July 2008 Archives

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Psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji, in the Chronicle Review, takes issue with The New Yorker's recent cover depicting Barack Obama in Muslim garb fist-pumping his wife Michelle who is dressed as a terrorist. The flag burns in the fireplace of the Oval Office while a portrait of Osama bin Laden looks on. Banaji says the cover's intended satire is a failure on the part of the magazine's editors to recognize what actually happens in the human brain when it interact with such images.

From the Chronicle Review: If he [cartoonist Barry Blitt] were cognizant of the facts about how the mind works, the simple associations that typify the brain's ordinary connection-making, he might have thought differently before he sketched the first flame in that fireplace. If he had paid attention to a few of the dozens of experiments available -- even in the popular media -- that describe how the mind learns and believes, he and his boss wouldn't have responded as they did to the questions posed to them the day after the cover appeared. I am, as are most others in my social class, an emphatic defender of the arts as a primary vehicle to irritate, aggravate, and offend. I have been trained to step back and rethink my reaction to that which jolts and nauseates me. I know that, in such moments especially, I must look within for a possible inability to transcend ingrained values. For that reason, and because we who read The Chronicle are likely to be among the staunchest supporters of the First Amendment, we must, of course, defend the right of The New Yorker to print the image it did. What we need not defend is the absurd naïveté about the basic facts of information transmission that accompanied the reasoning behind the drawing.

July 31, 2008 7:03 AM | | Comments (1)
C.P. Snow, the novelist and chemist, once wrote about the two cultures: one being the scientists, the other being intellectuals, those who wrote for a wide audience in general-interest publications like Raritan and The New Criterion. He said there was too much of a divide between them. They didn't know how to talk to each other. And this divide is what characterizes the life of the mind in the West. In his view, the scientists were going to stay the same, that is, set on their course. So it was up to the intellectuals -- the historians, novelists, poets, journalists, policy writers -- to relate to the rest of the world what scientists were doing, why, and why it mattered. These would make up what he called The Third Culture. That was in 1959. The idea never took off. That's partly due, I think, to the fact that traditional intellectuals, those who work in academe, especially English departments (where I spent some time way back when), turned inward. Pressured by academic standards like "publish or perish," fueled by a huge expansion of the American and European university, and in thrall to intellectual orthodoxies originating from Continental Europe (Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan, Adorno, Habermas, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and so on), they increasingly talked to themselves and not to everyone else. Meanwhile, scientists have made their way into territory that used to belong to Snow's intellectuals. Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, Jerome Groopman, and Steven Pinker -- these are just a few of the scientists, researchers, and doctors who have incredible careers but who also are terrific writers with a lot to say to everyone who is not as intimate, or even remotely versed, in their respective disciplines. They write and they write well. And sometimes they write about the arts, especially that intersection where the arts and the scientific fields of mind messily come together. For instance, Oliver Sacks' latest book is about music (Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain). There's a group called the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. There are many journals dedicated to exploring this new and fertile terrain: PsyArt, The Arts and Psychotherapy, Empirical Studies of the Arts, and so on. But you don't see artists, or literary intellectuals for that matter, talking about science the way that scientists talk about the arts. You don't see them trying to understand what they do given what we now know about the mind, about human behavior, about how we constitute our societies, about the universe. And it's not just scientists writing about the arts as scientists. For many years, they have also engaged in them. You have scientists who write novels (e.g., Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams). You have medical scholars and researchers writing poetry (a local example is MUSC's literary journal, Humanitas). Artists do reach out but not with equal volume, probity, and cultural impact. These exceptions so far undermine the rule. They are far from proving it. Suzanne Anker, chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School for Visual Arts in New York City, co-curated a 2006 exhibit called Neuroculture: Visual Art and the Brain. And Adrienne Klein, co-director of the Science & the Arts Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, created a video installation called Mind's Eye in 1998 that taps into the flow-chart nature of human thought. How about more conversations like this one? SEED magazine this month asked Tom Wolfe, the novelist and journalist, to interview Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience. You can see a video of the discussion here. Perhaps the most exciting event to characterize this cross-pollination was in Iceland in May. There, in what was called an "experiment marathon," part of the Reykjavík Arts Festival, dozens of artists and scientists discussed topics "as diverse as sleep patterns, wind currents, and how we laugh, stepped to a small stage," according to the Boston Globe.
Later, one artist, Halldór Úlfarsson, would describe the wider world of artistic abstractionists like this: "It's a kind of think pot where stuff happens. And once in a while, out of that, something grows that people connect with better."
What can be said about this on a local level? How can artists better understand their role in the psychological and cognitive experience of everyday people? If we are only beginning to understand the human mind, doesn't it follow that artists, who have so much insight into the human mind, should be a part of that discussion? Wouldn't artists have a lot to say to scientists of the brain and philosophers of the mind?
July 30, 2008 7:45 AM | | Comments (7)
Consider this the next time you're trying to raise money for an arts organization or trying to rally support for the creation of an arts center or just trying to see the world in a fresh, new way. Baby Boomers -- those 76 million born between 1946 and 1964 -- are the most pessimistic, disappointed, and self-entitled generation of the 20th century. Let's be clear: I'm not saying this, though it makes sense to me. This is from a report in The Washington Post.
This is according to a social and demographic trends survey released recently by the Pew Research Center. The survey measured the pessimism, dissatisfaction and general curmudgeonliness of 2,413 adults in various generations. The results validate any member of the Greatest Generation who ever looked at his or her offspring and sadly thought, "soft." Simply put, boomers are a bunch of . . . whiners. More than older or younger generations, boomers -- born from 1946 to 1964 -- worry that their income won't keep up with rising costs of living. They say it's harder to get ahead today than it was 10 years ago. They are more likely to say that their standard of living is lower than their folks' but that things don't look too good for their kids either (67 percent of younger generations, meanwhile, feel they have it better than their parents).
And this attitude problem isn't just because of middle-age crises. Another report on social trends from the University of Chicago, which surveyed happiness levels for the past 30 years, suggests that boomers have never been happy. Again, the Post:
In 2004, 28 percent of respondents born in 1950 considered themselves "very happy," compared with 40.2 percent of those born in 1935. Back in 1972, the figures for those same generations were 28.9 and 35.4. A whole lifetime of whining.
So what's made them so unhappy? There are many theories in the Post article, but I like this one from Yang Yang, the author of the University of Chicago study, because I've seen this in action:
Boomers, born into families riding the American Dream, expected that such easy living would always come naturally. Happiness was seen as a right and inevitability.
Put another way: The boomer attitude is not collaborative but confrontational. It's not one of compromise but of conflict. It's doesn't begin from a position of pragmatism but of ideology. This is why Barack Obama is so appealing to many people under 50. This is why that same group of people -- the so-called Gen X and Gen Y -- were so disgusted by the 2004 presidential campaign, in which it came to light how much boomers were still fighting about the 1960s. The last straw, for me anyway, was to brouhaha over John Kerry's adventures in swiftboating. Why compromise when happiness -- and many other things, I would argue, like the American Dream itself -- is your right? This attitude as applied to the arts: People should care about the arts, boomers say. They should give money to arts organizations. If they don't, boomers say, then they're stupid. If they don't, then artists are victims. Perhaps boomers, who are now facing retirement and old age, can afford to be so dismissive of the very real challenges facing younger generations of artists and art lovers, but those under 50 cannot be so dismissive. We have to face the realities before us. I saw this during the first "Creative Spaces" discussion at Redux Contemporary Art Center in April (in Charleston, SC) when Marian Mazzone, chair of the Redux Advisory Board, said that artists are being "displaced," and artist Linda Fantuzzo said that "artists have had to flee" the peninsula. If you haven't guessed by now, Mazzone and Fantuzzo are boomers. In an interview with me, for a story on the future of Redux, Mezzone said she was hesitant to talk to me, because I didn't appear to have sympathy for Redux. She said this, I think, because I've said many times that the current venue problem is one of the performing arts not the visual arts. If I'm not with them, then I'm against them, another trait of the Whiner Generation.
"People born in times of cultural renewal tend to take an overt attitude of pessimism," says Neil Howe, an author who gained fame for his theories of recurrent generational behavior. They see their pessimism as a tonic that will wake up the world, then they just end up drunk on disappointment.
July 30, 2008 7:18 AM | | Comments (2)
So does your mom, according to this study by Statistics Canada, which surveyed how nearly 10,000 Canadians aged 15 and over spend their leisure time. Your mom's level of education has more impact on you and your siblings than your father's level of education. In general, the more money you make and the more education you have, the more things you do culturally. But the type of job you have -- say one, like journalism, that doesn't pay all that much, relatively speaking, but immerses you in people, organizations, and culture -- also has an impact on your cultural menu. The report found that:
... someone working in management, business, finance or administration was 8.8 per cent more likely to attend a theatrical performance than someone unemployed or in a job related to primary industry or manufacturing. Those whose parents had advanced education, such as a university degree, were much more likely than those whose parents with lower education to attend most cultural activities. Mom's education had more of an impact than did dad's schooling, according to the report. For those in a romantic relationship, their partner's education had an even greater effect than their mother's schooling on their likelihood of participating in cultural activities. But factor in a kid or two and the time they spent going out declined, the study found.
This news is pretty much intuitive, but I find a few things interesting. One is that the survey looks at people ages 15 and older, providing some insight, however oblique, into the behavior patterns of youth culture. Another is that the report lends credence to the growing theory that the arts need to target more precisely young professionals, those with advanced degrees and gainful employment but who have not settled down to raise a family. There are so many different ways of making money from dating -- It's Just Lunch, for instance -- it seems arts organizations have a lot to look into. The Canadian survey also brings up a subject that's hard to bring up among the high earning and highly educated people that are the subject of this survey -- the role that mothers play in the acculturation of their children. Used to be that a child's cultural education started at home. Now, since the 1970s, the beginning of the current social structure of two people bringing home incomes to meet the demands that used to be met by one income, a child's cultural education is more likely to begin at school. This is a shift that should get more discussion among those of us involved in the arts and those of us observing those involved in the arts. Problem is, the role of women remains politically charged, what with the ascendancy, since the Reagan Administration, of the pernicious "family values" orthodoxy. It would be difficult to have a mature conversation about it.
July 30, 2008 7:12 AM | | Comments (1)
neel_resized.jpg K. Brian Neel was running a fever the entire time he was performing Vaud Rats on Wednesday night (during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the sister event to Spoleto in Charleston, S.C.). I found this out afterward while we talked about his interest in the rich history of vaudeville. As we talked about the play within the play aspect of his show, he asked me what I thought of the ending (don't worry, there's no spoiler here). He asked if it were buoyant and hopeful. I had to be honest. No, it wasn't. Fatalistic is more like it. He agreed that there might be something to that reading, but that's not what he normally does. Vaud Rats usually ends on an up note. It must have been the fever, we thought. Perhaps it was a happy accident. The note of fatalism gave Vaud Rats a level of gravitas that hadn't been apparent to Neel before, he said. The end of vaudeville was a brutal time for stage performers, most of whom were left out of work and impoverished after the rise of mass entertainments like film and radio. There's an alternate theory about the death of vaudeville, Neel said. Performers couldn't adapt. They couldn't come up with new material week after week, a pattern that's standard and expected these days. Neel said that vaudevillians would come up with a shtick and just do it over and over again.
July 10, 2008 10:28 PM | | Comments (0)
I was going to write something snarky about Tim Page, but I won't. The Spoleto overview critic for The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier was in the audience during a Spoleto recital by avant-garde percussionist Gerry Hemingway. The concert started a little after 6 o'clock. Page was out of there by 6:17 p.m. Perhaps he had another appointment. I don't know. But his early departure has precedent. He admitted to leaving the American premiere of Monkey: Journey to the West, Spoleto's buzz-worthy production costing $1.3 million, after 40 minutes, before the story turns to a search for redemption and enlightenment. Though I do think a critic should give due diligence before leveling an opinion, perhaps Page is right. Why stay if you don't like something? Why give your attention and time to a performer who is not reciprocating in kind, when a performer is self-indulgent, entitled, or even oblivious to the presence of an audience?
July 10, 2008 7:33 AM | | Comments (2)

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