Top Menu

Author Archive | Joe Patti

Some Parts Of This Post May Be Boring

I was going to hold off featuring this in the blog until a later date, but Carter Gillies comment on my recent Distract Me From My Distraction post decided me.

Maria Popova recently assembled the thoughts of many luminaries on Brain Pickings, In Defense of Boredom.

Years before the internet, video games, cell phones and the like, people were already thinking about the value of boredom in shaping us as individuals.

Popova’s opening thoughts probably won’t be news to anyone.

Today, amid our cult of productivity, we’ve come to see boredom as utterly inexcusable — the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. We run from it as if to be caught in our own unproductive company were a profound personal failure. We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.

She quotes philosopher Bertrand Russell:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

Perhaps most applicable to the arts are the words of Susan Sontag:

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

Sontag’s thoughts bring up a whole host of questions. Some are familiar like whether it is appropriate to have the expectation of art to be entertaining. The concept of being in the wrong mode or modes of attention is new to me. I have certainly been to performances and encountered works of visual art where I understood it was less about the meaning than the general sensory experience.

But I don’t recall consciously deciding I needed to make that shift. It leave me wondering if I should have asked myself if I was operating in the wrong mode when I was bored. I also wonder how you educate audiences about making this shift without sounding superior and condescending. (i.e. The reason you didn’t like it is because you didn’t realized you weren’t supposed to search for meaning and understanding, you were supposed to focus on the holistic sonic and visual experience.)

Writer and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky echoed a sentiment made by Bertrand Russell about the need to learn to handle boredom. His last sentence is definitely worth some consideration.

I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with oneself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.

This idea that it is important for children to learn to navigate boredom appears again in the words of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who like Russell and Tarkovsky characterizes it as a crucial milestone in personal development.

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

I call attention to all this because one of the central challenges the arts face is this innate, growing fear that boredom means something is wrong with your life. Since this issue has been commented on for 200 years, to some extent this fear is a natural part of being human. The problem is that since stimulation comes at an ever increasing rate, the interval after which a person decides they are bored becomes increasingly shorter.

Since parents and general socialization continue to reinforce this concept of boredom, there is likely little the relatively “slow” format arts and culture organizations can do to combat it other than repeating a mantra of “it is okay to be bored.”

I am sure he is amused that I keep bringing this up, but I think one of the most effective efforts in Drew McManus’ “Take A Friend to the Orchestra” campaign was when he took a guy to a concert at Carnegie Hall and told him it was okay to get bored and Drew admitted that even he gets bored at concerts.

Introducing the possibility that parts of an experience might be boring by giving someone permission to be bored might bias them against the experience from the outset. It is highly likely they were already afraid they might be bored anyway, (along with every opportunity in life that presents itself, it ain’t just you), so being given license to dislike some aspects might be a relief.

Continue Reading

Info You Can Use: Holding A Mirror Up To Fundraising

Simone Joyaux wrote a must-read, “physician heal thyself” post for development teams in a recent Non-Profit Quarterly post.

In her column, Fundraisers: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, she enjoins development teams to look in the mirror before blaming others for failures. (If you have a hankering to listen to the theme music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly movie while reading, there is an interesting guitar rendition here.)

Joyaux addresses many common complaints development departments have about board members not providing assistance with fundraising, board members not donating, issues with opinionated executive directors and weak economic conditions inhibiting efforts.

She provides some advice about dealing with each situation, mentioning a different approaches to use. In nearly every case though, she challenges fundraising staff to examine their assumptions and understanding of the situation to see if they are at least partially contributing to the difficulties.

Often she asks if the development team has sat down and spoken with someone to understand their limitations and concerns and whether the development staff has been providing sufficient support to a board member’s efforts on their behalf.

There are some things Joyaux writes about that I have rarely, if ever, heard mentioned in relation to fund raising efforts.

(By the way: How do you define fundraising? I hope you aren’t thinking about asking for money only. There’s so much more to fundraising than the asking point. Do you know all the steps and the neuroscience and the psychology and communications and all the rest? Can you help board members apply that, in partnership with each other and in partnership with you?)

When she mentions them, neuroscience and psychology make sense as factors to consider, but I can’t remember ever hearing them mentioned in connection with development before. (Actually, I have to admit I only have guesses on how neuroscience relates.)

As Joyaux notes, becoming effective at development is a process and there isn’t anyone who hasn’t committed some sort of poor practice.

In my early years, I know I must have behaved this way. I saw glimpses in the mirror. How about you?

Bad fundraising performance #1: The fundraiser didn’t handle well leads suggested by several board members.

Bad fundraising performance #2: The fundraising staff didn’t ask for specific support from a specific board member, and explain why, and provide support.

Bad fundraising performance #3: The fundraising staff doesn’t spend much time learning about the program. The fundraising staff doesn’t collect stories from program staff. The fundraisers rarely observe a program or talk with client beneficiaries. This produces weak solicitations, bad links with our heroes, the donors.

Oops, actually that last point reminds me I need to follow up with some participants of an education service we hosted last week.

Continue Reading

Distract Me From My Distraction

I frequently cite Seth Godin’s blog posts because so much of what he writes is applicable to arts organizations and an observation he made last week was no exception.

He says we spend too much time teaching people technique when it is really commitment to endure failure and frustration that allows people to become skilled at something.

But most people don’t want to commit until after they’ve discovered that they can be good at something. So they say, “teach me, while I stand here on one foot, teach me while I gossip with my friends via text, teach me while I wander off to other things. And, sure, if the teaching sticks, then I’ll commit.”

We’d be a lot more successful if organized schooling was all about creating an atmosphere where we can sell commitment (and where people will buy it). A committed student with access to resources is almost unstoppable.

I think most people in the arts can identify with the feeling that they are being challenged to capture and hold people’s attention while they engage in some other activity. While distracting people from what they are doing has always been something of a function of advertising, these days arts organizations are faced with the unspoken challenge at their own events of “try to distract me back from my distraction and maybe I will pay attention.”

Teaching in the framework of commitment rather than technique would probably have profound implications for the education system because it would diminish the mindset of retaining knowledge long enough to pass the test. It might necessitate the elimination of the vast majority of tests. (I say “might” since Japan has a culture that emphasizes committed pursuit of excellence in an endeavor and they also have a lot of testing in schools.)

The people shaped by an education focused on commitment might not be any better disposed to the arts than people are today, but presumably those who did attend a performance or enter a museum would arrive with the intent of directing their attention to the experience.

Godin doesn’t really say what commitment focused education would look like. I think it would be easy default to repetition of task. But playing the piano for hours or sitting outside the kung fu master’s house in the rain is only proof of commitment, it doesn’t instill or model it as part of the education process.

I would think experiential learning would be a part of it. Witnessing people go through a process and going through a process yourself begins to give you a sense of the level of attention and commitment  involved.

The arts can play a big role in this as preparing a canvas, working with clay and rehearsing for a performance are all labor intensive and time consuming. But the same can be said for preparing for a science experiment and that fact can be underscored by visiting labs or formulating your own experiments.

A slight shift in emphasis in talking about history can add a conversation about the effort someone went through to research, assemble and restore an artifact to a discussion of the history of the artifact. Again, reinforcing the importance of dedication rather than just emphasizing dates and facts.

Of course,  skill of delivery will still determine whether anyone is interested in learning about history.

Continue Reading

The Old Utility of Art Argument

I bought the bowl below at a sale of student art. I have been displaying it on my desk for the last month or so. I recently had someone come in and comment that the difference between art and craft was whether you could use it or not, so this bowl must be art.

By that definition, the Paul Randolph designed Orange County Government Center must be art because it is a really difficult place to work in.

I grew up in Orange County and was in and out of the center fairly often.  When I was really young it was always a crazy looking place that presented a lot of places to potentially hide and play in (If I could only get away from my mother.)  As I got older, it was still a crazy looking place that captured my imagination, even driving by. But even 30+ years ago I noticed there were a heck of a lot of buckets deployed to catch leaks.

The argument about whether a work of art is worth the expense based on its perceived lack of usefulness is an old one. The criticisms become even more pronounced if the work isn’t immediately aesthetically pleasing or comprehensible.

In many respects, architecture faces greater difficulty with these issues. People may be angered by a performance they attended, but the experience is transitory. People may be scandalized by the amount paid for a piece of visual art, but it often disappears from view behind a museum or collector’s walls. Even if it is a piece of public art that reminds people of their dismay every day as they go to work, the expense of its existence is generally in the past. (Unless something falls off on to your head.)

Buildings, people have to live in and the cost of the distinctive design can frequently persist for years. To paraphrase an old saying, it is easier to buy a piece of art than to live in one. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, for example, has been faced with various problems particular to its design.

Unlike Fallingwater which is now a museum, and similar efforts to preserve  buildings as a historical tourism sites,  the government center is seeking to renovate a building with a long history of problems so that it can continue to serve its original function.

They are faced with a number of options and I obviously like the idea of turning the space into artist residences and workspaces. But this situation provides an interesting illustration of the tension between functionality and artistic and historical value.

Often we hear stories about an historical building being slated for demolition in order to build a parking lot, condo or supermarket. Does it count for anything that these renovation plans will allow the building to continue with its function?

There are a number of art works for which the natural degradation is a planned feature. Since even buildings without a distinctive design inevitably develop issues as they age, should this expectation be factored in during the design stage?

If arts organizations shouldn’t assume they deserve to persist forever, should creatives expect their work to be preserved forever? This is a logical extension of the sentiment that really hasn’t been touched upon.

In recent years an idea has been espoused that legacy arts organizations have become too entrenched in their practices to be responsive to an environment where expectations shift so quickly. The suggestion is that it is arrogant for them to think they deserve to be continually funded if they are not effective at delivering their services.

By that thinking, does the Orange County Government Center deserve to be preserved if it doesn’t allow for the effective delivery of services?

Should a sculptor expect their fountain to be preserved forever after the mechanisms to keep it working are no longer made? The full intended effect of the work is diminished by the impossibility of restoration.

Should muralists expect their works to be restored after a leaky roof damages it? What if it were demolished by a tornado?

I am not suggesting that some performing arts organizations don’t need to do a little introspection about their existence. Or that the Sistine Chapel’s time has come. I just want to point out that when you start to employ criteria like effectiveness in relation to the arts, you open the door a little wider for the age old utility argument.

Along those lines, it occurs to me that one of the reasons many of our public buildings are functional but so uninspiring and unremarkable is that governments don’t want anyone becoming invested in preserving anything about them.


Continue Reading