Sign post encountered on a hike in New Zealand

Jim Collins is a business writer whose target audience is usually not visual artists. But wisdom has leaky margins and the best crosses the categories. In a recent essay Collins writes:

A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit— to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.

Another business author, Matthew May, has his own anecdote of this wisdom:

I was working closely with the senior leadership of a very large and successful Japanese company. I had been hired to help it develop new ideas and strategies in the United States, but was struggling with a particularly difficult project that required me to reconcile two completely different perspectives. (Eastern and Western ways of thinking are often at odds with each other.) I found myself at a standstill.

I must not have done a very good job of hiding how useless I was feeling, because a 2,500-year-old snippet of Chinese philosophy found its way to me anonymously, via a handwritten note on a Post-it stuck to my work space.

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day,” it said, capsulizing teachings of Lao Tzu. “Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

My first thought was, “Someone wants me gone — I’d be more useful that way.” But as I read it again and thought about it, lightning struck.

It dawned on me that I’d been looking at my problem in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive, I had been looking at what to do, rather than what not to do. But as soon as I shifted my perspective, I was able to complete the project successfully.

Even though the idea of subtracting things every day was thousands of years old, it was still radical to me.

To complete this trifecta of business wisdom that is also useful for creatives, here is Amber Johnson‘s report on how Mike McAvoy, president of the satirical news source, The Onion, views this issue:

It’s this business process of “whittling down” ideas that is most transferable to other companies, McAvoy told the audience. He offered a simple two-step process: “First, get a lot of good ideas. Then reduce, reduce, reduce so your final ideas are really great.”

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary”. As so many pithy statements go, stating it simply does not make it easy.

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A universe emerging in the surface of a pan: Still in search of mastery

Once we have acquired a certain level of expertise at a task, it is easy to just go into autopilot. Some call that place the “OK Plateau”—where good enough is good enough, and there really isn’t much intrinsic motivation to improve our skills. I am in OK Plateau when I drive, clean my house or do my taxes. There’s just no reason to try to get better at any of those tasks.

But what about those areas of expertise where getting better does matter, those skills where becoming exceptional is important to us? Certain tasks in the making of art are so familiar to me after all these years, and it is easy to slide into a “good enough” place with those skills if I’m not careful. Autopilot is a state of being unconscious, and opportunities to push at and explore new territories can go unnoticed.

When you are operating in that autonomous space you don’t have conscious control of what you are doing, and most of the time that’s a good thing, says science writer Joshua Foer. Your conscious mind has one less thing to worry about. But the downside is that the OK Plateau puts a barrier between you and your desire to develop a skill that is exceptional.

From Foer:

What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which [Anders] Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive stage.”

In exploring Foer’s ideas, Maria Popova has pointed out that the mere amount of practice has little to do with improvement. It is a deliberateness that drives progress, not the actual time spent developing a skill set. The best way to transcend the OK Plauteau says Popova is to “cultivate conscious control over the thing we’re practicing and, above all, to actually practice failing. Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.” To get really good at something, regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, you have to see where you fail, and learn from the mistakes.

The bottom line: How you conduct your “practice” is much more important than the amount of time you put in. The oft-quoted Malcolm Gladwell claim that mastery requires 10,000 hours just isn’t the full story. Deliberate practice means staying conscious and tracking down the weaknesses. Tenaciously.

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Slow accretion of ice on a window in winter

Note: The following post is pulled from the Slow Muse archives. What caught me on the reread was the note left by David Foster Wallace with his final manuscript: “Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

This is a provocative thought, but I’m not sure I understand what he is saying or that I agree. I am one of those who avoid the tedious with such tenacity, inventing different routes home and shifting my patterns constantly just so it doesn’t seem rote. Riding this out as he suggests is hard for me to fathom, but perhaps you will see it differently.

An essay in the Times Book Review by Jennifer Schuessler has a provocative topic: Boredom.

Ah, that dreaded word. Full of moral implications. Antithetical to everything I learned (and probably inherited through epigenetics) from my pioneer heritage. You never left yourself get bored, and you never admit if for some reason you do. NEVER.

As Schuessler points out, “As a general state of mind, boredom is morally suspect, threatening to shine its dull light back on the person who invokes it. ‘The only horrible thing in the world is ­ennui,’ Oscar Wilde once wrote, suggesting that boredom doesn’t feel much better in French. ‘That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.’”

In fact, says Schuessler, boredom has some benefits. Brain research suggests that when we are awake but not doing anything in particular, our central processors are churning along, particularly in those parts responsible for memory, empathy with others and imagining hypothetical events—in other words, many of the skills needed for a successful literary experience. Hmmm. Something to consider.

Schuessler makes the discussion lively:

It’s common to decry our collective thaasophobia, or fear of boredom, manifested in our addiction to iPhone apps, the cable news crawl and ever mutating varieties of multitasking. One cellphone company has even promoted the idea of ­“microboredom,” which refers to those moments of inactivity that occur when we’re, say, stuck waiting in line for a latte without our BlackBerry. But novelists, for all their own fears of being dismissed as boring, continue to offer some bold resistance to the broader culture’s zero-tolerance boredom eradication program.

Bringing the discussion around to books, Schuessler highlights the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace‘s unfinished manuscript, The Pale King:

“The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, is about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro…For all the mundanity of its subject matter, the excerpt presents boredom as something more strenuous and exalted than the friendly helper depicted by the neuroscientists, keeping our minds revved up even when we think we’re idling. Boredom isn’t just good for your brain. It’s good for your soul. “Bliss—a second-by-­second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom,” Wallace wrote in a note left with the manuscript. “Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

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Dave Hickey
Dave Hickey (Photo: Nasher Museum Of Art)

Most of us have a list of our “personal perennials”—those writers, artists and musicians whose works continue to delight, engage, astound, connect. My loyalty to my list runs deep, and there is nothing you could say to sway me from my devotions. They are my inner circle, my carefully selected cotravelers.

Bad boy and art critic Dave Hickey is on that list. My copies of his books, from Air Guitar to The Invisible Dragon to his latest, Pirates and Farmers, have underlining and comments scribbled on every page, their covers crinkled from repeated reading. Some people I know are tired of his tirades and his over the top condemnation of the monied art world, academia, phonies and bad art passing as good art. I get that.

But here’s the thing: For those of us who approach art making with a larger than life devotion and seriousness that has more in common with spiritual aspirants than with hip urbanites, this is a hard time to be an art maker. Money, glamorous commodification, ego and market manipulation increasingly drive the stratospheric world of gallerizing, auctioning and art fairing. More Wall Street than Rothko’s Chapel, that world’s glitter garners visibility and fascination because it is so excessive.

Nothing that happens in that realm however has anything to do with what many of us spend our days doing. If devotion to your work is what you do, you do it quietly and without fanfare. Hickey’s insouciance serves to clear the air of that ambient toxicity. Reading him actually helps me stay focused and steady in my work.

In this latest collection of essays Hickey writes about the difference between the art of Southern California and New York City, particularly during the Minimalisms (they are different) that emerged in the 1970s. He writes about Las Vegas, art collecting, taste, style and the difficulty in assessing the quality of a work of art. Through it all, he is wild and he is funny.

Here’s Hickey doing one of his Hickey things from the book title’s essay:

All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers. They are very different kinds of creatures, and some pirates even recognize the importance of farmers…Farmers on the other hand, always hate pirates…

Never forget that one of the chief causes of personal unhappiness in the US of A, where farmer culture is all but hegemonic, is the denial of pirate identity, because farmers always know who’s a pirate. Pirates don’t always know what they are.

It is very important to know which you are, says Hickey. “There are many unaware pirates, however, in workplaces around the world, who wonder why they are never invited to the weenie roast. They are pirates, but they just don’t know.”


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A page from the Voynich Manuscript

Who doesn’t love an unsolved mystery? Over the last few weeks a particularly beautiful one has been in the news—The Voynich Manuscript. Found by a Lithuanian bookseller in an Italian monastery in 1912, this book has been fascinating and frustrating scholars ever since. The ornate script remains unidentified, and various scholars have placed its origins in Europe, Asia, or South America. Some have speculated that the manuscript was created by Leonardo da Vinci, Roger Bacon or the bookseller Wilfrid Voynich himself. Another school of thought is that it is a very elaborate—and extremely well done—hoax.

It’s a beautiful object, and it has become an irresistible object that many want to claim, explain and understand. As Ruth Graham put it in her piece in the Boston Globe:

The Voynich offers more than just an uncrackable written code: Colorful illustrations depict fantastical plants, astronomical diagrams, and groups of naked women in bathtubs. You could embrace the book as a linguistic brainteaser, an antiquarian book novelty, a guide to a lost theory of the natural world, or a portfolio of outsider art.

Last month a botanist and a former Department of Defense information technologist proposed a new theory, claiming they have identified 37 of the manuscript’s 303 botanical illustrations as plants that would be found in a 16th-century botanical garden in Mexico. They have argued that the manuscript was written primarily in an extinct dialect of the Aztec language Nahuatl. Then last week a British applied linguist announced that he too had translated 10 of the words.

These recent discoveries have been met by the Voynichists with skepticism. What’s more, many consider any research into the manuscript as “academic suicide” mostly because studies of the manuscript must draw from a variety of different fields.

Graham’s article quotes from Nick Pelling, an author and Voynich expert:

“If you publish in a journal, there are boundaries you’re supposed to observe,” Pelling said. “It’s difficult to find a journal that fits those boundaries when what you’re studying goes across the boundaries.” He sees the Voynich as an indictment of the way many academic disciplines have fragmented over the course of the last century into smaller and smaller expertises. Pelling believes the answer to the manuscript will come from the field of intellectual history, whose practitioners look at historical evidence from a big-picture perspective, rather than the small-bore analysis of, say, botanists and statisticians.

Whether the Voynich is real or a fake, its fascination speaks to a human longing to understand and decipher. It is also a powerful symbol of what cannot be understand by just looking at its individual parts. Some things are simply beautiful and inscrutable—many works of art fall into that category for me—and there is an exquisiteness in just that.





Note: To see high resolution scans of each page, go to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library site.

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Blade, 6 x 7″, egg tempera on calfskin parchment by Altoon Sultan

Wonder, to preserve itself, withdraws. It withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.

I remember being told a story about an old culture that believed the center of the forest was holy and could not be entered into. Even in the heat of the hunt, should the chased beast enter into the sacred center, the hunter would stop and not pursue. I think often about that line—which is not a line in any definite sense, is no certain marking, but rather is itself somehow without definition, a hazy line, a faulty boundary—that marks the periphery. One side of the line is the daily world where we who have appetites must fill our mouths, we who have thoughts must fill our minds. The other side is within the world and beyond, where appetite isn’t to be sated, where desire is not to be fulfilled, and where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge. I like the moment of failure that finds us on that line, abandoned of intent, caught in an experience of a different order, stalking the line between two different worlds and imperfectly taking part in both. Such a place risks blasphemy at the same time that it returns reverence to risk.

–Dan Beachy-Quick

Poet Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book, Wonderful Meditations: Essays, Meditations, Tales is full of explorations around edges, boundaries and the invitation to cross over and into. Referencing Plato’s definition of a line as a point that flows, Beachy-Quick hopes that the reader of his book may find that point and “follow it as it flows toward that edge where the margin becomes a center, and the end of the book the hazy border to the wonder-world.”

How eloquent a description, and one that describes just what I hope happens when people invest the time to look at and be with my work. Once again I bow in appreciation to a poet’s ability to penetrate an experience I can feel but find difficult to articulate with words.

This concept also reminded me of one of my favorite posts by friend and artist Altoon Sultan on her always excellent blog, Studio and Garden, called The Burden of Content (which I recommend reading in its entirety.) She begins the post with this description of her own evolution as an artist:

Someone recently asked me why I’d stopped doing complex landscape paintings; I answered that I wanted to get closer to 20th century reductive abstraction, which I love. But that’s only part of the story: I also wanted to get out from under the heavy burden of content, the meaning––environmental, sociological––of those paintings. So this post is meant to tell the story of my journey, and it is related to my recent posts on William Carlos Williams, “no idea but in things”, and John Singleton Copley, “The Primacy of the Object”.

Altoon shares how her intentions and style of art making have moved over time. Starting with her early “‘portraits’ of domestic architecture” that expanded into an interest in larger agricultural landscapes, her focus just keeps morphing. Her eye moved in closer, and she became compelled by the very stuff of agriculture—the machinery, the implements, the silage. “I began to feel hemmed in by my content; what had motivated me before—the difficult environmental and social issues around farming—became extraneous to my concerns, which were formalist,” she writes.

And her final paragraph:

In 2010 I began to paint very small works on parchment; their compositions have become quite simple and direct….”no ideas but in things”….and the things are in themselves enough. I still find my subjects in agricultural implements; they have such variety of shape and color that they are of continual interest to me. But I don’t expect any story beneath them, any social/historical/environmental content; there is enough meaning and feeling and mystery in color/shape/form/light/composition.

Meaning and content are usually such loaded issues in the visual arts. Altoon’s ability to speak with such directness and honesty about her own experience of working through these issues is so refreshing, particularly with a topic that is usually fraught with equivocation and complexity. And where her work has taken her continues to be a wonder-world for me.

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Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews of Witness Uganda (Photo: Jimmy Ryan of the Boston Globe)

Authenticity has become a critical factor in an age when so much isn’t. Who could have guessed 20 years ago that a huge category of television would emerge called “reality TV” that uses “found” participants but is as orchestrated and manipulated as any sitcom? We know it isn’t real but some part of us wants to believe it is. There’s something uniquely compelling when a story is true.

This has played out in the world of literature as well. A slew of best selling memoirs from major publishers were recently exposed as fraudulent. Oprah Winfrey was so personally affronted when she discovered that a book she had endorsed, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, was fabricated that she shamed the author in front of her millions of viewers. So many books were exposed as mendacious that a new genre, the “fake memoir,” came into being. Truthfulness—or some variation of Stephen Colbert‘s “truthiness”—is sometimes more crucial in the experience of a work than the quality of the content or the artistry of the storytelling.

That issue of authenticity is a factor in A.R.T’s latest production, the new musical Witness Uganda. In many ways this is a theatrical memoir: Based on the real life experiences of the lead performer, Griffin Matthews, who plays himself, the production follows him from his first trip to Uganda as a naive and idealistic volunteer to his subsequent creation of an NGO to sponsor the education of Ugandan orphans. Partnered with the music of gifted composer Matt Gould (who also lived in Africa—Mauritania—prior to writing this musical), Matthews’ story of volunteerism gone awry, the conflicts in trying to do good and the challenges of running an NGO is transformed into a narrative that takes on meaningfulness in large part because it is personal, because it is based on this man’s actual life story.

Matthews and Gould understand the criticality of that connection. Witness Uganda started off as a musical infomercial to raise funds for their NGO, UgandaProject, and then it evolved. The characters in the play are a variation of the actual students whose education they have funded, and Matthews and Gould have kept their Ugandan friends involved in this creative retelling. The outreach happening during the run of the show with Ugandan communities and others impacted by this story also speaks to a tacit understanding that this is a project much larger than just musical theater.

But musical theater it is, and the Diane Paulus factor has made sure the production is a masterful one. As A.R.T.’s artistic head and the director of Witness Uganda, Paulus has assembled yet another extraordinary team of creatives to produce a high energy/high feed good evening that reflects the professionalism of her Broadway standards. (Many of Paulus’ Cambridge-based productions have migrated to Broadway where they have been met with great success including Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, The Glass Menagerie and the most recent, All the Way , starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ.) The music is intoxicatingly great (with a live orchestra led by Gould), the performers are stellar, the choreography terrific, and a set that evokes an Africa of poverty as well as natural beauty.

There are parallels in the visual arts with the “larger than the proscenium” scope of this project. New forms of social practice and performance/conceptual art have expanded the experience well beyond the confines of a gallery or museum to include real services provided to those in need. As a committed pluralist—Arthur Danto calls it “radical pluralism”—I will always advocate for open forms and new variations, in the visual arts as well as other fields. Certainly musical theater has more capacity for gravitas than the lighthearted material at the core of an Oklahoma! or a Showboat. And one innovative way to augment the limitations of a storytelling form that is built around song and dance is to do just what Matthews and Gould have done: Take the experience beyond performance and into the lives of real people. Hats off to those who can do both, and do it well.

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Witness Uganda, from A.R.T. (Photo: Gretjen Helene)

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Installation view from George Wingate’s one day exhibit, Up Stairs In Sight,* a show of unconventional but undeniable brilliance by an artist more people should know

Artistic gatekeeping. The role of the critic. The mantle of authority. The new democratization of how any of us can find, read, look and listen.

Two years ago Morley Safer lambasted contemporary art in a segment of 60 Minutes, and Jerry Saltz wrote a lively response. While Safer wanders through Art Basel Miami Beach and wonders why the “gatekeepers of art” can permit such bad art, Saltz counters with this: “He doesn’t know that there are no ‘gatekeepers’ in the art world anymore, that it’s mainly a wonderful chaos.”

When Safer references Saltz’s famous statement that 85 percent of the art we see is bad, Saltz responds with this:

I wanted to tell him that the percent I suggested doesn’t only apply to the present. Eighty-five percent of the art made in the Renaissance wasn’t that good either. It’s just that we never see it: What is on view in museums has already been filtered for us. Safer doesn’t get that the thrill of contemporary art is that we’re all doing this filtering together, all the time, in public, everywhere. Moreover, his 85 percent is different from my 85 percent, which is different from yours.

Whether you agree that there are no gatekeepers in the art world anymore or not, vetting and selecting is ongoing. The face of that may be changing, however. An outstanding example is a bold project undertaken by the Walmart-funded museum in Arkansas, Crystal Bridges, to assemble a major show of contemporary art opening this September called State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now. Museum president Don Bacigalupi and assistant curator Chad Alligood have been traveling across the country to personally search for examples of contemporary art to be included in that show. Their criteria is “centered largely on the degree to which the artists’ works address themselves to the public. That is, we’re responding to work that offers points of engagement or access to viewers. Sometimes those points are borne in the artist’s facility or virtuosity with materials, others in their referencing of history or tradition, or in their works’ engagement with issues and topics of relevance to our world.”

The deep pockets—and whose pockets they are—as well as the aesthetic proclivities of Crystal Bridges have made the entire museum a controversial subject, and certainly that controversy will continue when this show opens in the fall. But regardless of the aesthetic intentions (which I must admit are not aligned with my own), the immense scope of this project will hopefully have some other unanticipated benefits. Projects like this by their very nature open up space for others to try their hand at something new. I am hopeful that this undertaking will help spawn more explorations into ways to see, more work being displayed, more interest in bringing visual language and expression closer to viewers everywhere.

That is what happened as a result of the Getty-funded mega-exhibit, Pacific Standard Time**, where 200 venues featured art made in Southern California between 1940-1970. After Roberta Smith saw just a handful of the shows she wrote, “Pacific Standard Time has been touted as rewriting history. It seems equally plausible to say that it simply explodes it, revealing the immensity of art before the narrowing and ordering of the historicizing process.” Since then much has shifted around these artists and their impact on American contemporary art.

In writing about the pleasure that can be had from all aspects of cultural offerings, Adam Sternbergh asks why we cannot give up the whole idea that some cultural pleasures are edifying, better, or acceptable than others. Culture, he reminds us, is one of the last arenas of experience that can offer unmitigated pleasure. Why taint our experience with apprehensions about what others deem worthy or unworthy? Can’t we make that call ourselves?

From Sternbergh’s piece in the New York Times Magazine:

Increasingly I find myself attracted to a notion I’ll call cultural libertarianism, which might be best summed up in that old saying “Whatever floats your boat.” Which is to say, I’m less and less inclined to drop the hammer on someone who’s sitting in the corner, contentedly reading Dan Brown. Does this mean I’m obliged to acknowledge and celebrate the artistry of Dan Brown? Of course not. For me, personally, Dan Brown doesn’t do it; he leaves my boat unfloated. If you’re interested, I’m happy to share my reasons. But I’m not going to suggest that your enjoyment of Dan Brown is somehow degraded or embarrassing or shameful. I’ve not only lost my fervor to wage a holy crusade against people who enjoy Dan Brown; I’ve lost my faith in the kind of critical crusaders who do.

Sternburgh, a culture editor/critic, is aware that this position puts him in an uncomfortable spot. “This line of thinking seems to lead to arguing for a kind of critical anarchy — a cultural state in which all opinions are held to be equally valid and critical conversation itself is dismissed as so much distracting noise,” he writes.

The suggestion of critical anarchy is disturbing for some, but for me it is a wild endorsement of the power and importance of self authority. The chaos of the cultural landscape that Saltz describes and gleefully embraces has only one requirement for admission: That we can hear our own authentic response and acknowledge what moves us, personally. I can’t think of another aspect of cultural creation going forward that matters more.

* For more about George Wingate’s exhibit, read this post, Up Stairs In Sight.

** To read any of the many posts written here about Pacific Standard Time, do a search on that term to the left.

Piero della Francesca (Tuscany 1412? – 1492, Tuscany),The Senigallia Madonna and Child with Two Angels Tempera and oil on wood. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most of my artist friends can speak about the exhilarating and very personal experience of being deeply moved by a work of art. These experiences so profound for me, and there are certain people I share that awe with because I know they will understand. I also appreciate when others describe their powerful art encounters as well. Friend and artist Altoon Sultan writes exquisitely about her responses to art works on her blog Studio and Garden. And the recent volume of Philip Guston‘s writings, Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, is full of his lifelong passion for particular paintings and artists. Throughout that volume his adoration of Piero della Francesca‘s fresco paintings is clearly expressed.

But awe is not just for artists. Donna Tartt‘s most recent novel, The Goldfinch, has a small painting at its center that has enormous power over many of its characters and their lives. In his book Pictures and Tears, James Elkins references the Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition that results in rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even fainting when viewing a work of art. Named after the famous French writer who visited the Giotto frescos in Florence and wrote that he “reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations…everything spoke so vividly to my soul,” over a hundred cases have been reported among visitors at the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence.

Elkins’ book is also a reminder of how often that powerful physical response is purposefully quelled. When Elkins asked his art professional colleagues if they had ever cried in front of a painting, most of them dismissed a response of that intensity as unprofessional. A few acknowledged that it had happened to them when they were young, before they became a credentialed “art professional.”

Any person who willingly allows herself be broken wide open by an object, an experience or a concept may be one definition of an artist. But a recent study conducted at Stanford suggests that this overwhelming response is more than just an emotional reaction. There are many benefits resulting from experiencing a sense of awe.

From a description of the study by the Association for Psychological Science:

It doesn’t matter what we’ve experienced—whether it’s the breathtaking scope of the Grand Canyon, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, or the exhilarating view from the top of the Eiffel Tower—at some point in our lives we’ve all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe.

Awe seems to be a universal emotion, but it has been largely neglected by scientists—until now.

Psychological scientists Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management devised a way to study this feeling of awe in the laboratory. Across three different experiments, they found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.

The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to brings us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

That’s bad news for any art types who willfully turned off their awesomeness meter, but it is great news for the rest of us. The many ancillary benefits of awe are reasons enough for all of us to let it rip!

(For a quick and breathtaking celebration at the biological advantage of being awestruck, check out this video by Jason Silva.)

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The New York Times named five novels as the best of 2013. Amazingly, two of them—both written by women—are about art and art making: The Flamethrowers*, by Rachel Kushner, and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was enchanted by both.

While Kushner’s novel takes place in the art world emerging around Soho in the 70′s and the Red Brigade years in Italy, Tartt places her tale in a post-9/11 world. Her novel begins with a terrorist explosion in the Metropolitan Museum that takes the life of the mother of the book’s lead character, a twelve year old named Theo Decker. He escapes the wreckage with a small painting in his satchel, the tiny 17th century Dutch masterpiece of a bird chained at his foot: The Goldfinch painted by Carel Fabritius**.

From this starting point Tartt unfolds an orphan’s tale that blends the 19th century charm of Charles Dickens and the Bildungsroman genre with very American and contemporary themes: East/West tension (large stretches of the book compare the various worlds of Park Avenue and the Village in New York City with the foreclosed wasteland of suburban Las Vegas), the lost boys archetype, addiction, materialistic obsession, and the arcane international underworld of the Russian mafia. But amid these familiar memes Tartt keeps a thread taut: art has a power, mystery and immortality all its own. And although our lives are often broken and wildly out of whack, any of us can and are touched deeply and personally by great works of art.

From Ron Charlesreview in the Washington Post:

The Victorian tenor of this thoroughly modern novel isn’t reflected only in its extended plot and vast collection of memorable characters. You can also feel that 19th-century spirit in the author’s willingness to take advantage of her enormous canvas to reflect self-consciously on moral and aesthetic concerns that so many contemporary fiction writers are too timid or too sophisticated to address directly. Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings. Through years of guilt and drug-dulled pain, experience has taught him that loving something sublime can soothe “the writhing loneliness of life.” The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.

Without sounding preachy or pedantic, Tartt aligns the essential importance of art with our troubled and existential world. As the book comes to a close Theo articulates his hard won understanding of that. This passage is a memorable one:

The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird. Watchful. Resigned. There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution,. There’s only a double abyss: between painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later…

I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at last my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature.

And this passage, a simple description of where art resides:

I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

*For more about The Flamethrowers, read this Slow Muse post, This Flashing Present.

**The actual painting hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer. While famous in his own lifetime, he died very young in the famous Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 that destroyed a great deal of the city. Most of his works were also lost in that catastrophe.

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