Category Archives: the designer's eye

China’s Selfie Emperor

A recent New York Times article bemoaned the number of MOMA visitors taking selfies in front of Van Gogh’s masterpiece “Starry Night.” Although cameras have only been around a few hundred years, Chinese collectors have been embedding themselves in masterpieces of art through affixing their personal signature seals–literally on the art itself–for over two millennia. For example, in the  detail below of the 13th century masterpiece “Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains” by the polymath bureaucrat, Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), there are a variety of collector seals including several  super-sized ones belonging to the “Selfie Emperor of all Selfies”, the Qing Dynasty Qianlong Emperor who reigned from 1735-1796. Qianlong considered himself quite the aesthete when it came to calligraphy and  painting. In

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light of his fondness for his own artistic ‘eye’ he wrote no less than 13 declarations on the painting opining on how brilliantly the artist painted the masterpiece. Emperor Qianlong also called the painter out for misaligning the two mountains in the painting that are actually located in Shandong Province. (I wrote a white paper analyzing this but that is another topic.) If photo-snapping at MOMA eclipsed a deeper kind of looking, it may be because of the human need to associate with an exceptional work of art and be one with the artist, if not in talent at least in mind. After all, selfie snappers are collectors, too, driven by a need to impress their friends of their good taste and show that they are true trendsetters up to speed on what is in vogue, up to the very moment. But it is the painting that has the last word and rewards the viewer–only the viewer that  really understands it with the eye. And that reward is what 20th century painter Charles Demuth called the “n’th whoopee of sight!”

“A Starry Night Crowded With Selfies” The New York Times. Sunday Review, Editorial Notebook. September 24, 2017. A version of this editorial appears in print on September 24, 2017, on Page SR8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Starry Night Crowded With Selfies

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Uncertain Times: to compete or cooperate?

This is a repost of an essay written in 2012.

Michael Kaiser, Director of the Kennedy Center, is often fearless when it comes to speaking out about the value of cultural organizations in good times and bad. In fact, I think he would agree that they are paramount in the current economy to kick start creativity. Throw those economic impact studies aside, he would say, because now science can back up such claims. For example, recent studies in neuroscience provides new information about the brain and why art and looking at art is so important for an innovative society. For one thing, art can help move human beings to being more socially cooperative rather than just being competitive. Michael Gazzaniga writes about the work of developmental and comparative psychologists Henrike Moll and Michael Tomasello, who have suggested the Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis, name after Lev Vygotsky, an early 20th century Russian psychologist by proposing that while cognition in general was driven mainly by social competition, other aspects of cognition that they consider to be unique to humans (the cognitive skills of shared goals, joint attention, joint intentions, and cooperative communication), were driven by or were constituted of, social cooperation, which is needed to create such thing as complex technologies, cultural institutions, and systems of symbols, and not by social competition.* Surely competition has its place–to get that ‘A’, land that job, earn a promotion–but eventually what drives innovation is social cooperation that taps an entirely different type of cognition of the “higher self.” So this weekend walk on the wild side: take in an art exhibit, visit a museum, or go to a play. Who knows –you may being doing something that’s good for the economy, or even humanity.

Gazzaniga, M. 2011. Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. NY: Harper Collins.
Moll, H., Tomasello, M. (2007). “Cooperation and Human Cognition: The Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362 (1480), 639-648.

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