the artist is a wanderer

Damien Hurst diamond skullH. and I went to the MOMA several months ago.   It feels like a mall, he cautioned, a cynical assessment that turned out to be true.  I don’t like malls, and I didn’t like the experience of the MOMA that day.  I found myself wanting to maximize the experience, judge the work, mark my progress as I walked through the galleries from the top floor down.   It was an exercise in analysis rather than an experience in the realm of the senses.

What is a gallery for, we could ask. A repository of things deemed great with hours during which people may go to admire and inspect them? Or a sanctuary in which people confront and are transformed by the minds and work of great artists?

In his essay Laissez faire Aesthetics Jed Perl makes a case that our museums and galleries – and the art in them – are repositories, not sanctuaries. He describes our art as undisciplined, unimaginative, lacking conviction, contextless, questioning, incomplete, a spectacle, uncertain, disappointing and confusing. All this comes, he says, from laissez faire: the belief that if you leave it alone it will turn out better.

So perhaps we could turn our repository galleries into sanctuaries by putting a nail in the laissez-faire coffin.

Here is Perl:

Drop into the galleries for an afternoon and you will probably find yourself amused. I do. But when I go back to the galleries week after week and month after month, I find that my impressions become increasingly unstable. I feel uneasy. And I know that I am not alone. Although gallery goers are stirred by contemporary art and museumgoers are having extraordinary experiences, there is a widespread feeling that nothing really adds up—either for the artists or for the audience. No matter how eye-filling the encounters that people are having with works of art, these experiences can end up somehow unsatisfactory, stripped of context and implication. For inveterate gallerygoers the art world has come to resemble a puzzle to which nobody really has any solution. And why is there no solution? There is no solution because too many of the pieces are missing. The shared assumptions about the nature of art that ought to bind together our variegated experiences are nowhere to be found. Look behind the art world’s glittering collage of a façade and you find a pervasive uncertainty, a culture adrift in sour disenchantment. There is so much disappointment and confusion around the very idea of art that even when the art does not disappoint, people find themselves backing away from the experiences they have.


What laissez-faire aesthetics has left us with—in the museums, the galleries, the art schools, and the art magazines—is a weakening of conviction, an unwillingness to ever take a stand, a refusal to champion, or even surrender to, any first principle. More than anything else, what laissez-faire aesthetics threatens, with its insistence that anything goes, is the disciplined imagination without which an artist is rudderless, a wanderer in the wilderness.

Laissez-Faire Aesthetics, Jed Perl, Magicians and Charlatans


solving problems that don’t exist
October 12, 2013, 4:27 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Telling: Each photograph explores contemporary American life, as well as revealing family dynamics that become most clear at the dinner tableWhen things aren’t working we get busy solving problems that most people didn’t even know existed. For example, think of all the things that aren’t working for people in this age of debt and crisis and no jobs. Now recall how we expend vast creative resources to make gadgets, which are lovely, but which don’t really alter the general landscape that much. Now understand how these trends – the rise of gadgets and the decline of life – are linked.

That’s Packer’s point in his essay Upgrade or Die:

My unprovable hypothesis is that obsessive upgrading and chronic stagnation are intimately related, in the same way that erotic fantasies are related to sexual repression. The fetish that surrounds Google Glass or the Dow average grows ever more hysterical as the economic status of the majority of Americans remains flat. When things don’t work in the realm of stuff, people turn to the realm of bits. If the physical world becomes intransigent, you can take refuge in the virtual world, where you can solve problems–how do I make a video of my skydiving adventure while keeping my hands free?—that most of your countrymen didn’t know existed. Morozov puts it this way: “Last year the futurist Ayesha Khanna even described smart contact lenses that could make homeless people disappear from view, ‘enhancing our basic sense’ and, undoubtedly, making our lives so much more enjoyable. In a way, this does solve the problem of homelessness—unless, of course, you happen to be a homeless person.”

George Packer, Upgrade or Die, The New Yorker

all kinds of richness
October 11, 2013, 12:24 pm
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In our work lives, the status quo is snobbery and the desired goal is love, explains Alain de Botton below. Snobbery is being judged based on superficials while all the richness of our inner lives roil hidden beneath the judgment: a vision from Dante’s hell. In essence, bosses reduce workers to one or two capabilities that meet their business needs, while workers yearn to use their genius and suffer through their days.

To break this unhappy  – and untenable – blockage, one must see the real potential of a person’s inner life. This is accomplished by imagination, which breaks the bonds of the snob judgment and allows the real inner richness and creativity to be revealed and to play a part.

It’s a good lesson to know if you want to be happy in your workplace, or to make a pleasant workplace for the people who work for you.

Alain de Botton on the chasm between our rich interior selves and our jobs:

We live in a world surrounded by snobs.  What is a snob?–A snob is someone who takes a small part of you and uses that to judge the whole of you.  And the dominant snobbery nowadays is job snobbery.

This is a deeply frightening vision.  Partly it’s frightening because most of us are unable to bring our true richness of character and personality in line with our business card.  The business card does not fully reflect who we are. We are being judged, we feel, in a humiliating way.  We feel there is so much in us that has not got an expression in capitalism.  You know, capitalism is a machine that recognizes outward financial, external achievement.  And most of us carry all kinds of richness which we are unable to translate into that language.  There are very few of us whose full complexity of character has been brought out, as it were, on their business card.  Most of us, what is special about us requires – it requires love.  And by love, I mean imagination.  It requires someone to say, even though that person looks a bit, it could be anything boring, uninteresting, unimportant, dull, actually that’s because I’m only looking at them in the first 30 seconds.  They need more time.

So we need charity and we need complexity.  And the cruelty of the modern world, the cruelty of New York City, for example, so this is a city where people give you 30 seconds and not much longer, if you’re not careful.  And that’s very challenging, it cuts people up inside.  It literally drives you crazy.

What are you worth?  Getting past status anxiety, Alain de Botton

the pleasures of solitude
October 10, 2013, 11:21 am
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

We think solitude is discipline or punishment – go and sit in the corner! Author Freya Stark says it is pleasant and ordinary and that, because we have it mixed up, we bring trouble on ourselves. So, believe it is pleasant and go into yourself.

“Solitude, I reflected, is the one deep necessity of the human spirit to which adequate recognition is never given in our codes. It is looked upon as a discipline or penance, but hardly ever as the indispensable, pleasant ingredient it is to ordinary life, and from this want of recognition come half of our domestic troubles. The fear of an unbroken tête-à-tête for the rest of his life should, you would think, prevent any man from getting married.”

–Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels (1934)

economics explained
October 3, 2013, 11:13 am
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October 2, 2013, 4:56 pm
Filed under: brave new world, chronotopes, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

HAVANA—Children play in the Plaza Vieja, 1998.
© David Alan Harvey / Magnum Photos

Over the past 50 years children in the western world – at least –  have seen their time allotted for play significantly reduced by marmy homework scolds and, in parallel, have suffered increasingly from neuroses like anxiety and depression: there is a link argues Peter Gray in his article The Play Deficit (which you can read – linked below).

Gray lays out further deleterious effects from lack of play some of which I highlight in the excerpts pulled below, including lack of empathy, bullying, passivity and fear, unfocused anger etc.

He describes how extant hunter gatherer groups who allow their children to play nearly exclusive of any other activity from the ages of four to 19 develop egalitarian, mutually beneficial tribes.

I could never argue for playing until the age of 19; the thing that freed me most in my life was – and is – education: reading, studying, writing. But still, play is waning and the kids are unhappy and we should do something about it.

Here is Peter Gray:

I don’t want to over-idealize children. Not all children learn these lessons easily; bullies exist. But social play is by far the most effective venue for learning such lessons, and I suspect that children’s strong drive for such play came about, in evolution, primarily for that purpose. Anthropologists report an almost complete lack of bullying or domineering behaviour in hunter-gatherer bands. In fact, another label regularly used for such band societies is egalitarian societies. The bands have no chiefs, no hierarchical structure of authority; they share everything and co-operate intensively in order to survive; and they make decisions that affect the whole band through long discussions aimed at consensus. A major reason why they are able to do all that, I think, lies in the extraordinary amount of social play that they enjoy in childhood. The skills and values practiced in such play are precisely those that are essential to life in a hunter-gatherer band. Today you might survive without those skills and values, but, I think, not happily.


Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it. Such play must always be self-directed, never forced or even encouraged by an authority figure. It’s cruel to force children to experience fears they aren’t ready for, as gym teachers do when they require all children in a class to climb ropes to the rafters or swing from one stand to another. In those cases the results can be panic, embarrassment, and shame, which reduce rather than increase future tolerance for fear.

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