Is Art Dishwasher Safe?

After long correspondence (both in years and text length), I finally had an opportunity to meet with Carter Gillies over Thanksgiving weekend.  On at least one occasion I dubbed Carter “potter-philosopher,” because he has studied and practiced both disciplines.

Carter has been a big proponent of measuring the value of the arts on their own terms rather than their instrumental value to stimulate economies, raise test scores, cure cancer and bring world peace.

We spoke and debated for many hours on these ideas. However, the really challenging conversation was the one I had with myself days later. It is a conversation that millions have had and never concluded satisfactorily.

Before I left Carter’s house, he took me back to his studio and told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I grabbed a bowl that caught my eye and Carter discussed why he liked the glaze he applied to it, pointing out the subtle golden flecks that dotted different places.

A few days later he wrote me thanking me for visiting and hoping I enjoyed eating out of the bowl.

I was mortified. How could I eat out of that bowl? It was a piece of art that represented the culmination of our relationship to this point. I had it prominently displayed on a table in front of my sofa.

But then when I thought about it, I have two mugs given to me by one of the directors of the art museum back where I previously lived in Ohio. I drink out of those all the time. In fact, I am drinking out of one of them right now, totally unplanned. To leave them in the cupboard and not use them would be a small betrayal of my relationship with her, implying they were not good enough to eat out of.

I have endowed both the bowl and mugs with value derived from my relationship with the makers. My conclusions about what the appropriate treatment of each are completely opposite and pretty illogical.

I am not even sure the question here is “what is art?”

Does mundane and common use diminish an object’s identity as art while preserving it in an untouched and stationary state except to dust it impart greater identity as an object d’art?

The makers are both in my mind and heart when I see and use these objects which is part of the value for me. Does sentimentality contribute or detract to the objective value of these items?

These are questions that can be addressed forever. But this also illustrates why it is so much easier to talk about the value of art in terms of instrumentality. Instrumental measures are things people can grasp on to much easier.

The big problem, however, as Carter points out is that we never really try to introduce the conversation with policy makers about why we value the arts.  It can be really easy to talk in a passionate way about why you value the bowl on your coffee table and the mugs in your cupboard as well as the stuff hanging on your walls.

Yes, there is no facile way to empirically say the bowl is more valuable than the mug. There is a whole lot of complicated factors that contribute to record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s .

People value art and creativity in their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with what they can sell it for or enhancing their test scores.

The first step is opening your mouth to mention that the true value of a creative expression is divorced of these measures and potentially even divorced from another person’s perception of that creative expression.

Philadelphia Museums Seem To Be Gathering A Trove Of Interesting Voices

There seems to be a trend among museums in the Philadelphia area which sees value in the perspectives of non-traditional guides and voices. I have written about the Jawnty tours provided at the Barnes Foundation and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology using Iraqi and Syrian refugees as guides to the Middle East galleries.

Today on Hyperallergic there was a story about how people have been looking to a security guard at University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art for her perspective.

The guard, Linda Harris, has been working at the museum since 2002. When she first started working there, she was apprehensive about whether she belonged there. Now she serves as a friendly face that facilitates discussions about a style of art some people can have difficulty relating to.

[Artist Alex Da Corte,] … notes that Harris’s dual roles, as an authority figure and as a non-traditional educator, allow her to help the museum stay true to its “Free for All” mission statement. Beyond free admission, the museum seeks to be a space where anyone from any community can come and have an experience with contemporary art. Harris represents the position that you don’t need to know everything about a work of art to comment on what it’s doing or how it makes you feel.

The article says Harris also embodies the role of educator and authority figure by providing permission and encouragement to visitors who encounter the interactive exhibitions. This has been especially valuable in cases where the permission to touch wasn’t explicit and required active encouragement.

However, people haven’t always welcomed the insights of a security guard. Over the years, it appears there may have been a shift in visitor expectations about the experience as well as Harris’ ability to discuss works with them.

Robert Chaney…remembers early visitors complaining: “We wanted it to be a quiet visit and a security officer kept talking to us.” Now, he says, people come in specifically “to talk to Linda, and to see what she has to say within the context of an exhibition.”

Chaney recognizes the value of Harris’s presence: “A contemporary art space can be intimidating for people. It’s often not work that’s easily defined or easily understood. […] And so Harris attends our training sessions for docents. And she talks to the artists often. I think she’s able to be, if not an authority, a welcome, informed voice for people coming in.”

“Change Starts From Within” Means You

Cyndi Suarez wrote a piece for Non-Profit Quarterly that bears considering as non-profit organizations make an effort to have the demographics of their staff and boards better reflect that of the communities they serve.

In writing about the challenges faced by people of color entering organizations predominantly staffed by Caucasians, she notes, (my emphasis)

“…they’re expected to both bring a particular value as a person of color and fit into the dominant culture. This puts the person in what one described as being at odds with “the truth in my heart.” The organizations don’t expect to have to change, and it’s extremely difficult for these people of color to address the challenges from within the organization, in isolation from others like themselves or any other support.”

Seems a little silly doesn’t it given how often the phrase, “change starts from within,” is blithely thrown around?

While I have heard discussions about the disconnect between wanting to expand involvement and participation by groups without considering that it will mean changing things about the organization, I hadn’t considered that the following problem also exists:

“…even though that person of color is a symbol of the potential change that often ushers in the money, she usually has no decision-making authority over how that money is used, and it is rarely presented as a budget at her disposal. Or, even worse, as with Carlos, the person is expected to take the lead in identifying the money himself.”

An organization in the initial phases of trying to expand involvement and participation may not be in a place to put a new hire in direct budgetary control of funding, but there should be consideration of creating a strong relationship between the funding and the scope of the new hire’s responsibility/decision making in its use.

Suarez makes other worthwhile observations about the changing dynamics in the work place in her piece. These are the ones that primarily jumped out at me.

Unexamined Initiatives Are Not Worth Implementing

It is no news flash to even casual readers of the blog that I am involved with Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection program to build public will for arts and culture. Last week, they ran a webinar just to present the basic research and program. In recent months they have been featuring two case studies where people talk about how their organizations are putting the research and messaging into practice. This session was aimed at giving people more complete information about the program.

As much as I have been a fan boy cheer leading the program, what I really appreciated about the webinar last week was the number and type of questions people were asking of the presenters.

It was an indication of just how serious people were thinking about implementing the research that webinar attendees were questioning the research methodology. I think people in arts and culture field are wise to scrutinize whether a new approach to doing business is a popular fad soon to fade or has some rigorous thought behind it. They have little enough time and resources as it is and don’t want to waste it on initiatives lacking substance.

What I really appreciated was when one person, identified as Zi Li, asked about case studies on failed programs because they were interested to learn why those program failed.  My friend Carter Gillies often mentions the problem of survivorship bias  where you only study the successful cases rather than gaining insight from those that failed.

The music on the Awesome 80s radio station is always going to be better than the music today because you are comparing the cream that rose to the top and endured the last 30 years to all the music being performed today, both good and bad.

If you are new to the concept of Creating Connection or just want a refresher, take a look at the video from the webinar which includes all the questions and comments made that day.

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