The Value of Culture

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Culture is the underlying mindset determining what we do. Essentially, culture is the sum total of all the belief systems, ways of thinking and patterns of behavior of an individual or group. It’s seemingly invisible and less tangible than concepts like profit/loss. But possibly it’s more important. It is because it establishes our values. And our values determine how we act.

I benefit all the time from the level of diversity among my students. They come from all over the globe. Once, I had nine countries and nine states represented in a room of just twenty students. Only two pairs of students were from the same geographic area. That class also had a range of socioeconomic levels represented. It was amazing. The effect it had on our discussions was that we always had opposing views. And usually, each of the views had validity. That forced us to really think about the generalizations we made. It really hit home that quarter that the more diverse my company, the richer my culture would be.

Culture doesn’t just apply to race or place of origin. It also applies to ways of thinking—conservative or liberal, idealistic or practical. Establishing a corporate culture that is open and transparent means that people are more likely to say what they think. They will come to you with problems. That way you’ll at least know what the problems are. At the end of the day, you don’t have to agree with what other people say or do, you just need to be aware of the fact that their way of thinking may be just as valid as your. From this awareness, you might just find some of the simple concepts related to truth and functionality to be more ambiguous than previously thought. Then you can really start to fix things.

What’s Luck? It’s a Lot of Work!

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I’d like to tell the story of one of my recent students. We’ll call him Pedro. Actually, his name really is Pedro. He gave me the OK.

Pedro and I met last quarter when he was a student in my creativity class. I was fortunate last quarter, as I am often. I had an exceptional group of talented and diverse young people in my classes. Besides being talented in their fields, they were also eager and positive.

As one of the many social experiments we conducted throughout the quarter, I had them make lists of things in which they were unlucky. These topics included stuff like clumsiness (tripping over cracks in the sidewalk), forgetfulness (losing keys), inability to meet people, or not doing well in certain subjects. From these lists, each of them picked a topic to work on over the weekend. The goal was to change their luck. Surprisingly, it’s not that hard to change your luck. You just have to try.

I believe public speaking was on Pedro’s list of unlucky things. And it was shortly after this time that Pedro made the decision he was really going to change his luck and become a more effective communicator. For Pedro, this wasn’t that easy because being from Brazil, English is his second language. And like many students new to the U.S., English is not just a second language. It’s a distant second. That makes public speaking all the more difficult. Additionally, Pedro’s isn’t comfortable speaking in front of groups.

On his own, Pedro persisted in trying to overcome hurdles associated with public speaking. He made himself contribute during class on a regular basis. Over time, he became more confident speaking in front of groups and also more persuasive. He worked hard to improve his pronunciation of English words. By the end of the quarter, he became a leader who could clearly communicate his ideas to others.

A main driver for Pedro’s inspiration was that he needed an internship over the summer. It’s tough getting an internship if you can’t communicate well. And as fate would have it, he got nothing from the job fair. Maybe, he was unlucky. Pedro however, decided that wasn’t the case, he just hadn’t worked hard enough.

He approached me after the quarter and asked for help. In the past, I’ve been surprisingly successful in helping students get internships in industries where I have absolutely no connections. My advice is always to do a lot of work. For Pedro, I asked where he wanted to live this summer. He said Brooklyn. So, I told him get at a map and define an area around Brooklyn. Then look up every design firm within those boundaries. After that, he was to cold-call every firm and inquire about an internship. After each call, he was to send his portfolio directly to the person on the phone.

Pedro marked an area larger than I had instructed. Instead of Brooklyn, he chose all of New York. He looked up tons of firms and spent two days calling. I think he said he got forty NOs in a row. But just when he was depressed and downtrodden, someone said YES. The best part is that this is a dream internship. The company is awesome with a great staff of interesting designers. This is actually a preferred company for him. Now, he’s hooking up a deal with the Brazilian government to cover housing at a NY university.

Is that luck? I don’t think so. Take some time in the next week to list the things you are unlucky at. Then pick one, and change it.

Creativity Tip for Old People: Hangout with Young People

 

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One of the main reasons I teach is to be around young people. I know as I grow older, I become more practical. I’m less apt to take chances or to embark on new endeavors. I also moan and groan more. But as a professor, I’m forced to be around hordes of energetic individuals (students) who push me to be more open, less judgmental and less grumpy. In turn, my students help me to seek out new opportunities where I normally wouldn’t. They help me see possibilities where I’d normally see dead-ends. In turn, they make me more creative.

Too often, we worry about the troubles kids bring and don’t focus enough on the benefits of youthful behavior. Here are some beneficial qualities of young people:

  • They are adaptable
  • They are eager to learn
  • They are enthusiastic
  • They learn quickly
  • They are tech savvy
  • They want to make a difference
  • They like challenges
  • They are aware of trends
  • They embrace change

On the flip side, another benefit associated with hanging out with kids or young adults is they get to be around you. Young people need mentors as much as old people need energy. It’s a two-way street. Young people gain valuable life lessons from emulating mentors. Over time, we’ve lost many of the apprentice/mentor relationships in education due to the heavy reliance on testing as our main source of assessment. Constant interaction between generations brings some of that back.

We all benefit from relationships that cross over generational boundaries. Older people become more flexible and younger people wiser. If your personal or professional networks don’t include young people, I encourage you to begin adding them.

Updates in ArtPulse Magazine

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My essay on Alfredo Jaar is now in the Features section of ArtPulse Magazine. I’d appreciate it if you’d take the time to click over there and check it out. It never hurts to have some numbers when they post my work. He’s a fascinating artist.

Also, the new edition is in newsstands with my interview with Angel Abreu. He’s one of the members of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. He’s got a great story. I thought this one had been printed a while ago, but it just came out.

Can Art Schools Teach Students To Be Artists?

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The other day I saw a post on LinkedIn asking if art schools could teach their students to become artists. I meant to comment on this, but instead viewed a few more posts and lost the original one asking this provocative question. The answer to it is, “yes” they can and do.

The question as to whether someone can be trained as an artist is an old one. It gained a lot of momentum when James Elkins published “Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students.” However, most people who use that book to fuel their argument haven’t actually read it. They just read the title. As Elkins does regularly, he lobs a philosophical grenade into the conversation to get it roiling.  In the end, he never really answers the title of his book. I’ve even heard art professors say “no” to this question. My immediate response to them is, Why do you have a job?

Art is like every other domain; if you learn how to do it better, you can do it better. The myth is that there is some supernatural, mystical ability artists must possess to be classified as real artists. In reality, that mystical ability is determination. As a comparison, kids all over the world learn to play soccer. And we assume that a kid can become a better soccer player if he/she learns the skills related to playing the game. We know they won’t be the next Ronaldo or Messi. But we still consider them soccer players.

The problem with art may come from the fact that we also associate the term artist with exceptional skill: He’s a culinary artist, or with a type of mysticism or deception: She’s an artist with cards. But being an artist means doing art-type things: painting, sculpting, designing, playing an instrument, or any number of other art related activities. The more you work on related skills, the better you’ll get.

Let see how some of the top artists of our time learn to be artists.

  • Jeff Koons: BFA fromMaryland Institute College of Art
  • Brice Marden: MFA from Yale
  • Bruce Nauman: MFA from University of California
  • Cindy Sherman: BA from Buffalo State College

Of course, there are others who didn’t finish their degrees, like Jasper Johns. He did attend art school though. But neither Bill Gates, nor Steve Jobs finished their education.

The main problem with art education is teaching students how to maintain an artistic practice. That’s more about practical skills like networking and maintaining a small business. My institution, SCAD does this very well. I keep in contact with many of my past students and they say SCAD prepared them to succeed. They work hard and work to get art related jobs. When I look at what they are able to do, and the lives they live, I’m amazed. But in the end, a greater portion of those who succeed are the determined ones.

A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.

Business Model Canvas, A Great Tool Getting Creative People Organized

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The main ingredient for a sustainable artistic practice is money. You don’t have to be rich, but you do need money to survive. And to reliably make money, you need an organizational plan. But artists and designers don’t care much for creating a traditional business plan. I know I don’t. Those plans aren’t interesting, and they are difficult to understand.

However, the Business Model Canvas puts the basic business type stuff into a visual structure that is easy to visualize and easy to understand. There’s even a video that shows you how to do it. It breaks down the structure of your business into nine elements:

Customer Segments: who are you serving and what do they want

Value Proposition: what are you doing for your customers

Channels: how to you reach your customers (interaction points)

Customer Relationships: why type of relationships are you looking establish (longterm, personal, automated, etc…)

Revenue Streams: where’s the money coming from

Key Resources: essential assets and basic resources needed

Key Activities: what you need to do well

Key Partners: which suppliers or partners do you need

Cost Structure: what drives costs

 

Here’s what it looks like for a lemonade stand.

Business Canvas

It’s not the end all for a business plan. But it really gets things going. All you have to do is guess for each section and you’ll have a much better understanding of how to maintain your practice. Visit their site Business Model Canvas, get the app, or get the book. They are well worth looking into. Get started and you’ll be glad you did.

Big Data Art

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Does art create truth? That’s the question with which Hanneke Grootenboer starts, The Rhetoric of Perspective, a highly philosophical book describing the effects linear perspective on our ability to see. She does so by referencing Martin Heidegger’s statement “that art is the setting-into-work of truth; that art lets’ truth originate.” She then follows with, ‘Does art have an origin to begin with, or is it an origin by nature; a way in which truth comes into being, and becomes historical, as Heidegger indeed suggests?”

 

Any time you reference Heidegger, you lose readers. He’s intentionally abstruse. Plus, Grooternboer isn’t the easiest read either. By virtue of including both in my opening paragraph, I’ve probably lost most everyone by this second paragraph. Oh well. But does art make a new reality or does it just reflect the reality already existing. It’s an interesting concept to think about.

In her book, Grootenboer explains how linear perspective changed the way we view space. Before perspective was discovered,  there was no convergence in space. It just didn’t exist, especially on a flat plane.  But after Filippo Brunelleschi invented perspective, it did. And once someone saw Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, (the first real depiction of perspective in a painting) they saw a new truth. After viewing, Holy Trinity, one would turn to any of Giotto’s works and immediately see the falsehoods not present before.

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Masaccio, Holy Trinity

 

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Giotto, Legend of St. Francis

Art has performed this act of creating truth over and over again with its many movements including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and many more. This comes to mind for me at this time because the other day I saw an installation by Ryoji Ikeda. It looked like streaming data projected on a wall. There were a bunch of numbers changing quickly and then it would categorize some of these numbers and go on searching again. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to think of it for the first few minutes. I just knew I liked it.

The question I keep asking myself is whether this work is showing me something new, or bringing new insight to something I’ve already known. The work is very Matrix-like. But it bridges a lot of topics dealing with information, to design, to art, to the nature of existence. The one thing I do know is that I hope there is more to come.

If you know of other artists working with this kind of data, please comment on this and post a link to their work. I’d like to learn more.

Two Underrated Creative Strategies: (1) Start Now (2) Finish Early

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My classes are past midterms and now beginning to focus on the later part of our definition of creativity – usefulness. The definition of creativity we go with is, the production of something novel and useful. So far, we’ve covered the novelty side of things. We’ve learned a lot of strategies for generating more, unique ideas. But for the next step, we’ll find ways to make these ideas more functional. Two incredibly effective strategies to make creative ideas more useful are to “start now” and “finish early.” On the surface, these may not seem like creative strategies, so let’s take a look.

Start now: The sooner you jump on a project, the more time your brain gets to spend with it. If you begin immediately and work in a start-stop-start-stop fashion, you give your brain more time to reflect on what you’re doing. Therefore, by the end of the project, your subconscious brain has refined the concept many times. This is called, discontinuous problem-solving.

Binge working in one shot to meet a deadline forces you to continue in one direction until it’s obvious the concept isn’t working. Therefore, you really don’t know if what you’re doing is the best solution. However, by working periodically on a project, you utilize what’s called the incubation process where your subconscious brain makes random associations. These are where “Aha” moments come from.

Finish early: This is an excellent method to get all the kinks out. The way this works is to set the deadline a few days to a week before the real deadline. You finish the work early and get feedback from others. Having a real prototype enables you to gain empirical evidence and tangible feedback from your peers.

When a project itself is a hypothetical, the criticism others give you on it is totally dependent on those hypotheticals actually working. Your ability to convey your thoughts to another are very limited without a product. Also, having a finished product early allows you to see what tiny things should be tweaked to make it perfect.

So start now, and finish early to create more useful designs.

 

This is Water

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There are these two young fish swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them a says, Morning boys. How’s the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks to the other and goes, What the hell is water?

 

 

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College back in 2005 is one of those speeches that deserves revisiting every once in a while. I often show the video made from edited parts of it to my classes. Above is the opening. Wallace follows by stating that the “most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” The gist of the speech is that we have choices. And if we choose to acknowledge that we have choices, then maybe we can see the world through many lenses, not just through our default “me” setting.

Empathy may be the most underrated aptitude of the modern era. Being able to view reality from another person’s perspective is an incredibly powerful tool.  It opens the door to real conversations that can lead to a greater understanding of the world in which we live. We just have to understand that no matter how substantiated our view may be, another may exist that’s just as valid.

As Wallace states later in his speech, the “real value of education has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.”