR answered with what a viewer should bring to the work of art.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AR: Courage.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AR: Fear.

Demonstrating genuine commitment in my inquiry seems like a more tangible goal than cultivating courage in viewers.

Whimsy, earnestness, sentiment and insignificance… On a somewhat related note, I recently came across Charlotte Taylor’s 2005 article in Frieze about whimsy. The article counterposes The Believer‘s intellectual whimsy against n+1. In the process, Taylor identified these observations:

…whimsy triumphs when the import of the apparently insignificant and the relevance of the random are discovered.

Like camp, intellectual whimsy is not best understood as ironic: it places a premium on unabashed sincerity while at the same time treading a fine line of self-parody. It often signals this self-parody by appropriating typographical and design conventions from the past… The provocative or unexpected becomes the precious….

For the editors of n+1 whimsy signals a dismaying lack of conviction and encourages the conspicuous squandering of energy on trivialities rather than issues of substance….

Wes Anderson’s films are whimsical because their unexpected juxtapositions are imbued with sentimental significance.

…whimsy values the ability to appreciate the aesthetic harmony possible among myriad incongruent objects. It draws attention to the act of perception and the sensibility of the perceiver. This is why intellectual whimsy can readily become grating—it invites you to be pleased by the innovations of another person’s taste.

Ironically, the style of these Points of Reference posts is to draw connections between seemingly incongruous ideas. Though I’m still sorting them out, I believe these points relate and that finding their similarities can be a productive exercise to advance my studio practice. I’ll leave you with a paraphrased quote, from today’s NYT video of friends pitching in to save one Alabama man’s house from flooding. As they built levees against a rising river, a friend expressed, without contradiction, his simultaneous feelings of futility and determination:

It may seem like a wasted effort. But it would not be for lack of effort.

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Shop Talk feature in Art Practical, and conversation @ SFMOMA

Shop Talk is a series of articles in Art Practical and conversations at SFMOMA about artists’ survival strategies.

MY FEATURE IN ART PRACTICAL

I’m a proud contributor. I had the pleasure of interviewing artists Tattfoo Tan, Amanda Curreri, and Torreya Cummings and collaborative Earthbound Moon to develop a feature story for “Portrait of an Artist, Wily and Engaged,” published on Art Practical today. The feature focuses on strategic optimism, bridging some of my research in the ongoing Positive Signs series on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog.

5/12: CONVERSATION

And, if you’re free, talk about the issues at SFMOMA next Thursday…

Thursday, May 12, 7pm
Shop Talk: Part Three
“What are the economic realities that artists face?”
With presentations by the artist team Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert, artist Cheryl Meeker, and writer Lara Durback.

Please join Open Space and the online journal Art Practical on May 12th for the final installment of our three-part series of conversations considering the survival strategies artists develop and adopt to further the social reach of the aesthetic and critical capacities of their work, as well as gain recognition and financial viability.

Koret Visitor Education Center
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA

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