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.
President Obama gave in his farewell speech a unifying label for all Americans –that of “citizen.” This perhaps is in sharp contrast to that idealistic Obama of many years ago in a convention speech exclaiming there are no blue states or red states but only the United States of America. Yet under its “united” moniker we Americans are often swirling in a soup of contrasts: Republicans vs. Democrats; whites vs. blacks; immigrants vs. native-born; young vs. old, etc. As the administration of the first black President who cut his political teeth on community organizing transitions to that of a wealthy, white real estate tycoon there is no mistaking the heightened sense of anxiety both here and abroad in these uncertain, complex times. Yet I’m reminded that the American poet Robert Pinsky, former US Poet Laureate, would remain unfazed. Instead I think he would see these events actually in line with a longstanding American memory and what he learned of the American psyche in reading American poetry. In his essay “Poetry and American Memory”, Pinsky writes
…the greatness of American culture is its ability to make it up as it goes along taking disparate elements and synthesizing resulting in such cultural products that range from the improvisational transcendent jazz of Charlie Parker to the embarrassing, dumbness of a Super Bowl halftime show. To recognize such continuities should be to acknowledge that the alleged absence of memory is an illusion: cultural artifacts, high or low, successful or failed, shining or dismal, draw on recollection. The supposed American lack of historical sense is itself in part a national myth or delusion: the nobility of Parker’s music and the half-time jumble are both acts of memory, as all cultural deeds must be.
Pinsky points out the characteristically American forms of memory concentrated on such themes as
the fragility of community, the mystery of isolation, and a peculiar elegiac quality that is almost self-contradictory in its yearning toward a past that in one way seems forgotten and sealed off, yet in another way is determinant, powerfully haunting the present.
As in the past, the arts are ever that much more essential to America not only as drivers of its outstanding creativity and innovation, but also to shore and strengthen our cultural identity as “Citizens.”
His Holiness the 14th
Dalai Lama and Alaa Murabit, M.D.
It is not so long ago that the word “power” would ever be in the same sentence as “care.” But that is so last century! At the recent Mind & Life Dialogue Europe, held in Brussels, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama hosted scientists, religious leaders, economists and artists for three days to discuss the need for “care” to be one of the most important competencies of the 21st century leader. Our era, HHDL emphasized cannot afford the world wars that marked the past century. Instead, he made the appeal for a century of peace. Today scientists know that mammals are hardwired for care and have observed the chimpanzee in which not only mothers but the entire community all participate in the nurturing of a newborn, including Alpha males. Humans, however, have tended to compartmentalize roles along sharply drawn gender lines. When moderator, Scilla Elsworthy, asked HHDL how to bring masculine and feminine elements back into balance, he responded that love and compassion are always key factors as long as they are not bound up with attachment, but rather a genuine concern for others’ well being. With practice, he said, it can become effortless. This is important to cultivate because in our interconnected world we are dependent on others, “so it’s in our interest to pay heed to their welfare.” Because HHDL is pro-active his main concern is always about educating our youth. Neuroscience can now map distinct brain areas such as cognition, affect or emotions, as well as perspective taking. The latter is a crucial competency–i.e. that of taking into account other cultures. That is why a tool such as imaginement® which came out of my teaching non-western cultures a both community college and universities for the past 25 years is useful. I have have guided and observed firsthand how young adult students develop their perspective-taking through cultivating their imagination opening them up to true social justice: that developing the intelligence requires cultivating the imagination which, as John Dewey points out, is not telling others how to improve their lives but developing a “faith in the social utility of encouraging every individual to make his own choice intelligent.”
*origninal watercolor by the author, Terri McNichol
Can art from ancient civilizations be relevant to young adult visitors, particularly Generation X and Y students? Can these objects prompt thinking or experiences relevant to the present day and tap the “capacities of the heart” that Michael Gallagher identifies in addition to wonder—such as “searching,” “listening” and “receptivity?” What might these capacities add to the museum experiences that would inform various experiences in everyday life? One way would be toward a disposition of deep listening and being receptive to others, rather than imposing our pre-conceived notions of what is, or should be. How does viewing and interacting with art objects contribute to this disposition? The Philosopher of Education, John Dewey, describes the process as that of cultivating the imagination and its resulting outcome as “intelligent sympathy” or good will. Dewey explains what he means by intelligent sympathy:
Sympathy as a desirable quality is something more than mere feeling;
it is a cultivated imagination for what men have in common and a rebellion
at whatever necessarily divides them.
The important thing to keep in mind is that for Dewey it is a sincere benevolence—not meant to mask the feigned benevolence in an attempt to control another, but honor the other in thinking and feeling freely seeking and humbly allow them in finding whatever they themselves choose. An added value of cultivating the imagination is what Kant observed is that the mind’s awareness of freedom grows with trust in the power of the imagination.
An excerpt from “THE ART MUSEUM AS LABORATORY FOR REIMAGINING A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE” Theresa McNichol in Positive Design and Appreciative Construction: From Sustainable Development to Sustainable Value Advances in Appreciative Inquiry, Volume 3, 177–193 Copyright r 2010 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited All rights of reproduction in any form reserved ISSN: 1475-9152/doi:10.1108/S1475-9152(2010)0000003014
Updated research findings will be reported in forthcoming article late 2016.
A former painting student of mine can’t understand why painters like me are excited about the two concurrent Giorgio Morandi exhibitions in New York. How can one explain to the uninitiated that standing before a Morandi painting is like having a spiritual experience.
As New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, writes a Morandi painting is a “universe on a tabletop.” Similarly, consider the painting “Six Persimmons” by the Zen painter MuQi (13th century). It cannot be explained, it can only be contemplated. The Chinese art scholar, James Cahill, invites his students to just LOOK at it. If you would like to give it a try: see his youtube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X7NzvEnDhs
But if you can, go see the Morandi paintings in New York and be mesmerized.
Credit Morandi images: https://lepulci.wordpress.com/tag/still-life/ Credit Mu Qi Six Persimmons: http://tinyurl.com/pqyqp6o
Roberta Smith: http://tinyurl.com/qjzz2t9
In a recent interview, University of Chicago Professor of Psychology, Howard C. C. Nusbaum talked about his early research particularly related to the ways in which experience changes us and how these experiences change us. As an artist art-historian my ears are naturally attuned to topics around perception, attention, and learning and the like that Nusbaum said engaged him as well. For the past 25 years, my community college students’ essays about looking at art objects in a museum became the basis of my research on their thinking processes about their museum experiences—not just what they knew about another culture but more how they came to know. Nusbaum’s current research interests have expanded to include wisdom along with a new course, Understanding Wisdom. For Nusbaum, being wise is not being all-knowing, but rather being in possession of epistemic humility: one who is knowledgeable in his or her field but also cognizant that it is only one piece, not the entire puzzle. Such a person is open to new and expanded knowledge rather than closed off to others thinking they know all that there is to know. Professor Nusbaum also sees value relativism as an offshoot of epistemic humility; i.e. the ability to appreciate “different people’s values as having importance in their lives and importance for their decisions and processing of information.” In my research, I have identified a similar quality in the students through the jing “reverence” they bring to the museum art objects and recording their careful and reflective thinking revealing a process of evaluative judgments.
On his recent trip to China, Nusbaum meeting with middle school educators was reminded of Philosopher of Education John Dewey’s sojourn in China (1919-21) and the emphasis Dewey placed on learning skills and knowledge in an applied setting. The “second Confucius”—as the Chinese referred to Dewey—was a proponent of “hands on” or experiential learning and saw democracy intertwined with the one ultimate ethical ideal of humanity, the latter being the foundational Confucian concept of altruistic moral conduct.
From my own reading, Dewey deeply admired traditional Chinese culture and the way in which the Dao, or The Way, was the standard of perfection for the individual to emulate and cultivate as modeled by the Sage Kings of antiquity. For the Chinese, intelligence alone was not enough for a successful career at court for great emphasis was placed on learning and the arts as the path to both authority and wisdom. From my background as Chinese art historian, the role of the arts played in this process was key for the ritualizing practice of the Three Perfections—calligraphy, poetry, painting— over one’s lifetime was as essential to a scholar- bureaucrat’s portfolio of excellence as was passing the civil examinations. Composing a poem or putting brush to paper by a person of the Dao gave coherent form to patterns unseen before so that they could be shared with as well as appreciated by one’s peers which underscored the communal as well as innovative aspects of practical wisdom. “The success of the Chinese literati tradition of politicized self-cultivation—that of becoming an “inner sage, outer king,” paid off: the scholar-bureaucrats were successful in administering the world’s largest economy and sustaining it over two millennia (private conversation Henry Rosemont, Jr.).”
Link here to the Jean Matelski-Boulware’s interview with Howard C. Nusbaum, an excerpt from the documentary film The Science of Wisdom: http://wisdomresearch.org/forums/t/1531.aspx#
Upon entering into the main exhibit room at at Alexandre Gallery from icy NYC cityscape outside, one is immediately hit with nature’s brilliant colors captured on paintings hanging inside. It takes a few moments to separate them out—a fiery sugar maple tree at its autumnal peak, a Christmas amaryllis dominating its frame. The vermilions and cadmium reds are contrasted with a cacophony of acid greens that eventually coalesce into a melodic fugue. Yet once settled into the gallery space, it’s the bleak but luminous shades of pink and gray sugaring the winter landscape with snow reminding the viewer that it is still winter outside. But have no fear. The painter Lois Dodd graciously positions the viewer in a warm southern window looking out at the winterscapes some of which are sharply etched in the architectural lines of windows and houses while others are softly blanketed with filmy layers of pink and gray layers of atmosphere. Going from painting to painting is a different vista viewed from different windows—or one aptly titled “Reflected Light on Brick Wall” with the light shaped by the window’s frame cast upon a solid brick wall that results in a tripartite meditation on variations of brick tones in reflected light. In another painting, anemic house plants huddle on a shelf at the window doing their best to absorb some light from the falling snow outside mirroring our own winter weary spirits. But catching sight of the pruned apple tree is a much-needed reminder of the promise of spring—it is dormant for now but the tree’s pink trunk hints at buds that have been gathering strength all winter in the alternation of freezing and thawing temperatures that will produce the burst of blossoms in another two months or so. So feed your soul, feed your psyche all the while in the accompaniment of Mother Nature’s dance and a luminous light captured in the strokes of the brush of the amazing painter, Lois Dodd. Pay a visit to Alexandre Gallery, if not in person, online at
http://www.alexandregallery.com/current-exhibition/. For a rare treat read an interview with the artist: http://paintingperceptions.com/featured-interviews/conversation-with-lois-dodd