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Is it a fence or a tree? Or both?

A friend described her experience with a therapy technique that has helped her family tremendously. She distilled the approach down to 2 sentences:

I am doing the best I can.
I can do better.

Learning to hold these two dialectical statements as true at the same time has given her family members a new sense of themselves and each other. Like so many dialectical exercises—philosophical, ideological or otherwise—a hidden power is unleashed when two opposing forces find an unexpected third place to coexist.

A few other unexpected thoughts, some of them also dialectical in nature, have crossed my transom over the last few days. Most of these were picked up at the social media/technology conferences I’ve participated in. Although not related directly to my art making life, these statements have brought me new insights and seem worthy of sharing here. (The content in the parentheses are mine.)

From Caterina Fake, founder of Flickr and Hunch, and an optimist of the down deep variety:

“Babies, pets and sunsets–the backbone of the Internet.” (And all this time I thought it was porn.)

“Strangers used to be bad and dangerous. Now strangers are the source of good things online.” (So true.)

“We now live in a culture of generosity–people everywhere spending time to put all sorts of information up for free” (All those reviews on Amazon, all those lyrics to Bob Dylan’s music entered by hand…)

Andrew Rasiej, expert on social media and its political implications:

“Soon 9 billion people will be connected by phones. It is going to create a new form of governance for all of humanity. People will start ignoring government and just start solving problems themselves.” (One dream of a better future for the planet.)

“Technology is not a slice of the pie. It’s the pan.” (I can imagine replacing the nouns in that metaphor to get some interesting variations)

JP Rangaswami, CIO and Chief Scientist at BT Design, speaking to IT professionals:

“Trying to restrict/control something that is meant to be abundant results in an equal and greater effort to restore that abundance.” (This may sound New Age-ish, but that is definitely not where he is coming from on this.)

“Once info is made digital, it will leak.” (The corporate firewall=Swiss cheese)

“It took 50 years for IBM to become evil, 20 years for Microsoft, 10 for Google, 5 for Facebook and 2 for Twitter.” (New variation on Moore’s law…)

“When I used to call my grandmother, she never had to say, ‘Can you hear me now?'” (Back when all phones were black and you could only buy them from the phone company.)

“My father had one job his entire life. I have had 7. My son has 7 all at once.” (Like the reading of books, concomitance is now king)

“If you are on Second Life, you don’t have a first life.” (Sorry if you are a SL fan)

“My advice is to always start open and then only close when you must.” (In more ways than in the design of IT systems…)

Andrew McAfee, author of “Enterprise 2.0”:

“Best practices are a recipe for mediocrity. All that means is that everybody is doing the same thing.” (Yes!)

“Decisions are the least digitized asset.” (This is the bane of knowledge management systems—how do you capture that?)

“As William Gibson has pointed out, ‘the future is already here—it is just unevenly distributed.'” (Oh ye sage, William the Great)

This is a heads up about my upcoming exhibit opening in Brooklyn on Saturday June 26. I am very excited to be showing (mostly) new paintings along with the stunning sculptures of Rina Peleg.

The artist reception starts at 7pm on the 26th—an event that is being described by gallery director Martine Bisagni rather provocatively as a “Midsummer Revel”—so I hope you can stop by.

Paintings by Deborah Barlow
Sculpture by Rina Peleg
Curated by Martine Bisagni

Brooklyn Workshop Gallery
393 Hoyt Street
Brooklyn NY 11231
718 797 9427

A word about Brooklyn Workshop Gallery:
Brooklyn Workshop Gallery and the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery Foundation are committed to bringing art making and audiences closer together. In addition to a gallery space, BWG offers programs, classes and community outreach to promote the experience of art for everyone.

Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players (Photo: Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin)

Thank you Sue Halpern for a great article on the New York Review of Books blog. Book markers, unite!!

When I saw David Foster Wallace’s annotations at the top of the blog page, it was like seeing a meal of comfort food waiting on the table, warm and familiar. I passionately love to mark up books. I have been doing it for most of my life and am now at the point where I can’t really sink deep into a book unless I have a writing device in my hand at the same time. It’s like the mind, eye and hand have to all be engaged for the magic to begin.

I’ve asked myself why this behavior appeals to me so deeply. I think of my markings as a form of map making, applying my own personal navigational sense to a text the way a previously uncharted landscape could be notated. These annotations are a kind of personal guidance system, a breadcrumb trail laid down for my future self when she needs to make her way through that part of the forest again. Going back into a book I’ve marked up years later feels like the front door was left open with instructions to just walk in.

Book marking is also a sly way of creating parity with an author, of softening the advantage he or she has of having already laid down their arguments so carefully in advance. My markings feel conversational, interactive and contributory.

Halpern’s article, What the iPad Can’t Do, actually deals with the difficulty of marking up a text when using e-books. Halpern has included a very detailed description of what one would have to do if one were to attempt to create markings on a Kindle or an iPad. Reading her ingenious but convoluted instructions of mismatched apps and gerrymandered platforms is actually kind of hilarious. And as much as I love that iPad I bought my partner Dave, I love marking up books just as much.


“Work of Art” judges (Photo: Bravo/Barbara Nitke)

I finally saw the first episode of “Work of Art”, referenced in the post below and being discussed, dissected and deconstructed on Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page as well as countless art blogs. Having just returned from a conference on how social and mobile media can be employed for social responsibility, my viewing lens has been complexified even further by some of the issues that came up during those sessions.

Here’s a list of what this show has had me thinking about. (This may be of interest even if you haven’t seen the first episode of America’s first art making reality show.)

1. Formula vs creativity
The show’s format is straight from the “creative competition reality TV show” playbook, a formula that has made hit shows out of making fashion and food. OK, you stick with what you think will work because no TV show—even a show claiming to be about creativity—is really about creativity after all. But the unwillingness to take chances on the format and explore new possibilities set the stage for just more predictable and mediocre TV programming that plays to the lowest common demoninator. Which of course doesn’t prevent it from being a hit with viewers. But that’s a different issue. Sort of.

2. What, no artist on the judges panel?
At least “Project Runway” had other designers as judges. The gatekeepers on this show are, with the exception of Jerry Saltz (who I will always give a pass to the way you give a pass to that brother who sometimes drinks too much and gets obnoxious but is elementally just the best guy), art merchants and tastemakers. Several of them in their intro spots made it clear that they approach art as entertainment. The “delight me ‘cuz I’m bored” approach to art doesn’t have room for the deeply personal, introspective moment that many of us are looking to have with a piece of art. “Art as entertainment” is just one approach to art and one that has many adherents. But a bit more of a balanced panel would have been a big improvement.

3. It’s the human drama, not the art
At the conference I just attended there was a lot of talk about how the internet has unleashed storytelling—particularly personal, single voiced storytelling—and how deeply that is changing our culture, our politics, our consumption, our way of interacting with each other. Caterina Fake, founder of Flickr and a major internet maven, laughingly referred to Flickr as an “emotional database”, describing “babies, pets and sunsets” as the backbone of the internet. Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, shared his concern about how narratives are getting compressed—the “meme of the day” syndrome—and worries that we are moving towards the superficial. “People who are funny and flaky tend to overwhelm the thoughtful, prosey types.”

Hughes’ concerns are played out in spades in this show. “Work of art” is essentially Survivor With Benefits. In my opinion a show that opens up how art gets made has some social good. I can see the value of the general public hearing and watching how a piece can come into existence, often through struggle and mistakes.

But viewing art through a television screen is never going to be optimal. The producers clearly understand this since the amount of air time given to the individual pieces themselves is miniscule. The camera does give lots of air time to sowing the seeds of the inevitable internecine conflicts we all know will emerge, in allowing the more eccentric and outspoken (can I say obnoxious as in really obnoxious?) personalities to rise to the surface. Maybe a better name would be “Artists as Gladiators.”

4. What is real and what is a game show?
Several bloggers have commented on the implications of crossing from game show to real world which in this case is epitomized by the prize of a show at the Brooklyn Museum for the winning contestant. I’m cynical enough to not be outraged by that blending since the art world is already a game show of its own making which, like underwear, is underneath all the trappings no matter what is on the surface. Most of my similar-minded artist friends don’t see “Work of Art” as some watershed event, looming threat or even a topic of conversation beyond this first episode. There’s room on the planet for all types of explorations. What I keep advocating for is equal time for us prosey types, those of us whose storytelling is expressed by making art that can hold a conversation with a viewer, that moves another person deeply, that shifts something in the body that feels significant, that brings a sense of mystery or transcendence That is something that cannot happen on TV, reality or otherwise.

This is the last posting on this topic I expect to make. But if your interest has been piqued, you can read Jerry Saltz’s latest thoughts about the show and his reaction to the first episode here.

“Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” contestants, judges, host and mentor. (Photo: Bravo)

Sebastian Smee, a most thoughtful and open-minded art critic who writes for the Boston Globe, has written a review of the oft-discussed, highly charged topic of Bravo’s new reality art series, “Work of Art.” For many of us, making art couldn’t be farther from television audiences, hosts donning cocktail dresses (China Chow) and token appearances by the increasingly irritating and unctuously insincere Sarah Jessica Parker. But reading Smee’s review this morning—which is basically a thumbs up—was the perfect antidote for my disaffection.

And besides, gotta love home boy Jerry Saltz in whatever form he delivers his high energy view of the world.

Plus there’s a nice bonus: Smee’s succinct description of where a huge portion of the art world has landed itself by way of Warhol’s legacy is, IMHO, right on.

From Smee’s review:

If everything I’ve described so far sounds like a familiar ingredient in the depressingly formulaic world of reality TV, it has to be said that “Work of Art’’ somehow rises above the formula. What makes it so engrossing is the way it brings out into the open, with brisk, unblinking efficiency, all the questions about art that most people feel too intimidated to ask.

It starts with the obvious ones: How do we judge art? Are artists like you and me, or are they different? Is success in the art world about vision and skill, is it about knowing how to sell yourself, or is it just a lottery?

Even within the first episode, the questions get more nuanced. For instance: How on earth do you go about capturing someone’s “essence’’ (as opposed to their appearance) visually, in a portrait? Is it enough to be told that an artwork is underpinned by various ideas, or does the work itself need to express those ideas? And can the process of creating a work of art be as important as the finished product?

I scribbled down a list of at least a dozen such questions the first episode nonchalantly tossed out. It was refreshing.

The whole subject of contemporary art often seems surrounded by invisible tripwires. There’s an inside and there’s an outside; and those on the inside often protect themselves from the task of explaining it to those on the outside by feigning superiority. “Work of Art’’ makes great play with this inside/outside dynamic by simply striding right through those invisible tripwires.

In his brilliant book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again),’’ Warhol said that at a certain point he stopped feeling emotions; instead of caring for people, he was fascinated by them. That describes more or less exactly where we are in our culture today. “Work of Art,’’ as well as any other reality TV show, taps into our need to be fascinated without the inconvenience, the risk, of further emotional investment. But curiously, within the show itself — in the tussle between Saltz’s eggheaded passion and Chow’s erotic calm, and in the conflicting attitudes of the various contestants — we observe a struggle over the carcass of a deeper idea of art.

All in all, it’s fascinating — and certainly good for more than 15 minutes.

It’s inevitable. You just can’t ignore the fact that you used to run more effortlessly. That you used to acquire new information rapidly. That new data went into a file that was always open (as opposed to the vague middle-age hope that you can get “same day service” on a search for something you know you once knew.) We are all living with the fact that our bodies, and our brains, are slowly moving away from those heady days in our 20s when everything worked perfectly. Or so it seemed.

But an article in the Boston Globe helped me put this perception of the entropic drift towards “less than” into a fresh perspective. Self serving, perhaps, since I am well over 40. But it has a ring of truth. And a definite ring of hopefulness!

Interviewing Barbara Strauch (former deputy science editor at The New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind), Elizabeth Cooney elicits a number of valuable insights about the middle-aged brain. Strauch starts by articulating what most of us have already noticed: As you age, your brain slows down. You get more easily distracted and your short term memory just isn’t as crisp. This actually starts in your 20s, so that decline is happening for most of your life. “I think we’re all kind of quietly worried. And many of us have watched parents suffer from dementia and we think maybe we’re losing our minds,” says Strauch.

But here’s the good news:

On balance what we have is a trade-off. There are some things we don’t do as well. If you have to learn new information — a new computer system at work — brand new information can take a little longer on average as our brains age. [But] our brains in modern middle age have enormous capacity and are formidable in their powers to get the gist of an argument, to see the big picture. Someone I know who teaches at Columbia says the kids are smart, but they don’t seem to connect the dots. What we have in the middle-age brain is that ability to connect the dots. I’ve had many people tell me, ‘I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but solutions pop into my head.’ It’s that confidence to navigate the world.

But, asks Cooney, is it better or just different?

Long-term studies of the same people over 40 years [showed that] in many areas, including reasoning, our brains actually function better. The same people in their 40s and 50s and beyond actually did better than in their 20s. I think that’s pretty shocking.

No kidding. And just about the best thing I’ve heard in a long time.

Because I hold books in such high regard, finding one quite by chance feels serendipitously ordained. I always wonder, is the book lost or intentionally left behind just so I could find it? Sometimes it feels like a mystical encounter with a non-sentient being.

Beach houses, small hotels and B&Bs are all good places for this to happen. Everywhere I go I notice what books are left on the bedstand or jammed into a bookshelf where they look longingly at you, waiting patiently for someone to give them a (new) home.

One hotel I stayed at in India took this idea of the Lost Book quite seriously and had an entire room devoted to the volumes that guests had left behind over the years. On the inside front cover of every book, someone had carefully written the room number and date of the find. Such careful documentation! I was touched that they approached these abandoned books with the same regard one would attend to a lost child or pet. With a hospitality so common in India, hotel guests were invited to peruse the shelves. I found two great books in that room that accompanied me for the rest of my trip—Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda and The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, both of them perfect for my peregrinating adventure in the subcontintent.

So the back page of today’s New York Times Book Review was just my kind of piece. Leanne Shapton, author and illustrator, introduces her topic, Summer Shares, with words that resonated deeply with me:

There is fate in the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms. When the masterpiece we’ve dutifully brought along stalls five pages in, the accidental bounty of other people’s discarded reading beckons. Like conversations with strangers on a train, these random literary encounters can be unsettling, distracting or life changing. Eight writers tell us what they have read on their summer vacations.

The selections by 8 writers are all interesting. Maile Meloy chose to write about a classic:

“The Italians,” by Luigi Barzini, was in our room near Baratti, Italy, just across from the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled. There was no window in the bathroom because the local government wouldn’t give permission for it, but there was talk of adding a small one secretly at night. That made no sense until I started reading “The Italians” and Barzini explained Italy to me.

And this by Arthur Bradford:

One hot summer we rented this house near Austin, Tex., that was on a river with natural springs where you could swim. I found a paperback copy of Charles Portis’s “Dog of the South” in the house, which I’m ashamed to say I stole because it was so funny. I had to have it! Since then I’ve bought other copies of that book and left them at people’s houses in an attempt to reverse the karma.

A note about Leanne Shapton: She is a perfect author to take on this topic. Her most recent publication is Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. What a great title and what an ingenious idea. Shapton has created a fake auction catalog featuring the physical objects the remained afer the dissolution of a four year relationship. From Liesl Schillinger’s review of the book in the New York Times:

Taken together, the item descriptions provide a running, cumulative portrait of one couple’s glorious rise and deflating fall. . . For people who have ever thought that the little gestures, tokens and inside jokes of their relationships were unique to them, Ms. Shapton’s book comes as a poignant, jarring reminder of the sameness of the steps that so many couples retrace. . . Despite the mist of melancholy that floats amid this photographic record, there is also humor, caprice, knowingness and the implicit suggestion that changing feelings and fading possessions can’t rob a true romance of the value it had at its height. As Lenore and Hal’s remembrances show, a love affair is worth more than its trappings could fetch at a jumble sale.

I have written on this blog about several of the productions from Diane Paulus’ first season as artistic director at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge: The tantalizingly beguiling Sleep No More from UK-based theater company Punchdrunk; the stunningly brilliant Gatz, an unforgettable verbatim performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby; and Paradise Lost, Cliffford Odets’ quintessentially American play about the Great Depression. Also produced this season—The Donkey Show and Best of Both Worlds.

The closing performance for Paulus’ maiden voyage at the A.R.T helm is a newly minted musical about baseball, the American experience and the Red Sox, Johnny Baseball. The populist leanings of this production are in keeping with the theatrical change of direction under Paulus’ leadership. Those proclivities are being played out off stage as well with the Fenway Park-like atmosphere that includes hot dog, pretzel and beer vendors in the lobby.

As a subscriber to A.R.T. for over 30 years, I view this year’s season as the most dramatic departure from A.R.T.’s theatrical past that I have seen. There is no question that Paulus is a force of nature—razor smart, charismatic and highly energetic—and her views on what theater should be are strongly held. She is insistent about bringing art closer to the average person, chipping away at the gap that has in many ways widened between artist and audience in this postmodern culture. It’s a little like moving from the artsy “theatre” variant back to its straight up American spelling.

What has amazed me is that even though Paulus’ advocacy has been stated quite clearly, the season’s performances have been wide ranging and extremely varied. Her proselytizing point of view has not resulted in theatrical experiences that all feel the same, a problem that has plagued numerous companies with visionary and/or ideological artistic directors. Each A.R.T. production has been its own variant on Paulus’ intention to produce theater that feels participatory, not detached; alive, not anesthetized; connected to our humanness rather than to our heads.

A few years back, before Paulus arrived at A.R.T., I was asked to participate in a theater devotees focus group to talk about the overall theater scene in Boston. Assembled in the room were the most serious theatergoers I’ve ever met outside of New York City. This was a gathering of those kind of theater buffs who knew the inside scoop on what was happening with every company, which directors had board support and which were caught in political crossfire, and of course the inevitable gossip about who was sleeping with whom. They were in a completely different league of devotional theatergoing from me.

What surprised me most about that experience however was how vociferously they hated A.R.T., all 11 of them. I was the only A.R.T. advocate in the room. And I couldn’t get any of them to buy my arguments in A.R.T’s defense—that risk taking is an essential part of great art making, or that no other theater company in Boston had been willing to step out into the stark and slightly scary world of contemporary playwriting and producing. They hated A.R.T’s theatrical mindset—cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular, smug.

I left that night with my allegiance to A.R.T. even more emblazoned than it had been before. I have had some unforgettably rarefied experiences in the Loeb Theater over the years, and some of those experiences would probably qualify as cerebral, Cambridge elitist, inaccessible, insular and maybe even smug. And yes, some productions were crash and burn failures, without question. But the intention, that’s what I have always been drawn to at A.R.T.

Paulus’ direction is taking A.R.T. down new roads and so far I’m having fun on this jaunt. As the next season was announced I did find myself wondering if there will be room in A.R.T.’s future for those exquisitely crystalline, ethereally detached but ingeniously conceived productions that have been so signatory for this theater company in the past. Is there room in this new “people’s republic of Cambridge” theatrical climate for a translucent Three Sisters, a mesmerizing production by Serrand or Serban? I’m essentially a pluralist, so I want to get some of everything. But that approach to life—and to theater—doesn’t always fly.

Johnny Baseball would never be my choice for season frontrunner but then again I’m not a big fan of the song and dance genre. But loving baseball and in particular the Red Sox helps a lot even without plot complexities or philosophical inclinations. The play is fun, and the cast and the singing are terrific.

An interesting thing has happened since I saw Johnny B. on Wednesday night: I have talked about the play to people I have never mentioned theater to before and encouraged them to go. For the first time I am seeing how two very different subgroups can come together, Red Sox Nation and regional theater. Whether you are have populist tendencies or not, that is something to consider.

Icicle propagation on a building facade in Pittsburgh: Living with constraints

A few months back I posted a quote from the artist Carroll Dunham that has a great deal of meaning for me:

The most basic thing to say about painting: it’s a limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes. But it’s a negative premise. It’s not, “I like painting because it’s so wonderful—it can do all these wonderful things.” It’s more, “I like painting because it’s so limited, it’s so uptight, so old and so flat and so rectilinear.” Within that, you’re good to go.

Recently I have been reading a lot about innovation, from breakthroughs in open innovation to high yield collaborations. Although a lot of my reading has focused on how innovation plays out in corporate settings (it is all of interest to me regardless of the context), the parallels to my personal experience are still relevant.

For example, this passage is from Jeffrey Philips on the blog, Innovate on Purpose:

What happens in with a tight brief, or a well communicated set of criteria, is that the team is then liberated to innovation within those criteria, or to achieve something incredibly new and different within that criteria. Since we all need a villain to slay or some fixed point to pivot from, having some fixed criteria or goals mean that we can then assume those goals are fixed and find all manner of outrageous ways to satisfy those criteria or goals. That’s when the really interesting ideas start flowing. Good ideas then lead to a decision making process based on the established criteria or constraints. This is a two-fer. You get better idea generation, better engagement and a team that can more easily choose the best ideas, since the constraints were clearly identified.

If you want a team to really excel at idea generation, set a big problem or goal for them, define the strategic opportunities and establish some key constraints. Then, allow them all the degrees of freedom possible outside of the constraints, and wait for the great ideas to come.

The role of constraints—be they within the confines of painting or within a team setting—continues to fascinate me. Given my personality proclivities that chafe at the very thought of limits (in that oft-circulated challenge to describe yourself in just six words, mine was “Don’t tell me what to do”), I have never tired of the limits that painting imposes on visual expression. Although Dunham is being both truthful and tongue in cheek in his comment above, I have never flinched from staying right there in the middle of that “limiting condition within which absolutely anything goes.”

Annie Leibovitz’s Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois’ passing has set the ripples in motion in every direction. After my eulogizing post about her work and her life yesterday, I was even more curious about the stories about her that Jerry Saltz gleaned from his increasingly muscular Facebook Tribe. And I mean muscular in the most flattering sense.

Here’s the lead in to his article in New York magazine:

Although I never attended one of Louise Bourgeois’s Sunday Salons held in her Chelsea townhouse, they were reportedly psychic-artistic battlegrounds. Open to anyone, artists could bring their work, wait their turn, and then get feedback from Bourgeois, who was said to preside over the proceedings like a queen. Some were made to cry; more shook in anticipation. But all seemed to leave with the sense of having passed through some sort of aesthetic fire. Here are few remembrances of Bourgeois salons past, from artists who attended.

Click here to read a few of these fascinating accounts. And for those of you who are friends of Jerry’s on Facebook, you can get the full fire hose treatment on his FB page.