Post from November, 2014

Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art

Monday, 17. November 2014 0:52

In his book Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that Americans don’t like ambiguous endings on their movies. And he’s right. A number of Americans (and probably people of other nationalities as well) dislike ambiguity, particularly at the end of movies. Talk to any three people about the ending of the movie Inception. Indeed, if you plug “Inception ending” into Google, you get 36,000,000 hits, so something must be of interest there.

This is one of the reasons that many audience members are troubled by the endings of Edward Albee’s plays or what are perhaps the most ambiguous of the arts, abstract painting, sculpture, photography.

None of this is new and interesting; we all know that some people don’t like ambiguity, and some people don’t like abstract art, and many of us have formed opinions as to why that is, often citing lack of sufficient education. However, there is a new and interesting development in this area; it is two related studies done by Antonio Chirumbolo, Ambra Brizi, Stefano Mastandrea, and Lucia Mannetti. This psychological research team reports that that “people with a strong need for cognitive closure—that is to have quick, definitive answers to vexing questions—are less likely to appreciate abstract art.”

Even more interesting is that one of the studies suggested that the “desire for certainty is a constant for some people, it can be induced in others,” which means that “if environmental cues are unwittingly prompting this mindset, they are effectively making people less open to abstract art.”

And what does all that mean to us? If we are artists who produce abstract art or who produce art that leans ambiguous, we need to be worried about how that art is presented to our audiences. We can probably do nothing about those who have an inherent need for closure, but we need to be concerned about the state of mind of everyone else in our potential audience, and that means the environment in which our art is shown.

The study showed that if and when there are too many distractions, tolerance for ambiguity is reduced, so ambiguous art becomes “unpleasant and displeasing.” Pacific Standard Magazine reports “’Curators of exhibitions of modern and abstract art should take into account environmental factors which may induce greater need for closure in visitors, and thus negatively affect viewers’ implicit evaluation of the artworks,’ the researchers write. Anything that reduces viewers’ cognitive load, from simple-to-navigate galleries to clear, understandable explanatory labels accompanying the works, will help.”

Except for the in-gallery or lobby bar dispensing alcoholic calmness, there is little to be done if audience brings their distractions with them in the form of long to-do lists, or emotional turmoil. But if our ambiguous, abstract work is to appeal, it would be well to find a way to reduce those internal distractions.

Practically speaking, if we are in the business of trying to have our work seen and perhaps purchased, in the business of tribe-building, then this information is invaluable; potential patrons may not be able to like our work simply because of the environment. Solutions may not be readily apparent or easy to implement, but just knowing what is going on in the minds of some of our potential audience can lead us to explore new paths and find new venues for our work.

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The Fear Factor

Sunday, 2. November 2014 22:41

We in the US have become quite adept at being afraid. Perhaps we always have been; remember the Red Scare from your history books? Today, however it seems more infectious and widespread. We are afraid of terrorists, of Ebola, of that woman in the burka, of being on an airplane with someone who has more than 2 ounces of gel or liquid, of being mugged, of brown kids at the border. And, sadly, we have politicians who feed those fears in order to gain the power of an elective office.

It is difficult to tell if this seeming rise in number of things we fear has contributed to our individual psychologies, but I rather suspect it has. It seems that many people hear only a portion of what is said, particularly if it is a complex statement, and the part that they hear invariably is the part that contains something to fear.

A case in point is the email I received just this past week: a former student is taking an acting class at an upper-level institution, and the instructor is in the Strasberg camp of method actors. The student was alarmed and concerned that what the instructor was asking of her and her classmates would be “damaging to their psyches.” She was seeking advice on how to proceed.

In all fairness, I had said in a class that she took with me that I thought that Strasberg’s methodology was flawed and could be dangerous, primarily because Strasberg insisted that all emotion come directly from the actor’s personal experience. Stanislavski, creator of method acting, endorsed this approach, but only after it was clear that the actor could not get the requisite emotion from the script. I would agree. I also recommend doing nothing using method techniques unless a trained coach is present—primarily because those new to method may not have sufficient judgment to make correct choices. This student (and others, I’m sure) heard only part of this. In her new class she wants, it seems, to avoid all those potential dangers not only for herself, but for everyone in the room.

That’s a lot to ask, and almost certainly guaranteed to inhibit learning. My response included these points:

  • Keep an open mind always.
  • Whatever one thinks about Strasberg’s methodology, it has significant value to offer. Strasberg trained some really good actors using his techniques, so it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
  • It is really doubtful that exposure to a couple of semesters using of this technique under the guidance of an experienced coach would be damaging to any person who did not have serious problems to begin with.
  • The evidence presented indicates that the instructor is knowledgeable and gets results. This is the guy you want running the class.
  • Give it an honest try. There is much to be learned from this technique and much to be learned about one’s self as well.
  • How the teacher impacts other students is not properly your concern, unless all students are impacted in a seriously negative fashion.
  • Sometimes exercises that make the actor uncomfortable are the most effective way for the actor to learn what he/she needs at the moment. Art is not always comfortable.
  • Any artist unwilling to risk or unwilling to allow him/herself to be vulnerable cannot expect much artistic success.

And the last point is really the point. Unfortunately, many now default to a fear response in any situation that is the least bit challenging, mentally wandering off into a series of worst-case scenarios. This may be the least useful reaction to any situation for an artist. And the medium doesn’t matter. The last post discusses this problem; I couldn’t follow my plan and was temporarily afraid to explore new areas—a typical fear response. It’s such a significant problem for artists that David Bayles and Ted Orland have written a book about it, Art & Fear.

Fear can be intimidating or even immobilizing. Artists who want to be successful must be fearless. As I look back over my responses to the former student, it seems that they would apply to any artist in any medium. We must stay open to possibilities and information regardless of the source. We must be willing to be uncomfortable. And, above all, we must be willing to risk, to become completely vulnerable; only then can we really create.

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