Why Value Art?

I have a run a contemporary art gallery in Denver, Colorado, in the United States for 4 years. I am so deeply troubled by the systemic structures we assign to this economic model, I don’t know how to begin to describe my experience. I hope to contribute some useful possibilities for innovation to the field, and so I will begin simply with what I think of as getting back to basics.

I will begin with my thinking during this time of why society values art.

The first step is to set aside the temporary financial values we assign through art market transactions like auctions and art fair sales.

Society values art because it is the tangible expression of an idea. My son asked me when he was 8 years old and reading a book on Roman civilization: “Mommy, how have things changed so much from Roman times until now?” “One idea at a time, honey”, I answered him.

And so, to evolve, we must protect the notion of ideas; that’s how we change. However it’s the sharing of ideas that has value and so we try to reward that. In comes art.

Art often deals with ideas surrounding the human experience. When I see a xxxx sell for $100million, I don’t take offense at perceived art market vagaries, rather I think “wow that’s cool that humans value the reflection on our own experience that much!”

Really powerful expressions of ideas, the ones that effect change, often produce somewhat of a state of “shock.” It’s such a fundamental shift in how we think about something that we feel surprise.

Often people will confuse that sense of “shock” or “surprise” emanating from true change with the desire to simply produce “shock” and “surprise” as if that in itself could produce change. And so you see lots of work that sets out to shock.

We see this run rampant in the contemporary art world, often leading to disdainful reviews of art. Fundamentally, truly, while we want to respect everyone’s expression, some expressions simply don’t effect as big a change of state as others. And that’s OK; we need to fundamentally embrace the notion of failure as part of the process of creation. Perhaps down the road, when seen with a different set of circumstances, that very same work can take on more power. Or not. And so it is our job to encourage the expression of ideas and not to dismiss/destroy them too quickly until they are more fully understood,  and to share them.

If you were to think of evolution as an example, you could see this dynamic almost as a measure of our ability to advance. I see the system wanting to operate collectively almost as a subconscious measure of the amount of energy it takes us to go from one psychological state to another.

We value the work as “good” based on criteria that keep changing because we are in fact judging it against a changing human condition. This fact often leads to a sense of injustice on the part of artists. In a legal sense, for example, “justice” involves knowing your accuser and knowing of what charge you are accused. In the art world you are judged, but not sure by whom and for what. No one will give you formal criteria: “your technique is bad” for example because those have been dismissed as notions that miss the whole point of art.

And so if you look at why society values art, it is mostly because of the inherent power of the expression of an idea to induce a change of state.

This begs the question, “do our social and systemic structures support or thwart this process?” It’s clearly an important process in human advancement, just as important as any scientific advancement.

I will use that lens to analyze one of the most prevalent means artist’s have of receiving some economic support to carry on this activity: the contemporary economic model of an art gallery.  Next I’ll describe “the art world’s math problem.”

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IDEAPHORIA

JohnsonOConnor

The researcher, Johnson O’Connor, studied aptitudes as a way of measuring intelligence as opposed to “IQ.” Interestingly, I was reflecting today that this notion seems to underlie much of gifted education.

In the book “The Unique Individual”, he wrote of “ideaphoria.” We all know the story of the absent-minded professor who crosses the street without looking. I would venture to say that person had ideaphoria.

For me, the most moving anecdote in the book is the story of the teacher who has extremely high ideaphoria and frustration as a result. O’Connor offers advice at the end:

“Although ideaphoria is the top trait of teachers, when too high and combined with extreme subjectivity it leads to a feeling of frustration which not only stops actual progress but may lead to a nervous breakdown. A fourth-grade teacher came with a feeling of inferiority which had twice driven her to seek psychiatric help. Every afternoon by three-thirty, when school closed, she was exhausted by refractory disciplinary problems. In personality she scored probably objective, but only three significant responses away from the extremely subjective division. As worksample 35 is inaccurate to this extent, the Laboratory considers it wiser for her to assume herself extremely subjective.

In ideaphoria she scored at the 100th percentile, 460 words written in ten minutes where 341 is grade A for women. She wanted to write, but whenever she tried her vivid imagination raced ahead at a speed which her pencil could never equal, and she grew discouraged and gave up.

She then thought of editing a collection of children’s stories. This gave the counterfeit satisfaction of having produced something without the long laborious hours demanded by actual creation. But secure editors score highest int he reasoning work-samples, analytical reasoning, worksample 244, and inductive reasoning, worksample 164, in both of which she scored low. Also editors score lower in ideaphoria, where she ranks at the 100th percentile. Continued editorial work would give her little permanent enjoyment.

College teaching involves fewer disciplinary problems but demands more inductive reasoning than the grades. A change from public to private school seemed likely to give a congenial atmosphere for her subjectivity. But the only enduring solution hopeful of lasting satisfaction is actual creative work. She should force herself to write a regular two hours each day, devoting ten minutes of this period to scribbling at top speed exactly as in the creative-imagination test. Instead of throwing away these crude outpourings, like most high creative people, with nothing to show for her efforts, she should bind them carefully in some sort of loose-leaf book, where they will not be lost, and then each day spend the balance of her writing time amending them phrase by phrase, word by word.” (p. 84-85)

Interestingly, below are the traits O’Connor associated with a writer (p. 81):

writing-attributes

 

For more info:

O’Connor, Johnson. The Unique Individual. Human Engineering Laboratory Incorporated, Boston: 1948.

The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation in New York works to advance the research of Johnson O’Connor.

 

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Using The Entire Brain

There is no question my mind works vastly differently than my husband, Kurt’s. I try to learn from him every day, and over time we have learned to divide our labor according to our natural skills.

He is a German computer programmer descended from inventors and tinkerers. I am a Spanish art & technology entrepreneur descended from farmers, scientists, business people and teachers. I often wonder if we were attracted to each other because our skills are so complimentary: are we biologically trying to produce something better than ourselves?

Kurt’s grandfather was an inventor who worked at Bosch on technologies that would later contribute to voice recognition technologies. Kurt’s mother, Renate, has early memories of smuggling parts in her pockets from her father’s laboratory across the Berlin Wall checkpoints as her family still lived in the East. Kurt’s father, Ron, was an extremely prolific photographer who photographed art all over the world.

Our pediatrician said to me a few years ago: “I am so glad the computer programmer married the art gallerist.” She was referring to the vast difference in the way Kurt’s mind works from the way my mind works, and that together our children would be able to utilize their brains in nearly opposite ways at the same time. I hope so.

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Two Legal Names and Two Parts of Me

My parents emigrated from Cuba to Spain to the US. My grandparents were Spaniards; I grew up in the United States from the time I was 9 months old.

I have two passports: American and Spanish. In my blue, US passport I am Carmen Garcia Wiedenhoeft. I left “Garcia” in there as a bridge after I took on my husband’s last name. In my burgundy, Spanish passport I am Carmen Teresa Garcia Marchante. It always strikes me how different the names are from one another: yet they’re both legally valid for me any time I want to exercise one. German colleagues seem to be the ones to most notice the dichotomy of “Carmen” and “Wiedenhoeft”: the stormy Spanish temperament coupled with the cool German intellect.

Spain passed a law in 2007 called The Law of Historical Memory. For the first time in my lifetime, it allowed one to apply for Spanish citizenship without renouncing another citizenship (for me, US). This fact was pretty key as I’d never want to jeopardize my US citizenship, which was conferred on me as a 7-year-old child. I acquired my Spanish Nationality under that law in 2011 at age 39.

My guess is that the vast majority of men in the United States don’t think about the ramifications of their name as much as women do. The notion of “maiden name”, whether to change your name, and what to do with your name following divorce with kids seems a distinctly feminine issue.  In Spain, women don’t change their names upon marriage. That makes it easy to figure out your family history: you always know who the mother is even if there was question of the father throughout history!

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The Difficulty of Innovating

It’s difficult to imagine New York without Central Park, the lungs of the city and the space you can retreat to in the urban jungle. Yet that took vision and foresight in a time when urban planning and public spaces weren’t as valued as they are today.

A colleague recommended the biography of Frederick Law Olmsted by Rybczynski ,  “A Clearing in the Distance.” It’s a good read to think about urban spaces, public spaces, framing the community dialogue and the importance of innovating.

The most ineresting passage to me was that in which Rybczynski describes the difficulty of being yourself, of innovating before something is widely understood in society:

“Olmsted was an organizer when organization was considered a symptom of “monomania,” and a long-range planner in a period that thought of planning as “mysterious.” He was a landscape architect before that profession was founded, designed the first large suburban community in the United States, foresaw the need for national parks, and devised one of the country’s first regional plans. Above all, he was an artist who chose to work in a medium that then– even more than now– lacked public recognition. He was an innovator and pioneer largely by chance. But, as Louis Pasteur, an exact contemporary of Olmsted, once observed, ‘Chance favors only the mind that is prepared.’ Olmsted’s preparation was not based on formal training or education. What laid the groundwork for his later achievements was an amalgam of sensibility and temperament, coupled with an unusual set of formative experiences.”
(page 23, Chapter Two)

 

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“Big Game Hunting” in business

A colleague in my past work used to call me a “big game hunter”.

I can see that. It’s true: I set my sight on a big target and start  methodically preparing. When my son, Sebastian, was born I didn’t want to leave him behind while I traveled around the country visiting clients. Kurt has always been supportive of my ideas, improving upon them. We bought an RV and I drove for ten weeks at a time over the course of three years going to meet clients in-person. I took 10-month-old Sebastian, Kurt, a babysitter, a cousin, my parents, whoever was up for the adventure. Those were our most lucrative years, hands down, in our business. You have to go TO the client.

Below you see Sebastian in 2006 (age 2) “dealing” Uno cards with his toes on one of our many road trips!

Sebastian Playing Uno

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From Analog Surrogates => Camping

Airstream copy

A gifted teacher changes you. Linda Tanis taught an experimental, gifted program in the public schools of Hendry County, Florida, in the late ’70s, and the two years I participated changed my life. She was a volunteer firefighter who would overturn old school buses and set them on fire to practice fire rescue and train the men in town. She went camping in Canada with two friends for a month each summer and brought us films on reels with the most pristine forest views one could imagine. Her passion for conservation filled my soul with awe. She showed us films like Soilent Green. She put 4th graders to work on computers in 1978; I remember the dreaded haunted house trap doors awaiting in a single text word on screen and the ensuing gasp. She formed the conviction in my mind that women are fearless.

I dreamt of camping from the time I saw her first film and could fumble through the camping section of the Sears catalogs of 1979. I’ve now (tent) camped in nearly every state in the union except maybe Washington, Oregon and Minnesota. Several years ago we also bought an Airstream from 1973 on eBay to take our boys around Colorado on more extended trips. Kurt and I got tired of breaking down camp for 4 people and moving it every two days.

When we speak of digital surrogates, as in a digital image standing-in for the original work of art, I think of those catalogs as “analog surrogates”. They don’t “stand-in” for anything; what they do is light a forest fire in your imagination. I think of 7-year-old-me lying in bed basking in the campfire glow on the printed page. I never bought a thing. If you looked at them from a consumer/advertising perspective, you’d miss the whole point. Yet I would say they are a huge part of my childhood for the camping gear sections were the *only* access to camping I had at that time. I think I’ll go look for one of those ’70s catalogs on eBay…

SearsCatalog1979 copy

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Enjoying Ideaphoria

It’s probably pretty safe to say many entrepreneurs have what Johnson O’Connor calls “Ideaphoria.” Ideaphoria demands modifying your behavior to feel joy. Here are some tips.

Flesh Out the Ideas
O’Connor wrote: “Although ideaphoria is the top trait of teachers, when too high and combined with extreme subjectivity it leads to a feeling of frustration which not only stops actual progress but may lead to a nervous breakdown.” (p. 84) He recommends:
“The only enduring solution hopeful of lasting satisfaction is actual creative work. She should force herself to write a regular two hours each day, devoting ten minutes of this period to scribbling at top speed exactly as in the creative-imagination test. Instead of throwing away these crude outpourings, like most high creative people, with nothing to show for her efforts, she should bind them carefully in some sort of loose-leaf book, where they will not be lost, and then each day spend the balance of her writing time amending them phrase by phrase, word by word.” (p. 85)

Stay away from people who don’t get it
This is easier said than done because most people don’t get it. However, you can calibrate how you internalize what others say. It starts when you are a child and you hear this:
“stop asking so many questions”
“you think too much”
“you’re too deep”
“that’s complicated”
As you get older you start to recognize the response and it takes this form:
“wow, you really have a lot of different interests”
“did you invent a new business today?”
The gifted education curriculum takes this into account. Many kids who have a strong ability in one area (a “giftedness”) are often teased in public schools, bullied into “toning it down.” Whereas in a curriculum that understands and supports these strong aptitudes, kids are encouraged to run with it. My son, for example, is doing algebraic expressions in 5th grade that I didn’t encounter until 9th grade. That is because he is in “pull out math” and allowed to progress at his own pace.

Don’t Chastise Yourself or Try to “Fix” It
When I was 18, I bought this book called “Help for Women Who Do Too Much.” Kurt hilariously pointed out that there are likely no books entitled Help for Men Who Do Too Much.” I realize now that this was me trying to “fix it” instead of understanding my ability to generate ideas.

When your thoughts are too scattered
Do something manual. For me it is cleaning or playing tennis first thing in the morning. Rollerblading in Central Park also had that mind calming effect on me. Cleaning is something I’ve done as a coping mechanism since I was a child. It gives me immediate control over a messy situation and I have instant gratification in seeing it resolved. It’s like the more complex the problem, the more my mind is working on it, and can’t reach a conclusion. So instead I try to clean up my environment. I find the process of doing that helps organize my thoughts too.

Don’t Let Others Question Your Work Methods
When I was under lots of stress and would start cleaning, Kurt would say, “What are you doing?! Why are you spending time on that? Get to work; you have so much to do!” I know he meant well, and in his more aware-of-the-clock biology, it makes sense. However, for me, the cleaning wasn’t a distraction, it was in fact a fundamental part of my work process.

 

 

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Much more useful to think of a “SUBJECTIVE PERSONALITY” than perpetuate the cult of “genius”

Lately, I’ve been thinking very much that we seem to have a fundamental MATH problem in the arts. I don’t think we understand the statistical pervasiveness underlying creativity and as such tend to focus on the wrong things, like the notion of “genius.” We need to step back a bit and look at larger populations, and recognize that a large part of the population is struggling to develop more robust skill sets for harnessing creativity instead of perpetuating the notion of “exceptionalism” and “genius”. As a society, we would stand to learn more from one another.

Johnson O’Connor’s (1891-1973) research sheds some light in this area.  O’Connor writes about the “subjective” versus the “objective” personality type. One is not better than the other; he isn’t passing judgment as we tend to do when we think of an “objective” person as perhaps being more impartial. Rather, O’Connor uses these terms to signify how we relate to one another. When tested, “objective” persons will give the same response to a query as a large group of others while “subjective” persons will give very different answers. For example, when I took one of his tests twenty years ago, I was asked to state the first thing that came to mind when prompted with certain words:

Salt…Pepper
Left…Right

We went through hundreds of words, quickly. Sometimes people list things that are opposites and sometimes they are commonly related in other ways.  Fascinatingly, statistically, very many of us give the exact same words. A “subjective” person, however, starts to deviate from the most common answer. I, for example, answered “A Poem by Federico Garcia Lorca” when prompted with the word “death”, the poet’s melancholy mood filling my mind. That, clearly, is my own response. An “objective” person would have likely  answered, “Life and Death.”

You could dismiss this if it was just a comparison of a few people. What’s really interesting is that they’ve been doing this at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation since 1929, and after working with hundreds of thousands of people, of course patterns become very clear. Persons that do well in business, for example, tend to be more “objective”, giving similar answers to one another, and because they relate to a larger group of people, do better socially with those groups. Today’s “entrepreneurs” clearly need to learn to navigate both these modalities.

I find O’Connor a thinker well before his time, and though some of the writing is difficult to get through for all the technical references to the tests, there is some extremely good insight well worth seeking out. Below is one of my favorite passages. In the introduction to his book of 1948, The Unique Individual, Johnson O’Connor writes:

“Three-quarters of all men and women belong by nature to one personality type, the remainder to another. From the objective multitude come prosperous business men, from the extremely subjective minority come creative artists, gifted writers, lyric poets, scrupulous surgeons, diligent scientists, and unworldly musicians. The easy momentum of the conservative majority carries the civilized world from day to day, as a revolving fly wheel, once in heavy motion, carries a reciprocating engine smoothly past each successive stalling point; while the explosive minority furnish the impulsive driving force.

In the considered choice of a lifelong career, men and women who score extremely subjective must face the disadvantage of belonging to the outnumbered species. In place of counting on the established three-quarters duplicating their own emotional reactions, they gain their point only by anticipatory study and such prudent presentation that every verdict rests on a rational consideration of the controversial issue [think, entrepreneur’s PITCH DECK!] . For this reason, extremely subjective persons thrive in fields of trained advice, as in the practice of medicine, legal counseling, engineering design, certified public accounting, and the fine arts, and only occasionally enjoy the jostling business world.

Extreme subjectivity strives obstinately toward an enduring goal, a better mankind, where lasting progress is not easy, innovations remorselessly criticized, professional standards not raised without a disheartening struggle.”

O’Connor presents the example of a dentist who is very dissatisfied and in fact a very subjective person. O’Connor continues:

“After reading the disconcerting biography of Wolfgang Mozart, this middle-west dentist felt little sympathy for the Austrian composer’s blind allegiance to aesthetic creation; and yet he saw the same symptoms in himself, knew that great scientists, glorious artists, and sublime musicians live turbulent lives, but leave behind illustrious works which raise human happiness to a new level. He typifies the extremely subjective person who sacrifices himself irresistibly to a visionary principle, who suffers in so doing, whose inner nature pushes him remorselessly to the precipitous verge of a mental breakdown, but who cannot desist; for the extremely subjective person contributes lastingly to human welfare at the expense of his own immediate comfort. To win the profound gratification which this man craved, he would not for a moment forsake his fantastic ambition. Fundamentally he demands speedier progress [think, entrepreneur’s DO MORE FASTER!], an achievement which depends upon still greater sacrifice…only tangible accomplishments, gained through picturing a problem and preparing for its solution with impersonal detachment, satisfy the missionary spirit.” (p. 1-2)

P.S. If you want to see a physical example of this, go view the 30,000 postcards created by Mark Mothersbaugh in the Myopia exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver through April 2015. There you will see a highly subjective person who daily gave the ideas tangible expression.

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“Taking Risks” implies being able to do so

Ron Ragin from the Rauschenberg Foundation made a very eloquent statement about fear and the reality of taking risks. The Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) held their annual DinnerVention in the Gallery this week and you can hear Ron speak of this starting at hour 1:09. The dinner called together young cultural policy thinkers to think about new solutions for the field. New solutions, of course, always imply risk. Ron highlighted, as a precursor to even being able to go down that road, that we must ask who is in a position to take risks.

“Most of the people we all work with and are alluding to, have something to lose…Legitimately, what governs so much decision-making about where we are able to take risks, individually, organizationally, institutionally, network-wise, whatever, has to do with how we’ve organized power and how we have positioned ourselves to be able to do that in a structural way.”

Ron continues: “If I have a mortgage and a baby to feed and daycare to pay for, I’m not going to come talking some mess to my boss that’s going to get me in trouble so that I might lose my job and my health insurance, if I have a major illness.”
(1:09:53)

See the DinnerVention video.
Read about the participants.

Ron

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