Smart kids

“The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.”
When I came across that in a recent Boston Globe pieceon educating gifted kids, I had to laugh. Having once been the smartest kid in my public school class, I was anything but a cheap problem to fix; in fact, my parents ended up sending me to a private school to finish high school. I’m a great example of high intellect swamped by low expectations.
Fast-forward a generation to my own kids’ educations. You would think it would be better, but it’s not. Gifted and talented programs—all the rage before No Child Left Behind—have (if they still exist at all) become shock troops in the military boarding school approach to education we’ve adopted. More seat work, more homework, no time for things like art and music.
Busy work is the bane of the bright child’s existence. It teaches him to blow off his homework and rely on test-taking skills to get by. Moreover, it ignores developing the synthetic, intuitive parts of his brain, which are developedby studying art and music, and, yes, by daydreaming.
I have a friend who’s a classicist, living in penury as an adjunct professor. I’ve often thought that our school district should send three kids to her and pay her the roughly $65,000 it gets for educating them for a year. After four years, they would know history, music, the arts, Greek and Latin.
And before you tell me that’s not enough, America was built by people with exactly that education.

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Will your neighborhood art historian be replaced by a robot?

The most expensive painting on record is currently Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players, which sold for an estimated $259 million in 2011. (The exact price is unknown.)
In a paper entitled Toward Automated Discovery Of Artistic Influence, Babak Saleh and his Rutgers team claim to have used imaging software and ‘classification systems’ to automate the process of identifying artistic influences.
Last week, Apollo Magazine askedwhether robots can indeed replace art historians. They reached the same conclusions as did I—nope—but for different reasons.
The second most expensive painting on record is currently Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948, which sold for $140 million in 2006.
The international art market moved $66 billion last year, so the experts in authenticating and analyzing paintings are valuable. And when they work at museums and galleries, art history majors are not badly paid. In 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, museum curators and archivists made slightly more than $45,000 a year.
But the rub is when art historians enter the academic stream. While post-secondary teaching jobs are expected to growin the next decade, even the BLS admits that many of these jobs will be for adjuncts, or part-timers. In fact, more than ¾ of college professors are adjuncts, and their wages are abysmal: between $1000 and $5000 per course. As Salon pointed out this month, that leads to professors with PhDs earning the same amount as the average full-time barista—who’s not expected to do curriculum development or grade papers on his own time.
The third most expensive painting on record is currently Willem de Kooning’s Woman III, which sold for $137.5 million in 2006.
Why does the United States tolerate a system where university educations are obscenely expensive at the same time as they’re being provided by slave labor? Beats me. But there is no reason to automate intellectual disciplines when we pay them atrociously. Your art history degree is safe for now.

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Maternity, Mary Cassatt, 1890. Cassatt never married nor had children. It would have been impossible in her era to mix her career and a family.
Sorry about the delayed post. I was busy caring for a baby.
Actually, I’m not all that sorry. After all, all other creativity derives from this fundamental beginning of life. The word “create” derives from the Latin creare: ‘to make, bring forth, produce, beget,’ and is related to crescere: ‘arise, grow.’ My etymology dictionary also links the latter to the Greek kouros (boy), and kore (girl), but I’ll take that with a grain of salt.
Most of the artists I know are childless, and the ones who do have children struggle to resolve the demands of their careers with the demands of parenting. Not that this isn’t true of all careers, but there’s something about the creative impulse that seems to channel in one direction or another. I’m an outlier because not only do I have kids, I have a lot of them.
Breakfast in Bed, Mary Cassatt, 1897. 
My daughter had a difficult delivery and I’m back in Pittsfield helping her until I’m sure she’s recovered.
We Americans have a weird attitude toward parenting. In trying to give women equal access to the marketplace, we’ve relegated parenting to the status of a hobby or a part-time job. Done right, it’s difficult work, demanding high levels of organization, energy, intelligence and time. My daughter is a well-paid professional, and I don’t want to see her dump her career to stay home. But having worked through my own parenting years, I also don’t want to see her wandering around in a fog of exhaustion, either.
But enough of this. Junior needs changing and his mom needs her meds before we start the round of doctor’s office, visiting nurse, visiting specialist. This baby stuff is a lot of work.
Baby Reaching For An Apple, Mary Cassatt, 1893
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New drug boosts creativity, cures hypertension, depression, and diabetes… and it’s free!

A young walker in the Duchy.
A Stanford studyearlier this year found that walking boosts creativity. This is a real-time effect, and it lasts during the time you’re walking and for a short while thereafter. It gives legs to the idea that we get our best ideas while walking.
This will come as no surprise to people who walk regularly. I have no idea how it motivates the circuitry of one’s brain (any more than I understand how it massages the gut or how it strengthens back muscles) but as a lifelong walker, I’m convinced it works. It certainly reduces anxiety. I’m finding myself walking upwards of six miles a day this month, and it’s done much to assuage my grief and worry over the upheavals in my personal life.
Walking every day has the perverse effect of making me like winter more, although I’m not always keen on the way sidewalks are maintained here in Rochester.
Although I’ve been a dedicated walker/runner/hiker my whole adult life, about five years ago my doctor started making noises at me about cholesterol and high blood pressure. I realized that I needed to ramp up the pace. Now it’s the first thing I do every day, and I’m willing to spend at least two hours a day exercising.
The biggest objection people make to walking is, “I don’t have the time.” On the other hand, the average American watches five hours of television a day.
I’m self-employed, so I can set my own schedule. I walk my husband to work every morning. Most married couples have very little time to talk to each other; we are guaranteed the better part of an hour together. (Since the average car in the US costs more than $9000 a year to own and operate, we save a lot of money, too.)
Later in the morning, I walk with a small posse. Who shows up varies by the day, but we’re all self-employed or telecommuters.
Walking is gentle on the environment. This is the annual salt collection at the side of our street after the snow melts. It’s a miracle anything grows here.
It’s paid off: I’m apparently the only middle-aged American who isn’t takingsome kind of prescription drug. Nearly 70 percent of Americans of all ages are on at least one medication, and more than half take two or more. Among women in my age cohort, a stunning one in four are taking antidepressants.
Walking is cheap. It makes you creative, it makes you happy, it gives you great gams, and it mitigates many diseases of aging like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

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Philistines, everywhere

Graffiti on the Colby Street pedestrian bridge in Rochester. I trudge over it daily, so I can certainly relate to these two flipper men doing endless laps on the bridge.
Being a believer in private property rights, I’m generally not amused by graffiti, but last Friday when I came across two swimmers on the Colby Street pedestrian bridge, I genuinely LOLed. The pedestrian bridge does kind of look like a 50-meter lap lane, and because it’s a regular part of my route, I often feel like I’m swimming mindlessly back and forth across it.
Meh. Not as witty as the first graffiti-artist, but at least he was trying.
Periodically, people commit acts of art on the pedestrian bridge (usually involving arrangements of found objects). They seldom last more than 24 hours before some Philistine knocks them apart. So I wasn’t surprised to walk by on Monday and see the poor swimmers defaced with a second layer of graffiti. It wasn’t nearly as witty, but at least the poor anonymous second writer tried.
But then comes the inevitable and predictable impulse to destruction. Really makes you despair for the human race.
Tuesday, the whole thing was scrubbed out by a third graffiti artist, whose only goal was to deface the message that preceded him.

It’s a great metaphor for the forces of creation and destruction that coexist in the human heart. In my current bleak mood, it makes me wonder why artists even try.
My young friend Serina Mo reminded me of this recently by mentioning the aged enfants terrible of the British art scene, Jake and Dinos Chapman. In their massive work of destruction, Insult to Injury, they defaced a rare folio of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War.
From Insult to Injury, 2003, by Jake and Dinos Chapman. The Chapman brothers added nothing to Goya’s work. I hope they fade into obscurity, taking their micron pens with them.
In the short run, it made them famous. It tore at notions of preciousness and art. In the long run, it made the tremendous presumption that modern sensibilities and intellectualism are superior to the pain and suffering drawn by Goya. If nothing else, the world should know by now that rich, silly ninnies are transient, but war and death are eternal verities.

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Everything I know about cleaning

Hercules rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to clean the Augean stables, Roman mosaic, 3rd century AD. The Fifth Labor of Hercules was intended to be humiliating and impossible, since the livestock were divine and produced enormous quantities of manure. No metaphor there.
I am trying to put my house and studio in order after months on the road.
There are those who might think this should be blank, because I don’t know anything about cleaning, but they would in fact be wrong. Most orderly people don’t need to think about how they keep things up; I have to think about it a great deal.
  1. Be driven by process, not results: King Augeas’ stables are very dirty and if you’re not Hercules, the only way to get them clean is to plug along despite how little progress it appears you are making. Yesterday I managed to get half a room finished; I was stalled by the piles of receipts and bills that needed attention on the dining room table. I can either be driven nuts by this, or I can just plug along until I finish.
  2. Actually put stuff away. That really slows you down—especially if you think the stuff has no place—but in the end it’s far more effective than moving piles of stuff from point to point.
  3. Or get rid of stuff. We 21st century Americans are drowning in material goods. To me there’s energy and potential in open space.
  4. Clean the perimeter first, starting at one point and working your way around the room. I read this in a book about professional cleaning, and it really works. I think it’s a continuation of point #1: if you’re looking at the walls, you can’t be driven nuts by your current lack of results.
  5. Don’t clean what isn’t dirty. Don’t straighten what isn’t messed up.
  6. Do all cleaning in a single pass. I am lucky enough to have modern windows, and I clean them whenever I clean my rooms. It’s dumb to pull the furniture out to vacuum and then not do the crown-molding, the windows, and the chair rails.
  7. Once you get one corner of your space clean, protect it; it’s a place to retreat when you lose your mind. Normally, this is the second floor of my house, which I generally keep pretty tidy. However, my peripatetic paintings from the RIT show seem to be wandering around up there looking for a home. So for now, I’m taking solace in the fact that my freezer—which was full of ice because someone had neglected to pull the door totally closed—is now immaculate. Even that small rectangle of order is enough to prevent me from losing my mind.

Hercules takes a break, Attic black figure skyphos, c. 500 B.C. The goddess Athena is pouring him a cup of wine. (Mount Holyoke College Art Museum)

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Mastering chaos

Francis Bacon is the icon of messy-studio advocates. He was renowned as much for the awful state of his studio as for his brilliant painting, but he did occasionally attempt to clear it. Electrician Mac Robertson was working at Bacon’s studio when he saw the artist disposing of ephemera. He asked to keep it, and thirty years later, sold it for more than a million dollars. There’s a lesson in that, but I hardly know what it is. 

For the first time since June I am home without another trip (planned or emergency) on my immediate horizon. It’s autumn and my favorite season to paint, and I will get outside to do that, but my primary goal has to be to pull my studio and home in order for fall.

There is a myth that creatives enjoy working in chaos, but that isn’t true. All people tend to create messes when in the throes of work, but most of them understand that when they are finished, they need to clean them up. Creating order doesn’t come easily to me, but as an adult I’ve learned it’s the only way I can be productive.
Contemporary Australian painter McLean Edwards continues the Bacon tradition in his Sydney studio. If I were his mother, I’d tell him to clean that mess up, and to stop drinking while painting.
I think this idea of the messy artist is a continuation of the myth of artists-as-geniuses, and it actually stops many people from being as productive as they might otherwise be. The vast majority of us do not thrive in chaotic working and living conditions. I’ve been in many of my peers’ studios, and most of them are sensible, organized workrooms. (In some cases, what an outsider perceives as clutter is actually just order in a very small space.)
I would normally “reset” my studio and workshop in the early fall anyway—go through my stock, winnow supplies, and reorganize shelves. For me, chaos effectively blanks out all thinking, and I like the idea of spring and fall cleaning.
To the contrary, note that Jackson Pollock’s chaos was pretty much confined to his canvases. 
This year, it’s worse, because my RIT show was pulled for being obscene, and the work ended up stacked in the middle of my studio floor. At a loss about how to put it away in a hurry, I moved it to my bedroom, where it’s still in the way. Until I get it properly stored, there’s no easy living in my house.
On top of that, there are three months of mail to go through, and three months of dirt to vacuum. (My family did a decent job of maintaining order, but the finer points of housekeeping are beyond them.)

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The Glasgow Boys

A Hind’s Daughter, James Guthrie,1883
Quebec has tried twice and failed to secede from Canada. The referendum of 1995 was considered a foregone conclusion by pollsters; commentators breathlessly discussed whether the Maritime Provinces—separated from the rest of Canada—would ask to join the United States. However, the polls were wrong and although the Parti Québécois remains a political force, the idea of Quebec separatism is spent.
Yesterday Scotland also ignored the polls and voted to stay in the United Kingdom. Hopefully, the Scottish separatist movement will go the way of the Parti Québécois. In honor of that, let me give you a tiny bit of Scottish painting.
The head of the Holy Loch, George Henry
The Glasgow Boys are called the Scottish Impressionists, but they’re more similar to the Australian Heidelberg School painters in their sentimental attachment to their history. Their painting was done en plein air with free brush work and an emphasis on the play of light. But they were not interested in modern life—as were the French Impressionists—but in the romance of Scotland’s rural past.
Considering the blanket of pollution over 19th century Glasgow, the workers packed into its tenements, and the befouling of the River Clyde, that made sense. What rich industrialist wanted a painting of the environmental and social mess his new-found wealth had helped create?

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Why are art babies so ugly?

The Haller Madonna, Albrecht Dürer, 1498
We interrupt this regularly-scheduled programming to address the age-old question of why babies in paintings are often deformed, distorted, and generally ugly. (And, BTW, this phenom isn’t limited to Renaissance babies, no matter what the current meme says.) It isn’t because the artists can’t draw; I’ve included examples by superb draftsmen.
There are a lot of theories about this, covering context to symbolism to the possibility that earlier babies just were not that good looking in the first place.
The Baby Marcelle Roulin, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Having had several babies myself, and having done a lot of figure painting, I think the answer is much simpler: babies make lousy models. They squirm and howl when they’re uncomfortable, and they won’t hold a pose. They have no muscle tone and very little neck, and they wobble. Pre-photography, the best the artist could do was limb in a few lines and return the pathetic little creature to its mother’s arms.
The Three Ages of Man, Titian, 1511
On the other hand, I’ve always wondered why so many Renaissance infants are pictured wearing jewelry. Didn’t they get the memo about choking hazards?
Newborn Baby in a Crib, Lavinia Fontana, c. 1583
Enough of this. I have a new little grandson to go visit. He arrived squalling into the world last night, and I haven’t yet begun to paint his portrait.

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Color and meaning (color temperature, part 2)

Composition VII, 1913, by Wassily Kandinsky.

Three artists arrived at the idea of pure abstraction at roughly the same time: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich. This was not coincidence; all three believed in the spiritual properties of abstraction, an idea they got from the rich stew of spiritualism swirling around turn-of-the-century Europe.

One of the chief promoters of the Fourth Dimension was Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii, a follower of G. I. Gurdjieff. Ouspenskii believed our consciousness was evolving, which would ultimately lead us to perceive the fourth dimension, and that art and music were the path to this evolution.  In the fourth dimension, reality and unreality were reversed, and time and motion were revealed as illusions.
Theosophy was Madame Blavatsky’s occult movement. She described it as “the archaic Wisdom-Religion, the esoteric doctrine once known in every ancient country having claims to civilization.” Madame Blavatsky taught that color had spiritual vibrations which would awaken the dormant spirituality within a person, and that art should begin in nature, a nature that would be found in a world-birthing apocalypse.

A fully realized theory must include the proper colors for shapes. The passive and dull circle deserves a correspondingly dull blue. The energetic triangle ought to be rendered in a dangeresqueyellow.
Rudolph Steiner’s spin on theosophy was called Anthroposophy.  This postulated the existence of an objective spiritual world accessible through inner development of the clairvoyance and intuition that modern man had lost as he developed rational thought. Steiner focused on the symbolic and synesthetic properties of color.

And then there are angles, which should be matched in aggression with their colors.
Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912) is both turgid and broad-ranging. Let me just hit his major points about color:
  • Colors evoke both a purely physical effect on the eye and a vibration of the soul or an “inner resonance.”
  • The elements of color are warmth or coolness, and clarity or obscurity. 
  • Warmth means yellow, and coolness means blue, so yellow and blue form the first great contrast. Yellow has an eccentric movement and blue a concentric movement; a yellow surface seems to move closer to us, while a blue surface seems to move away. Yellow is a terrestrial color: mad, disturbed and violent. Blue is a celestial color, deeply calm but sinking toward the mourning of black. The combination of blue and yellow (green) yields total immobility.
  • Clarity is a tendency towards white, and obscurity is a tendency towards black. White and black form the second great contrast, which is static. White is a deep, absolute silence, full of possibility. Black is nothingness, an eternal silence without hope (death). 
  • The mixing of white with black gives gray, which possesses no active force and is similar in tonality to green. Gray is frozen immobility; dark grays tend toward despair, but even lightening gray yields very little hope.
  • Red is a warm color, forceful, lively and agitated. Mixed with black it becomes brown, which is a dull, hard, inhibited color. Mixed with yellow, red gains in warmth and becomes orange, which irradiates and energizes its surroundings. When red is mixed with blue it moves away from man to become morbid and mourning purple. Red and green form the third great contrast, and orange and purple the fourth.
In short, Kandinsky’s color theory is a magnificent exercise in hooey. Still, it has had a long-reaching influence, with overtones in fashion, industrial design, and every other area that touches our lives.

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