Supporting Local Artists

The public was up in arms over the Bruce Naumann exhibition we were opening when I was an intern in Madrid at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (MNCARS). I learned much from the intense public discussion that ensued. There had been so many American exhibitions recently, the public wondered what the museum was doing to raise Spain’s profile on the international stage.

It wasn’t a case of xenophobia. Fads in Spain seem to embrace other countries for periods and then move on. The US was very much the center of love at the time.

The discussion emanated from a deep sense that Spain’s art is part of a citizen’s patrimony, part of your birthright. In fact there is a law that any ordinary citizen can contest the deaccessioning of a work of art from the national collections.

That notion is really unheard of in the United States. We see a wave of public opinion surge when a whole collection is in jeopardy such as recently in Detroit, but by and large we don’t have a personal sense of ownership over our cultural history. Probably because we come from so many different cultural histories and because we vaguely trust boards of trustees will do the right thing, somehow magically immune from real world concerns.

Cultural Policy varies greatly from nation to nation, something we don’t think about so deeply immersed in our own “nonprofit” model. In Spain, for example, museum employees are civil servants. This also has a great effect.

That question had a great impact on me though: If Spain doesn’t lift its local artists onto the international stage then who will?

I approached opening the gallery in Denver with that same question front and center. If we don’t lift up Colorado artists, who will?

No more GENIUSES, please! It’s tiring.

Yea, yea, he’s a genius. We’re seven billion people on the planet, and he’s the one. No, thanks. I don’t think that serves us mathematically.

It’s much more useful to think of a “SUBJECTIVE PERSONALITY” than perpetuate the cult of “genius”.

Lately, I’ve been thinking very much that we seem to have a fundamental MATH problem in the arts. I don’t think we understand the statistical pervasiveness underlying creativity and as such tend to focus on the wrong things, like the notion of “genius.” We need to step back a bit and look at larger populations, and recognize that a large part of the population is struggling to develop more robust skill sets for harnessing creativity instead of perpetuating the notion of “exceptionalism” and “genius”. As a society, we would stand to learn more from one another.

Johnson O’Connor’s (1891-1973) research sheds some light in this area.  O’Connor writes about the “subjective” versus the “objective” personality type. One is not better than the other; he isn’t passing judgment as we tend to do when we think of an “objective” person as perhaps being more impartial. Rather, O’Connor uses these terms to signify how we relate to one another. When tested, “objective” persons will give the same response to a query as a large group of others while “subjective” persons will give very different answers. For example, when I took one of his tests twenty years ago, I was asked to state the first thing that came to mind when prompted with certain words:


We went through hundreds of words, quickly. Sometimes people list things that are opposites and sometimes they are commonly related in other ways.  Fascinatingly, statistically, very many of us give the exact same words. A “subjective” person, however, starts to deviate from the most common answer. I, for example, answered “A Poem by Federico Garcia Lorca” when prompted with the word “death”, the poet’s melancholy mood filling my mind. That, clearly, is my own response. An “objective” person would have likely  answered, “Life and Death.”

You could dismiss this if it was just a comparison of a few people. What’s really interesting is that they’ve been doing this at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation since 1929, and after working with hundreds of thousands of people, of course patterns become very clear. Persons that do well in business, for example, tend to be more “objective”, giving similar answers to one another, and because they relate to a larger group of people, do better socially with those groups.

I find O’Connor a thinker well before his time, and though some of the writing is difficult to get through for all the technical references to the tests, there is some extremely good insight well worth seeking out. Below is one of my favorite passages. In the introduction to his book of 1948, The Unique Individual, Johnson O’Connor writes:

“Three-quarters of all men and women belong by nature to one personality type, the remainder to another. From the objective multitude come prosperous business men, from the extremely subjective minority come creative artists, gifted writers, lyric poets, scrupulous surgeons, diligent scientists, and unworldly musicians. The easy momentum of the conservative majority carries the civilized world from day to day, as a revolving fly wheel, once in heavy motion, carries a reciprocating engine smoothly past each successive stalling point; while the explosive minority furnish the impulsive driving force.

In the considered choice of a lifelong career, men and women who score extremely subjective must face the disadvantage of belonging to the outnumbered species. In place of counting on the established three-quarters duplicating their own emotional reactions, they gain their point only by anticipatory study and such prudent presentation that every verdict rests on a rational consideration of the controversial issue [think, entrepreneur’s PITCH!] . For this reason, extremely subjective persons thrive in fields of trained advice, as in the practice of medicine, legal counseling, engineering design, certified public accounting, and the fine arts, and only occasionally enjoy the jostling business world. [Today’s entrepreneurs clearly need to learn to navigate both these modalities.]

Extreme subjectivity strives obstinately toward an enduring goal, a better mankind, where lasting progress is not easy, innovations remorselessly criticized, professional standards not raised without a disheartening struggle.”

O’Connor presents the example of a dentist who is very dissatisfied and in fact a very subjective person. O’Connor continues:

“After reading the disconcerting biography of Wolfgang Mozart, this middle-west dentist felt little sympathy for the Austrian composer’s blind allegiance to aesthetic creation; and yet he saw the same symptoms in himself, knew that great scientists, glorious artists, and sublime musicians live turbulent lives, but leave behind illustrious works which raise human happiness to a new level. He typifies the extremely subjective person who sacrifices himself irresistibly to a visionary principle, who suffers in so doing, whose inner nature pushes him remorselessly to the precipitous verge of a mental breakdown, but who cannot desist; for the extremely subjective person contributes lastingly to human welfare at the expense of his own immediate comfort. To win the profound gratification which this man craved, he would not for a moment forsake his fantastic ambition. Fundamentally he demands speedier progress [think, entrepreneur’s DO MORE FASTER!], an achievement which depends upon still greater sacrifice…only tangible accomplishments, gained through picturing a problem and preparing for its solution with impersonal detachment, satisfy the missionary spirit.” (p. 1-2)

P.S. If you want to see a physical example of this, go view the 30,000 postcards created by Mark Mothersbaugh in the Myopia exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver through April 2015. There you will see a highly subjective person who daily gave the ideas tangible expression.

“Taking Risks” implies being able to do so

Ron Ragin from the Rauschenberg Foundation made a very eloquent statement about fear and the reality of taking risks. The Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) held their annual DinnerVention in the Gallery this week and you can hear Ron speak of this starting at hour 1:09. The dinner called together young cultural policy thinkers to think about new solutions for the field. New solutions, of course, always imply risk. Ron highlighted, as a precursor to even being able to go down that road, that we must ask who is in a position to take risks.

“Most of the people we all work with and are alluding to, have something to lose…Legitimately, what governs so much decision-making about where we are able to take risks, individually, organizationally, institutionally, network-wise, whatever, has to do with how we’ve organized power and how we have positioned ourselves to be able to do that in a structural way.”

Ron continues: “If I have a mortgage and a baby to feed and daycare to pay for, I’m not going to come talking some mess to my boss that’s going to get me in trouble so that I might lose my job and my health insurance, if I have a major illness.”

See the DinnerVention video.
Read about the participants.