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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.

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Info You Can Use: You Can Hack Being An Arts Administrator

Drew McManus is fulfilling one of my ambitions.

When I was first starting out this blog, I envisioned creating some sort of repository of information about arts and arts administration that people could consult.

It should be noted that I was unemployed when I started this blog nearly 11 years ago so I had a lot of time on my hands to be ambitious. That plan never panned out. Getting a job and getting really busy sort of diverted my focus from that.

However, despite being quite busy with his job as a consultant, Drew McManus has deluded concluded that trolling through 990 filings and evaluating the effectiveness of orchestra websites aren’t monopolizing enough of his time.

Drew has decided to create an Arts Administration version of Lifehacker. He is looking for people to be contributors to this effort. If you are interested, sign up on his website.

To my mind, everyone has something to contribute. If you are a student in college, you can contribute tips on engaging your friends and colleagues.

If you live outside the U.S. there are plenty of challenges we face in common and plenty of insights from your particular experiences that can be of value.

In that vein, I wanted to call attention to a course being offered free online by Stanford “How To Start A Start up” It is being hosted by Sam Altman of the venture firm Y Combinator. The course speakers are a who’s who of Silicon Valley.

It isn’t directly arts related, but there will obviously be some commonalities with arts business. Among the topics are building company culture, how to operate, how to manage and how to raise money. Everyone keeps talking about the need for a shift in thinking in the arts and this may spur some different approaches.

After learning about this class, I did a survey of all the Massive Open Online Courses being offered by different entities around the country -MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Coursera etc. No one offers anything related to arts administration that I could see. The only online arts administration program I am aware of is the Certified Performing Arts Executive program at University of New Orleans.

[N.B. Dang it! Nina Simon made a liar of me pointing out this course on arts innovation. It didn’t show up on my search because it started the day before.]

Given the lack of any centralized source of information, tips and tricks related to arts administration, a resource like the one Drew is proposing is sorely needed.

Please consider signing up to make a contribution. With your help, a lot of people will be able to hack being arts administrators

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Beware Starry Eyed Assumptions

I will be traveling abroad for the next couple weeks, but as I am wont to do on these occasions, I have prepared a retrospective of some interesting entries from the blog archives.

Back in April 2007 Drew McManus and I had an interesting crossblog conversation with Bill Harris of Facilitated Systems about how you really need to be careful about the assumptions you make regarding the results of studies.

In this particular case, it was in regard to some results found in a Knight Foundation study that at first blush might lead you to believe people who participated in music lessons as kids were more apt to attend performances when they grew up.

That ain’t necessarily the case. Read the comments on my post as well as those on the entry Bill made.

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Being Well Rounded Is Not A Back Up Plan

Last week Drew McManus wrote a post about the value society places on arts practitioners. He referenced an article he saw in a You’ve Cott Mail newsletter about a teacher who urged kids who wanted to pursue creative careers to have a back-up plan and asked if anyone could provide a link.

I did remember the article and tried my darnedest to find it again. I didn’t have it bookmarked as I had thought, but had done so with a similar article on Salon that started with an anecdote of a parent who was panicked when her son said his favorite subject in school was art.

That article noted that while people assume innovation comes from the science lab, it is the artistic habit which often fuels that innovation.

The external binaries of right and wrong don’t exist in art as they do in most subjects. In math, the answer to the problem is correct or incorrect. In history, a sequence of events is true or false. In art, only the student can decide what critique to listen to and what to ignore. Art is the arena of activity where we develop the skill most required to innovate — the ability to harness our own agency.

Artist and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard P. Feynman put it this way as he distinguished between teaching science and art: in physics, Feynman said, “we have so many techniques — so many mathematical methods — that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, ‘Your lines are too heavy,’ because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines.” In that moment, the art student is learning the validity of their choices, their own direction, and innovative results.

This particular section resonated for me because it seems that education is promulgating the idea of answers being right or wrong as testing becomes more prevalent and valued.

The Salon article goes on to cite a number of scientists who have artistic avocations which they credit with contributing to their scientific accomplishments. This isn’t new, we have often heard about how Einstein played the violin. Probably the biggest failing of the arts community is constantly going to Einstein as their example rather than citing a wider variety of scientists like astronaut Mae Jemison who is quoted in the article saying that the imagination that fueled the creation of sculpture and dance got the space shuttle flying.

To my mind, saying artists need a back up plan is really just an indelicate way of saying they need to be well rounded. I am not trying to inject some political correctness here because the truth is, everyone needs to be well rounded. I think it is Sir Ken Robinson who points out we have no idea what skills people will need 30 years in the future so it is best to teach everyone to be curious and teach themselves.

While there are plenty of artists who engage in a myopic pursuit of their discipline, in my view, the liberal and fine arts education community on the whole does a better job of making its members well rounded than science and business disciplines. Perhaps because few people tell science and business students they need to broaden their experience by having a back up plan.

Just last week a student was sitting in the lobby telling her music professor that she wanted to go to a conservatory so she wouldn’t have to take English and Philosophy courses. He informed her that wasn’t necessarily so since he attended a conservatory and had to take those classes. There was also the issue that as an acting student, those courses would actually inform her work down the road.

Only a week or so earlier, this same student listened to a pianist who had performed a concert for us talk about how she double majored when she was at the Peabody Institute both because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a pianist and she had many other interests. While she ultimately committed to the piano, she said she felt that her other course work gave her an advantage over her other classmates in terms of the opportunities she had available.

But last week our student was thinking about the difficult time she was having in class, not about this bigger career picture. Students need to be pushed to take a wide variety of classes rather than taking the path of least resistance. Framing this in terms of “a back up plan” does a disservice to their interests because it diminishes their passion for the arts.

But it also diminishes the “back up plan” by playing into that binary sense of right and wrong. If you think the arts taste sweet, then setting up anything else as the “back up” option when you fail at being an artist makes it the bitter pill that has to be swallowed.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea that an interest in the arts results in a zero-sum outcome is what feeds the purist idealism that allowing yourself to be interested in anything else is a sign of lack of seriousness about your art or selling out.

If you really wanted to be an artist but were told you needed a back up plan, wouldn’t you perhaps unconsciously redouble your efforts toward your art and avoid any involvement with any possible back up option?

Then when you succeed, it is your single minded passion and talent in the face of nay sayers that won out. If you fail, then I guess they were right all the time. You meet their expectation of being a failed artist since you never allowed yourself to exercise your other interests.

When you are young, there often is no conflict between an interest in reading Popular Science, making plays to entertain your family, playing baseball, running a lemonade stand and learning to program a computer. But then you are asked to choose…

If you “correctly” choose law, medicine, business or science, there probably won’t be a societal perceived conflict in continuing with your interests. It is only when you choose the arts that you may be pressured to choose one of your other interests instead.

The truth is, interest in the arts is not a zero sum game. If there are physicists who feel their artistic pursuits enhance their practice of science, there are certainly artists who can find their pursuit of science and technology will enhance their creative output.

I am sure there are accountants who also feel their professional practice is informed by their artistic hobbies. Its just that no one believes accounting can be made more interesting. (Though there are unfortunately too many stories of accountants getting creative in the wrong ways.)

If anything, Drew McManus is great example of being able to cultivate interests and strengths in multiple areas as a musician who has built an arts related business on an understanding of technology and analysis of business practices, including financial filings.

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