Artists Don’t Have Poor On The Brain

For some reason recently I seem to be writing a lot about how money and external rewards/punishments don’t seem to motivate creative professionals.

I saw the topic come up again just last week in an opinion piece on (scroll down to “MIND ON MY MONEY & MONEY ON MY MIND”). Tim Schneider examines a study conducted with a small sample size that was being used to support an idea that artists are poor because their brains are hardwired to desire that state.

The article he responds to says:

Adding a twist to their findings, the researchers also discovered in a second test that artists showed a greater response in another dopamine-related part of the brain (the anterior prefrontal cortex) when they were told to reject the green squares. In other words, artists get less worked up about receiving money and more worked up when they know they can’t have it.

“Collectively, our results indicate the existence of distinct neural traits in the dopaminergic reward system of artists, who are less inclined to react to the acceptance of monetary rewards,” the researchers write.

Schneider refutes the suggestion that the study supports the idea artists’ brain chemistry creates a preference toward poverty. Not only because the sample size for the study was only two dozen people, but because he felt the poverty interpretation read too much into the results.

…Instead, the researchers simply concluded that artists “are less inclined to react to the acceptance of monetary rewards” than non-artists—meaning, in effect, that the artists in the sample prioritized cash less than normies when making certain practical decisions.

Which… duh? In fact, short of proposing that it might not be advisable on a first date to go beast mode on a full slab of ribs, I’m having a hard time imagining a less controversial statement than that one—especially to artists themselves. After all, if they didn’t find a higher value in pursuing creative goals than making money, they would just be content to sink into stable, boring jobs like the rest of us rather than braving the many risks, uncertainties, and injustices of life as an artist.

So as I have been writing throughout these posts, don’t let people convince you that you are poor because you want to be or your brain chemistry is imbalanced. Next thing you know, someone will start prescribing drugs to cure your AADS – Artist Acquisitive Deficiency Syndrome.  (I am sure someone out there can come up with a more entertaining acronym).

Approaching Arts & Culture Experience With The Wonder Of A Child

The NEA’s Arts Works blog had a post, Five Questions We Have about Visiting Art Museums, which I thought had some pretty good tips for interacting with art. The post was specifically aimed at families attending museums together and offered this bit of insight.

Of course, kids might not see things exactly the same way adults do. What do you do if your little one looks at a portrait of George Washington, for example, and says our first president’s a ballerina? Evans says that’s just fine! “In terms of their experience with the portrait, that’s still very relevant and very accurate. You can ask them what they see that makes them think of a ballerina. Maybe it’s because he’s standing with his feet in a certain position or he has his hand out. That’s still their engagement with it to notice his pose,” she said.

In some cases, this is the type of question anyone might have upon first encountering an unfamiliar mode of expression. People tend to initially process a new experience in the context of something familiar.

But it also might be the case that the simpler interpretation might be more enjoyable. Hat tip to Ceci Dadisman who retweeted this:

I also enjoyed the following advice in answer to the question, “What’s the most important thing I should know about looking at art?

Borrowing an idea from social media, Moss suggested asking yourself (or your kids), “What is the picture, if you could post one thing, that you would want to show of your experience?” She added, “Maybe that will get you thinking, ‘Oh, I need to be thoughtful about what I’m seeing and really zoom in on the object that’s really speaking to me,’ and also really thinking about why.”

Moss also added that she wants museum visitors to, “own the experience. Don’t feel intimidated. Don’t feel like you’re not smart if you don’t like something. Bring your experiences to bear on what you see and have fun and walk away with something new in your mind.”

Again, the suggestion frames the way people can approach the museum experience in a familiar context.

Essentially, the suggestions are giving parents permission to view art through the eyes of their children but pretty much anyone should feel like they have permission to approach art in that manner regardless of whether they have children.

In some ways this reminds me of a piece I wrote a piece on being as patient with yourself as you are with a baby, inspired by Stephen McCraine’s webcomic Be Friend with Failure where he specifically draws a connection between appreciation of great art and the fact you wouldn’t criticize a baby learning to speak in the same way you criticize yourself for not quickly absorbing a new skill.  Everyone needs permission both from themselves and others to acquire skills, perception, etc required for a new experience.

Culture Is There For Those Hostile To It, Too

Just came across Oskar Eustis’ TED Talk, “Why Theatre Is Essential To Democracy.” He talks about the how so much of the work Joe Papp did with the Public Theater was about expanding access and telling important stories that were being muted.

Eustis goes on to talk about how he has been trying to extend that mission as the current director of the Public Theater, taking shows out to the five boroughs of NYC and to NJ rather than expecting people to come to them in Manhattan.

I wrote a little about this when I covered Eustis’ keynote at the 2016 Arts Midwest conference where I wrote,

He also mentioned despite doing so many free productions in Central Park, they discovered only their prison program and the shows they trucked out to the five boroughs of NYC were the only programs that were serving a mix of people that reflected the demographics of NYC.

In his TED Talk, Eustis mentions how the curtain call statement by the cast of Hamilton  to then Vice President-elect Pence had spurred calls for boycotts of the show.

I looked at that boycott and I said, we’re getting something wrong here. All of these people who have signed this boycott petition, they were never going to see “Hamilton” anyway. It was never going to come to a city near them. If it could come, they couldn’t afford a ticket, and if they could afford a ticket, they didn’t have the connections to get that ticket.

They weren’t boycotting us; we had boycotted them. And if you look at the red and blue electoral map of the United States, and if I were to tell you, “Oh, the blue is what designates all of the major nonprofit cultural institutions,” I’d be telling you the truth. You’d believe me. We in the culture have done exactly what the economy, what the educational system, what technology has done, which is turn our back on a large part of the country.

With this in mind, he says next Fall the Public Theater is going to take Lynn Nottage’s play, Sweat, on tour to rural counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin:

Sweat is based on interviews Nottage conducted during visits to Reading, PA where she also helped create the multi-media, site specific production of This Is Reading that I have written about before.  (Be sure to read Margy Waller’s account of the production which I link to in both articles.)

Eustis describes Sweat as,

…about the deindustrialization of Pennsylvania: what happened when steel left, the rage that was unleashed, the tensions that were unleashed, the racism that was unleashed by the loss of jobs.

Eustis give us a lot to think about when it comes to bridging the gap between the ideals expressed in mission statements and grant proposals and translating them into action.  He could have easily concluded boycott efforts wouldn’t hurt Hamilton ticket sales one whit, ignored the disapproval and continued on. Instead, he concluded there was an unmet need and a problem that needed to be addressed and started to put a production together to respond to them.

The approach isn’t going to be one of, “we are Broadway and we are here to illuminate your poor benighted souls,”

We’re partnering with community organizations there to try and make sure not only that we reach the people that we’re trying to reach, but that we find ways to listen to them back and say, “The culture is here for you, too.”

Cross Cultural Appreciation Is A Start

Pacific Standard recently pointed to a study conducted in Portugal that indicated some positive outcomes using the music and culture of immigrant groups to help reduce prejudicial attitudes.

It reports schoolchildren around age 11 who learned about the music and culture of a faraway land expressed warmer feelings toward immigrants from that country than those who did not. What’s more, those positive emotions were still evident three months after this exposure to the foreign culture.

“Music can inspire people to travel to other emotional worlds,” writes a research team led by psychologist Felix Neto of the University of Porto. Their work suggests songs can serve as an emotional bridge between cultures, revealing feelings that are common to both.

Their study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, featured 229 Portuguese sixth graders, all living in greater Lisbon. Two-thirds came from blue-collar families.

The students in the experimental group participated in twenty 90 minute sessions across six months. At the end of that period, their prejudices were reduced compared to the control group and that attitude persisted when the experiment group was surveyed three months later.

Learning of this study lead me to recall something mentioned in a keynote address delivered by Jamie Bennett where he cited an anthropologist working with drumming circles at the Field Museum

As I wrote in that post,

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded. Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

Thinking about both of these situations started me wondering if this effect is underappreciated and ineffectively employed to constructive ends. While I am obviously against positioning music and other cultural expressions as prescriptions to cure racism, the impact of cross-cultural exposure is well recognized.

Of course, what has been somewhat controversial in the U.S., at least, is that this impact has often manifested as borrowing/”discovery”/appropriation by people outside of the cultural group who go on to popularize it. Or people have borrowed the appealing elements of cultural expression while avoiding the daily challenges faced by members of the source culture.

The challenge therefore is 1) Opening people to experiencing expressions of cultures that are not their own. 2) Ensuring that the peoples of other cultures are able to retain ownership and identification with their expressions as people come to appreciate it.

Even after that, there is still much work that needs to be done. A reduction in prejudicial attitudes doesn’t equal the elimination of prejudice. A person is more than just the external expressions of their culture. There can be a gap to bridge between appreciating someone for their skillful exhibition of their culture and appreciating them as a whole person.

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