Citizenship, Research

Who gave us the right

Some of my more darker-themed artworks were inspired by the sort of pessimistic malaise seen in some recent contemporary art shows, and the related idea of the end of the American Century. More than just a form of liberal cynicism or the fatigue of constant moral outrage, I’m much more interested in an intellectual inquiry into why Americans should be skeptical the direction of our country, especially as both presidential candidates envision the US being the leader of the world.

So I was intrigued by Andrew J. Bacevich’s interview on WHYY’s Fresh Air (Sept. 11, 2008).

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel, discusses his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

He argues that pragmatic realism has always been the core of American foreign policy, and current politicians would do well to remember that.

Bacevich is both a military man and a Boston University professor. He speaks candidly about how he didn’t develop a political consciousness until after he left the military. His position, now, though, is one that opposes the US’ continued Cold War-style military “strategy” to dramatically reshape the greater Middle East, and how the American public is confusing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the more sinister War on Terror—in which the role of this country is more like one that polices the world, rather than coexisting in it with others. He was also highly critical of the Legislative branch for giving up so much power to the Executive branch. And in one exchange that was a welcome validation of leftist values, when host Terri Gross pressed the professor on what the US should be doing, in addition to diplomacy, he mentioned increasing student exchanges and cultural exchanges to improve the perception of the US and work against our isolation from the world.


ADDENDUM (added 9/26/08):

Roger Cohen’s op-ed, “Palin’s American Exception” (, Sept. 25, 2008) is a great primer on why exceptionalism is a suspect position these days. Cohen proposes that behind Palin’s emphatic embrace of exceptionalism is an enraged response to the decline of American power. He promotes universalism instead of exceptionalism, interconnectedness instead of separateness, and realism not rage.


doom and gloom

2008 seems to be the year of despair in contemporary art. I keep coming across exhibitions about uncertainty, failure and futility. Valerie Imus first brought it to my attention with her exhibition, Hopeless and Otherwise at Southern Exposure this past spring.

Recently, critic Peter Schejdahl wrote that the art world is “Feeing Blue” (New Yorker, August 4, 2008 ) in a review of After Nature at the New Museum:

Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change….

against happiness eric g wilson
Likewise, in publishing, it couldn’t be a better time for a book about melancholy. The graphic design of the book’s cover (an un-happy face rendered only with type and a flat field of color) is brilliant, but I’m afraid that the premise sounds suspect. Like the artist-character on NBC’s Heroes whose “super power” is shooting heroin and seeing psychic visions, the book seems to perpetuate the artist-as-suffering-genius myth.

While I welcome the return of sincerity over irony, I’m wary of politically-charged contemporary art accompanied by moralizing from on high. For example, in a recent round table discussion about Bay Area art, one’s birthplace, year of migration to the Bay Area, and knowledge of local histories were occasionally treated like forms of currency. They became special statuses. And special status plus basic political frameworks equals very easy critical positions, but not necessarily good or interesting art. There has to be a payoff.

This past summer, Smack Mellon‘s exhibition, There is no synonym for hope, seemed focused on uncertainty and failure, but importantly, it also acknowledged “the interrelationship of hope and failure.” Yes, that is the productive dialectical tension I’ve been talking about!

Art & Development, Research

Hope is rare

“In photometry, luminous flux … is the measure of the perceived power of light. It differs from radiant flux, the measure of the total power of light emitted, in that luminous flux is adjusted to reflect the varying sensitivity of the human eye to different wavelengths of light.”

Luminous flux accounts for the relativity of perception, in the same way that optimism and pessimism can flux from one to the other.

optimism and pessimism chart

I think of optimism and pessimism as inseparable poles, whose ambi-valent pulls are equally strong, producing a productive state of dialectical tension. But my latest work is premised on the idea that hope is rare and requires willpower, while pessimism is abundant and passive.

According to Adam Cohen, in his review of Joshua Foa Dienstag’s Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (, August 28, 2006), “Pessimism is not, as is commonly thought, about being depressed or misanthropic, and it does not hold that humanity is headed for disaster. It simply doubts the most basic liberal principle: that applying human reasoning to the world’s problems will have a positive effect.”

So it occurred to me that the metaphor of light and dark for optimism and pessimism lends itself to the idea that hope is rare and pessimism is abundant. Because light, which often represents hope, is rare — especially when you consider that only visible light connotes hope, while the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum bounces around and through us, constantly and imperceptibly.

Even the view that hope is rare may seem pessimistic. But rarity suggests a thing that becomes valued, cultivated, appreciated.


Good news in a time of financial tightening…

To be prosocial (which encapsulates philanthropy, activism and generosity) is to be optimistic that one’s contributions or behaviors matter. As Jim Giles wrote in the New Scientist (excerpts below) prosocial acts, not possessions, increase happiness. So acting towards material comforts might be asocial, reinforcing my idea that pessimism is tied to our meatspace reality and that our material reality is one of inadequacy and futility.

Money can buy happiness, but only if we spend it on others, say researchers behind a three-part psychology experiment.

The study is interesting because it suggests that the way money is spent may be more important than total income, which people often focus on as a source of happiness, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.

Lyubomirsky has recorded similar increases in happiness in students who were asked to perform acts of kindness, such as helping a friend with their homework.

She suggests that the reason may be due to the way we adapt to changes in our lives.

“Moving into a bigger house will give you a happiness boost, but you then get used to the house,” says Lyubomirsky. The same goes for other types of possessions.

Acts of kindness, by contrast, are more likely to produce unexpected positive outcomes, such as a favour performed in return. Prosocial acts also enhance our self-perception in a way that possessions do not, adds Lyubomirsky.

From Jim Giles’ “Give away your money and be happy,”, March 20, 2008