Tag: Art

Rendez-Vous with Art: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Art

Philippe de Montebello was the longest-serving Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1977-2008). Martin Gayford was an acclaimed art critic. Their book, Rendez-Vous with Art, is structured around the conversations they had in churches, museums, and art galleries around the world. It’s an intimate look into the pleasures and pitfalls of art.

Starting with a fragment that’s left of the face of an Egyptian woman who lived 3,000 years ago, de Montebello and Gayford’s book confronts the elusive questions: how and why do we look at art? That is a large subject we will leave you to explore, but there are two parts of this book we wish to draw your attention to.

WE CAN NEVER STEP IN THE SAME RIVER TWICE

“If,” they write, “we stand in front of a work of art twice, at least one party — the viewer or the object — will be transformed on the second occasion. Works of art mutate through time, albeit slowly, as they are cleaned or ‘conserved’, or as their constituent materials age.”

As far as the object, Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses collection comes to mind. Van Gogh employed bright pigments in a way that encouraged them to lose their vibrancy over time, anticipating “time will only soften them too much.” The contrast between the originals and those we witness today is stark — color like all living organisms fades over time.

But even more important than the physical evolution of pieces are the ones happening internal to us.

Gayford writes:

Inevitably, we all inhabit a world of dissolving perspectives and ever-shifting views. The present is always moving, so from that vantage point the past constantly changes in appearance. That is on the grand, historical scale; but the same is true of our personal encounters with art, from the day to day. You can stand in front of Velazquez’s Las Meninas a thousand times, and every time it will be different because you will be altered: tired or full of energy, or dissimilar from your previous self in a multitude of ways.

… Our idea was to make a book that was neither art history not art criticism but an experiment in shared appreciation. It is, in other words, an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art: what it feels like on a particular occasion, which is of course the only way any of us can ever look at anything.

This brings to mind the famous fragment of Heraclitus: “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

HOW TO LOOK AT ART

There is undeniably a curatorial aspect to art. De Montebello notes that contrast between addition and subtraction when it comes to selection.  He writes:

In Europe, one often has a sense that a selection has been made by paring down a lot of inherited dynastic objects or spoils of colonization or war. Then a curatorial mind has built on that base. In the USA, you start ab initio. American museums large and small tend to be encyclopedic, whether you are in Toledo, Minneapolis, or elsewhere, because they started from nothing, and from the premise that they’d like to buy a little bit of everything: a couple of Chinese things, a few medieval things, and so on.

While there are differences in what’s on display at American museums, de Montebello also alludes to the “sameness in their governing principles and the criteria used for acquisitions.” The great museums, he argues, “are organisms, constantly changing, and mainly expanding. The collections grow, move in new directions, and, on rare occasion, get sold off. The buildings are adapted and frequently enlarged.” A visit to a museum in itself is part of the learning process.

De Montebello writes:

I have found that when I have forced myself — often with the help of curators — to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knowledge, what had been hidden from me became manifest. I’ll give you an example: for a long time I approached galleries of Greek vases with a sense of dread; whether black- or red-figured, the vases all looked alike to me. Museums were often culpable as they tended to show far too many. So I’d walk into one of those rooms, take one look and dash for the exit. But a curator at the Met, Joan Mertens, told me once to go to the vitrines where only fragments, or shards, were shown. She stood beside me and said, look at one of them as if it were a drawing on paper.

I found I was able to look at it this way, forgetting that it was a fragment of a vessel, a three-dimensional utilitarian object. I could focus on the drawing itself, the line, the composition, and how marvellous it was. But the epiphany came when I was able to put surface decoration and vessel shape together, and look at them as one. It is the only correct way, incidentally.

Fragments are a representation of the whole—to appreciate them we have to engage beyond the instant gratification we so often seek. It often takes us repressing our ego and asking for help to truly see a piece or an exhibit, much like an adult who takes classes to appreciate Shakespeare.

De Montebello concludes:

[O]ne can be taught, and needs to taught, how to look, how to push aside one’s prejudices, one’s overly hasty negative reactions. For me, it was a long learning process, and I have to imagine that for the majority of visitors it can’t be easy either. …  The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most popular forms of popular culture, and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.

This strikes a familiar note, as we have often called Farnam Street “curated interestingness” for the very same reason: We feel it’s our job to help you find and appreciate the best wisdom the world has to offer.

***

Rendez-Vous with Art adds to our expanding library on art, sitting next to The Power of Art and The Story of Art.

The Creative Process in 10 Acts

“It’s good to understand that it’s all a process and it’s going to take you to a new place.
And I try to remind myself … to enjoy the process.”

***

In this short video, Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards, offers creative process in ten acts based on her experience in film and art. Consider this an extension to Graham Wallace‘s model of the four stages of the creative process and how we gain creative insight.

1. The Hunch
Any project starts with a hunch, and you have to act on it. It’s a total risk because you’re just about to jump off a cliff, and you have to go for it if you believe in it.

2. Talk About It
Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your community … they’re the ones who are going to support you on this whole treacherous journey of the creative process, so involve them, engage them.

3. The Sponge
I’m going to tons of art shows, I’m watching a lot of movies, I’m reading voraciously. I’m asking questions … and I’m just sponging up ideas and trying to formulate my own idea about the subject.

4. Build
I love the word filmmaker because it has maker in it. My team and I are … building an armature — the architecture for the project.

5. Confusion
Dread. Heart of Darkness. Forest of fire, doubt, fear, every project has this stage for me. But as hard as it is — and it is really hard — any project always gets infinitely better after I’ve rumbled with all of my fears.

6. Just Step Away
Take a breather — literally just step away from the project. And I’ll build this into the schedule. Let it marinate — don’t look at it or think about it.

7. The Love Sandwich
To give constructive feedback, always snuggle it in love — because we’re only human, and we’re vulnerable … Set expectations for where you are in the project, then ask questions in a way that allows for the love sandwich: First, “What works for you?” Then, “What doesn’t work for you?” Then, “What works for you?” again. If you just ask people for feedback, they’ll go straight for the jugular.

8. The Premature Breakthroughlation
You’ll find in a project that you’ll have many small breakthroughs — and you have to celebrate those breakthroughs, because they’re ultimately going to lead to the big breakthrough, which will happen.

9. Revisit Your Notes
I always do this throughout the project, but especially during that last home stretch. Those late nights. Usually near a deadline. … I revisit all my notes and think back, and always find a clue — that missing link that brings it all home.

10. Know When You’re Done

The Simplest Way to Achieve Simplicity is Through Thoughtful Reduction

A close friend of mine argues that while we love the first part of Einstein’s quote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible,” we ignore the second part “but not simpler,” which is the essence of Occam’s Razor. This article is about how we can achieve simplicity through thoughtful reduction.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

— Einstein

After a bit of reflection, on twitter, I wrote: “You don’t fully understand something until you can simplify it. But if all you do is simplify it, you don’t understand it.

The complexity of “but not simpler” is where we struggle.

This is where our brain struggles and tries to avoid work. The struggle is where the real learning comes from.

We are pattern matching creatures — once we find a solution that works, we close our minds to alternative ideas.

A key element of simplicity and understanding is the thoughtful reduction of the unnecessary.

An inversion if you will. And yet one I wish more organizations would consider. While it’s counter-intuitive, subtraction is often more powerful than addition.

***

In The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda writes:

The easiest way to simplify a system is to remove functionality. Today’s DVD, for instance, has too many buttons if all you want to do is play a movie. A solution could be to remove the buttons for Rewind, Forward, Eject, and so forth until only one button remains: Play.

But what if you want to replay a favorite scene? Or pause the movie while you take that all-important bathroom break? The fundamental question is, where’s the balance between simplicity and complexity?

Simplicity Through Thoughtful Reduction

On the one hand, you want a product or service to be easy to use; on the other hand you want it to do everything that a person might want it to do.

The process of reaching an ideal state of simplicity can be truly complex, so allow me to simplify it for you. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.

It’s not about removing for the sake of removing.

When it is possible to reduce a system’s functionality without significant penalty, true simplification is realized. When everything that can be removed is gone, a second battery of methods can be employed. I call these methods SHE: SHRINK, HIDE, EMBODY.

[…]

Simplicity is about the unexpected pleasure derived from what is likely to be insignificant and would otherwise go unnoticed.

***

If you’re short on time you can stop here. If you’re interested in SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody) keep reading.

Size matters.

The smaller the object, the more forgiving we can be when it misbehaves.

Making things smaller doesn’t make them necessarily better, but when made so we tend to have a more forgiving attitude towards their existence. A larger-than-human-scale object demands its rightful respect, whereas a tiny object can be something that deserves our pity. When comparing a kitchen spoon to a construction bulldozer the larger scale of the vehicle instills fear, while the rounded utensil appears harmless and inconsequential. The bulldozer can run you over and end your life, but if the spoon were to fall on top of you, your life would likely be spared. Guns, mace cannisters, and little karate experts of course are the exception to this rule of “fear the large, endear the small.”

Technology is SHRINK-ing.

The computational power of a machine that sixty years ago weighed 60,000 pounds and occupied 1,800 square feet can now be packed onto a sliver of metal less than a tenth the size of the nail on your pinkie. Integrated circuit (IC) chip technology-commonly referred to as “computer chips”-allows far greater complexity at a much tinier scale. IC chips lie at the heart of the problem of complex devices today as they enable increasingly smaller devices to be created. A kitchen spoon and a mobile phone can share the exact same physical dimensions, yet the many IC’s embedded inside the phone make the device easily more complex than the bulldozer-so looks can be deceiving.

Thus while IC’s are a primary driver of complexity in modern day objects, they also enable the ability to shrink a frighteningly complex machine to the size of a cute little gumdrop. The smaller the object is, the lower the expectations; the more IC’s that are inside, the greater the power. In this age of wireless technology that connects the IC inside the phone with all the computers in the world, power has now become absolute. There is no turning back to the age when large objects were complex and small objects were simple.

[…]
Lessening the inevitable complicating blow of these technologies by way of SHRINK may seem like a form of deception, which it is. But anything that can make the medicine of complexity go down easier is a form of simplicity, even when it is an act of deceit.

SHE: HIDE

When all features that can be removed have been, and a product has been made slim, light, and thin, it’s time for the second method: HIDE the complexity through brute-force methods. A classical example of this technique is the Swiss army knife. Only the tool you wish to use is exposed, while the other blades and drivers are hidden.

[…]

Hiding complexity through ingenious mechanical doors or tiny display screens is an overt form of deception. If the deceit feels less like malevolence, more like magic, then hidden complexities become more of a treat than a nuisance. The ear-catching “click” when opening a Motorola Razr cell phone or the cinematic performance of an on-screen visual in Apple’s Mac OS X creates the satisfaction of owning the power to will complexity from simplicity. Thus complexity becomes a switch that the owner can choose to flip into action on their own terms, and not by their device’s will.

SHRINK-ing an object lowers expectations, and the hiding of complexities allows the owner to manage the expectations himself. Technology creates the problem of complexity, but also affords new materials and methods for the design of our relationship with complexities that shall only continue to multiply.

SHE: EMBODY

As features go into hiding and products shrink, it becomes ever more necessary to embed the object with a sense of the value that is lost after HIDE and SHRINK. Consumers will only be drawn to the smaller, less functional product if they perceive it to be more valuable than a bigger version of the product with more features. Thus the perception of quality becomes a critical factor when making the choice of less over more.

And in contrast to Sanjay Bakshi’s pragmatic take on the luxury goods business, Maeda takes a different approach.

Embodying an object with properties of real quality is the basis of the luxury goods industry and is rooted in their use of precious materials and exquisite craftsmanship. Relatedly, a designer of Ferrari cars once told me that a Ferrari has fewer parts than a common car, but the parts themselves are significantly better than anything else on this earth. This elegant tale of construction uses the simple philosophy that if good parts can make a great product, incredible parts can lead to a legendary one.

[…]

It is necessary to advertise qualities that cannot be conveyed implicitly, especially when the message of embodiment simply tells the truth.

The first law can be summed up as:

Lessen what you can and conceal everything else without losing the sense of inherent value. EMBODY-ing a greater sense of quality through enhanced materials and other messaging cues is an important subtle counterbalance to SHRINK-ing and HIDEing the directly understood aspects of a product. Design, technology, and business work in concert to realize the final decisions that will lead to how much reduction in a product is tolerable, and how much quality it will embody in spite of its reduced state of being. Small is better when SHE’d.

The Laws of Simplicity is worth reading in its entirety.

Seuss-isms: A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out and Those Already on Their Way

Seuss-isms

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was the famous children’s book author. He was also a philosopher. Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out…and Those Already on Their Way offers a taste of some of his wit and wisdom.

Be True To Yourself

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Listen to Good Advice

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,” said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid …
BUT … you must spit out the air.”
My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

Think Before You Speak

My father had warned me, “Don’t babble. Don’t bray.
For you never can tell who might hear what you say.”
My father had warned me, “But button your lip.”
And I guess that I should have. I made a bad slip.
Steak for Supper

Tell the Truth

“Stop telling such outlandish tales.
Stop turning minnows into whales.”
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

Focus

This was no time for play.
This was no time for fun.
This was no time for games.
There was work to be done.
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back

Don’t Be Afraid to Accept Help

I floated twelve days without toothpaste or soap.
I practically, almost, had given up hope
When someone up high shouted, “Here! Catch the rope!”
Then I knew that my troubles had come to an end
And I climbed the rope, calling, “Thank you, my friend!”
I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

Expect the Unexpected

I heard a strange ‘peep’ and I took a quick look
And you know what I saw with the look that I took?
A bird laid an egg on my ‘rithmetic book!
Marco Comes Late

Try New Things

I do not like
green eggs
and ham!
I do not like them,
Sam I am.

You do not like them.
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say
Green Eggs and Ham

Take Chances

The places I hiked to!
The roads that I rambled
To find the best eggs
that have ever been scrambled!
If you want to get eggs
you can’t buy at a store,
You have to do things
never thought of before.
Scrambled Eggs Super

Reading Expands Your Horizons

The more that you read,
the more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you’ll go.
I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!

Be Grateful

When you think things are bad,
when you feel sour and blue,
when you start to get mad …
you should do what I do!
Just tell yourself, Duckie,
you’re really quite lucky!
Some people are much more …
oh, ever so much more …
oh muchly much-much more
unlucky than you.
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

Embrace your strengths

Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!
Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham
Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam!
I am what I am!
Happy Birthday to You

Be Proactive

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole lot,
nothing is going to get better,
It’s not.
The Lorax

Remain Humble

The rabbit felt mighty
important that day
On top of the hill
in the sun where he lay.
He felt SO important
up there on that hill
That he started bragging
as animals will …
The Big Brag

Learn to Improvise

“All I need is a reindeer. …”
The Grinch looked around.
But, since reindeer are scarce, there was none to be found.
Did that stop the old Grinch?
No! The Grinch simply said,
“If I can’t find a reindeer, I’ll make one instead!”
So he called his dog, Max. Then he took some red thread,
And he tied a big horn on the top of his head.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out…and Those Already on Their Way dispenses invaluable life advice like only Dr. Seuss can.

Vincent van Gogh on Color

Vincent van Gogh on Color

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated July 1882, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes how the simple few fundamentals combine into nearly endless permutations.

Absolute black doesn’t in fact occur. Like white, however, it’s present in almost every colour and forms the endless variety of greys — distinct in tone and strength. So that in nature one in fact sees nothing but these tones or strengths.

The 3 fundamental colours are red, yellow, blue, “composite” orange, green, purple.

From these are obtained the endless variations of grey by adding black and some white — red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey.

It’s impossible to say how many different green-greys there are for example — the variation is infinite.

But the whole chemistry of colours is no more complicated than those simple few fundamentals. And a good understanding of them is worth more than 70 different shades of paint — given that more than 70 tones and strengths can be made with the 3 primary colours and white and black. The colourist is he who on seeing a colour in nature is able to analyze it coolly and say, for example, that green-grey is yellow with black and almost no blue, &c. In short, knowing how to make up the greys of nature on the palette.

What A Rembrandt Can Teach you about Software and Programmers

A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean on how looking at a Rembrandt can teach us to better understand not only software but the craft behind it.

Suppose you visit an art museum and walk up to a painting. I say “Ah ha! I see you’re admiring some powdered pigments, mixed with oil and smeared onto what appears to be a canvas panel.” You say “No, you moron. I’m admiring a Rembrandt.” Good. You’re three-quarters of the way towards a deep understanding of software.

How did this happen?

Well clearly we may, if we choose, regard a painting as a coming-together of two separate elements. The paints and canvas—the physical stuff; and the form-giving mind-plan. I’ll call these two elements the body and the disembodied painting respectively.

Both are necessary to the finished product. But they are unequally decisive to its character. If Rembrandt had (while trying to shake out a tablecloth) accidentally chucked his favorite paint set into a canal on the very morning he was destined to make our painting; if he’d accordingly been forced to go down to the basement and hunt up another set—the finished product would be the same. But if he’d altered his mind-plan—the disembodied painting—before setting to work, our finished painting would obviously have been different.

In fact, the disembodied painting is a painting in and of itself— albeit a painting of a special kind, namely an unbodied one. Rembrandt is perfectly entitled to tell his wife “I have a painting in mind” before setting to work. But plainly the mere body is no painting, not in and of itself. If the paints on Rembrandt’s table went around telling people “Hey look at us, we’re a painting,” no-one would believe them.

This distinction is the key to software and its special character. A running program is a machine of a certain kind, an information machine. The program text—the words and symbols that the programmer composes, that “tell the computer what to do” – is a disembodied information machine. Your computer provides a body.

Unlike Rembrandt’s mind plan, a disembodied information machine must be written down precisely and in full. It’s a bit like the engineering drawings for a new toaster in this regard; the machine designer leaves nothing to chance. Unlike Rembrandt’s mind plan or the toaster drawings, on the other hand, a disembodied information machine can be “embodied” automatically. No skill, judgement or human intervention is required. Merely hand your text to a computer (it’s probably stored inside the computer already); the computer itself performs the “embodying.”

So: A running program—an information machine or infomachine for short—is the embodiment of a disembodied machine. In saying this, we have said a lot. A fairly simple point first, then a subtle and deeply important one—

Some people believe that, when they see a program running, the machine they are watching is a “computer.” True, but not true enough. The computer, that impressive-looking box with the designer logo, is merely the paint, not the painting. When you say I’m watching this computer do its stuff, you are saying in effect I’m admiring not this Rembrandt but some paint smeared on canvas. Some people imagine the computer as a gifted actor (say) who is handed a program and declaims it feelingly. No: bad image. The computer itself is of the utmost triviality to the workings of the infomachine you are watching. It may decide how fast or slowly the thing runs, and may effect its behaviour just a little around the fringes, but essentially, it is of no logical significance whatever. It is a mere body, and bodies are a dime a dozen.

The second point is harder.

People often find it difficult to keep in mind that, when they see a program text, what they’re looking at is a machine. The fact that, for the time being, the machine they’re looking at has no body confuses them With good reason: This is a subtle, maybe a confusing point. They leap to the conclusion that what programmers do amounts to arranging symbols on paper (or in a computer file) in a certain way. They look at a program and see merely a highly specialized kind of document …

This mistake is fatal to any real understanding of what software is.

Understanding software doesn’t mean understanding how program texts are arranged, it means understanding what the working infomachine itself is like—what actually happens when you embody the thing and turn it on-what kind of structure you are creating when you organize those squiggles-the shape of the finished product, the way information hums through it, the way it grows, shrinks and changes as it runs, the look and feel of the actual computational landscape. This is where software creativity is exercised. This is where the field evolves, metamorphoses and explodes. Talented software designers work with some image of the actual running program uppermost in mind. Failing to see through the program text to the machine it represents is like trying to understand musical notation without grasping that those little sticks and ellipsoids represent sounds.

This kind of information is hard to convey. You can’t directly see a running program. You can sense its workings indirectly, but you can’t open the hood and look right at the mechanism. An ironic reversal of the Rembrandt experience: Here the mind-plan is tangible, but the embodied thing itself is not.

Finally concluding

[I]f you get carried away, and start asserting that “music is the mechanical manipulation of symbols on staff paper,” “programming is mathematics,” you have committed intellectual suicide. You’ve mistaken the means for the end. You’ve cut yourself off absolutely from all real inspiration, creativity and growth. And you have failed, profoundly, to understand the character of your field.

A dangerous mistake. Where software is concerned, an all-too-natural one.