Asch Experiment and The Writers Workshop

December 4, 2014 at 4:37 am (Uncategorized) (, , , )

I recently saw this video. In the famous Asch experiment, the results suggested that, in groups of over four people, a person would give a wrong answer even when it was clearly wrong, as long as the other people of the group unanimously endorsed it. An interesting exception to this is when someone has to write their answers, even if the rest of the group articulates the same wrong answer, conformity decreases dramatically. This suggests that it is the act of articulating a different opinion to the group that is the source of the pressure. Similarly, when someone else in the group disagrees, the conformity reduces dramatically.

This has interesting implications for workshops. Nearly every workshop I’ve ever attended the professor prefaces the discussion through, either subtly or overtly, letting the class know what s/he thought of the piece. In some cases, a dissenting voice is discouraged or shot down because, once the differing interpretation is presented, the level of agreement about a piece among participants drops considerably.

So, does this mean that a workshop is simply pushing conformity?

Maybe.

According to this website, when someone is higher in status or is perceived to have a greater degree of knowledge, the amount of conformity increases. In other words, if you’re a student in a workshop group and you have a professor you perceive as knowledgable, you’re likely to conform to his opinion on a piece even if you previously held a very different opinion. You’re also likely to conform if you see the group as having high status (for example, an insecure first semester MFA student that is intimidated by her peers).

Bearing that in mind, how effective are workshops, really?

The science really demonstrates that workshops may not be the best format, particularly in tight knit communities where you’re with the same group of people in every class. I’ve written previously on how I think the author should be more involved with the discussion to prevent this sort of groupthink. If you’re fond of the workshop model, this is probably the strongest argument for presenting to diverse workshop groups. In other words, you may be better served by attending various conferences, online communities and continuing education courses rather than joining a small “community of writers” where you’re around the same people semester after semester.

Permalink Comments Off on Asch Experiment and The Writers Workshop

The Problem With CNF Today

October 7, 2014 at 10:17 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

Whenever I read an article  like this one , I can’t help but think that every lit person should be required to demonstrate a basic proficiency in Philosophy of Art before publishing or critiquing anything. This is yet another example of someone substituting snobbery for knowledge and well-articulated reasoning, thus obfuscating the fact that the author clearly didn’t understand the very object of their critique. You can see that, for example, in the assumptions the author makes about the audience’s motives in celebrating the impending mini-series. If you understand the ending of Twin Peaks then you understand why it makes sense to do it twenty-five years later, given the implications of the last scene, the Heather Graham scene in Fire Walk with Me and the scene with Dale in the lodge 25 years in the future.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no clarity zealot (my favorite philosophers are Heidegger and Kierkegaard, for God’s sake), but I also have a finely tuned radar for when description and metaphor are being used to conceal a lack of logic in one’s thinking rather than as a tool to engage the reader’s mind and imagination. It’s an unfortunate trend right now in Creative Non-Fiction especially. All too often I see poorly researched (and sometimes poorly written) pieces overcompensating by using a small toolbox of literary devices. It’s the sort of device that is often employed by undergraduates trying to pad out their work to meet the page minimum. And yet, it’s this sort of work that is temporarily (and I do believe it won’t stand the test of time) held up as the literary standard. I can understand the appeal: research is hard work. Fleshing out the reasons behind your thinking is hard work. Besides, the more clearly stated something is, the easier it is for others to notice the flaws in your thinking and/or your understanding. Yet, that’s precisely why we can’t throw analysis completely out the window when writing CNF.

There is, of course, a caveat to that. If you’re writing a memoir, certainly not everything needs to logically follow and if we tried to give elaborate reasons for every action we take, not only would the work be dishonest, but it would be boring. Generally, if the memoir is interesting, it relates to our mistakes, our misadventures, the things about us that are the most interesting, the things that other people might not have experienced but can learn from. That means we may not have been completely logical when doing the very things discussed in a  memoir. Nor are other people particularly logical, and we hopefully can flesh out a motive without carrying our readership along with us on a neat causal chain. That said, traditionally informative or persuasive pieces of CNF really ought to have at least a basis in accuracy.

Unfortunately, a lot of journalism has begun to resemble CNF. As journalism has increasingly migrated towards an online format, and as revenue is primarily generated through the number of clicks, journalists are playing fast and loose with the very things that made it journalism: clearly written, unbiased, factual writing. To gain a broader readership, journalists are dipping into CNF’s toolbox: a subjective point of view, emphasis on interpretation, stating of one’s personal values and a general vagueness about facts. One need look no further than The Huffington Post to see this. Of course, in the lit world, there’s no greater insult to an author than to refer to her work as “journalism.” This results in CNF writers seeking to distinguish themselves, by using more hyperbole, more value-laden language, more vagueness. If The New Yorker is a measure of the most popular styles and trends in the literary world (and I believe that it is) then the world we are presented with cannot help but leave us with the “so what” question. So what if someone that writes for The New Yorker didn’t like Twin Peaks, didn’t understand Twin Peaks, doesn’t like that the internet is full of ecstatic postings about its return? There’s no meaningful analysis and, despite the article’s title promising “some thoughts” on the series, we are not left with enough substance to really cause the reader to think about the series in a new way. Instead, all we are left with is the author’s mad rush of solipsistic sentiment.

 

 

Permalink Comments Off on The Problem With CNF Today

Critique of the Writers’ Workshop

September 27, 2014 at 11:42 pm (Uncategorized)

As someone that has both a BA and an MA in Philosophy, I am a firm advocate of questioning and debate. If a view can’t be defended, or if a person is unwilling to express a view that they may have to defend, I’ve tended to reason, then the view is probably not a good one. In the very least, they have given me no reason to accept their viewpoint as valid. An undefended view is just some random person’s opinion, and only a fool will accept a random person’s opinion without question.

For this reason, I’ve held a skeptical attitude towards the writers’ workshop as it is typically conducted. The idea that the author should be silent while a group of fellow writers discussed their work, allowed (if they’re lucky) only a few minutes at the end to respond, struck me as asking for trouble. How can people be counted on to be diligent in their reading and comments if they don’t have to risk being corrected? Still, I also realized that an outside perspective could be potentially useful. So, with a mix of skepticism and hopefulness, I recently chose to immerse myself in a workshop environment.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of structure in the workshops I participated in. It struck me that certain things needed to be incorporated: such as restricting comments to what’s actionable, learning to separate personal biases from an objective aesthetic judgment, and incorporating craft theory. If you’re the sort of person that would enjoy a coming-to-terms-with-stuff tale and you’re reading a tragedy piece, don’t try to convince the writer she should turn it into a coming-to-terms-with-stuff piece just because that’s what you like to read. Your job, your only job as I see it, is to think about the author’s project and help her figure out how to better execute it. It’s not to vent your annoyance that the person wrote something that isn’t what you would read in your leisure time. This isn’t your leisure time. Suck it up and think about the author’s overall project and critique on that basis. It seems a simple concept, but one that got tossed out the window pretty much from the beginning.

I came to believe that a single group may not be sufficient to get valuable feedback on one’s work. In many ways, a person might be better served by simply going to a wide range of conferences and participating in workshops. Why? Because workshop groups can vary wildly. They vary in terms of age, geographic location, given aesthetic, desired subject matter, academic background and general personality. There’s no guarantee that a given group will be within a million miles of your intended audience. I’d argue that to get valuable feedback, you’d need at least three different workshops in unrelated environments. If a given piece  has the same problems noted by 25 year old midwesterners as it does by forty-something hippies in Vermont or 30-ish new agers in New Mexico, then maybe there’s something to it. If the information contradicts, though, it may just be the group in question. (That goes double for memoirs, by the way.)

Still, group-hopping may not be feasible for a lot of people, which is why something needs to be modified to compensate for the otherwise static nature of a given writing community. For starters, workshops need to have a Q and A period before the critique. I’d suggest the following format for a forty-five minute workshop:

Author’s Statement of Purpose: 5 minutes. This is where the author clarifies what sort of work the piece she’s writing is and what her goals are. This also helps the people in the critique, as it ensures that the author will enter the critique having thought the piece through thoroughly.

Q and A: 10 minutes. This is where the audience asks those basic questions, the stuff they maybe didn’t understand while reading but will nonetheless help them to provide a better critique. In some cases, this may actually give them more fodder for critique, because they may realize an unsuccessful intention.

Critique: 20-25 minutes

Author Response: 5 minutes, for any misunderstandings, issues, remaining clarifications, etc.

This allows for a certain degree of accountability with both the writer and the reader. The writer has to be prepared to explain her work but also this gets out of the way needless conversations about whether it’s this sort of piece or that, why this or that choice was made and so forth. It also disrupts the “committee” feel of the workshop. It reminds everyone that they’re there to help one another with their projects and helps mitigate a lot of the inattentiveness, confusions and theatrical antics that tend to ruin the workshop experience.

 

Permalink Comments Off on Critique of the Writers’ Workshop

Heidegger, Danto and Crowdsourcing

June 25, 2011 at 3:45 am (Uncategorized)

In the summer of 2008, I visited Munich. While there, I explored the Alte Pinakothek. Wandering through the halls, absorbed in Rubens’ depiction of the contorted, tortured figures of the damned; the air of reverence in the museum struck me. Patrons spoke nary a word, and if it was, it was in a whisper. Most of the visitors were solitary individuals, listening to art history lectures on the headphones provided by the museum. The mood of the museum was almost sacred—more akin to what one might find when visiting a cathedral than most art museums these days.

Perhaps it was the lovely experience in Munich that made Paris such a shock by contrast. The following March, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to visit the Louvre.  After waiting in security lines that rivaled most airports, I was shocked to see that most patrons were running from painting to painting, snapping a photo (with flash, no less) and promptly rushing to the next work, pushing their way through to the best position to get the next shot, then onto the next work. As I began to see stars from all the flashes that surrounded me, I looked over at the security guard who, despite the signs prohibiting flashes, had a bored and resigned look, as he remained seated in his chair. It was clear that no one was there to experience art; rather people were there to snap photos to post on Facebook so all of their friends would know that on their trip to Paris they had visited the Louvre.

Perhaps this is why the new trend of crowdsourcing distresses me so much. The museum, which ought to both educate the public and cultivate a feeling of beauty and awe, is increasingly turning to various forms of contests and polling to determine content. A recent article in Art in America, titled “Everyone’s a Critic (Or Curator)” addressed this phenomenon in a manner that was as brief as it was informative. Drawing on the famous “America’s Most Wanted” exhibition, in which the “every day person” was polled to determine their tastes in art, crowdsourcing has exploded in the art world. Stephanie Cash states,

The project was a precursor of crowdsourcing, a phenomenon gaining momentum in the art world. Known as “polling” in the political and commercial spheres, it purports to gauge the majority preference but insidiously also shapes opinion. Now not only are bloggers (expert and otherwise) and respondents weighing in on the internet, but NBA players and Average Joes are being asked to “curate” exhibitions or, as with the ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich., vote for the winner of a $250,000 prize for best artwork. [1]

 

Of course, there are crucial differences between crowdsourcing now and the “America’s Most Wanted” exhibition, which was as much an ironic commentary on the uneducated opinion as it was an attempt to engage the public. In After the End of Art, Danto—who considers the painting to embody the ideals of the much-maligned “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” type of art museum patron—describes the reception, stating,

The audience that evening, drinking blue vodka (to emblematize the triumph of blue in the chromatic sweepstakes) exchanging gossip and wisecracks, too skewed a population to feel anything save superiority to the implied aesthetics of the common man and woman presumably objectified in the “genuine oil painting” in the gilded frame. But would Mr. Or Ms. Whoever cry out “That’s it!” when presented with their presumed dream painting, so far as they dream of paintings at all? [2]

 

Danto’s words point to a long-standing division between the member of the art world, with all the requisite breeding and pedigree, in which taste is informed by the right education that provides adequate knowledge of the theory and history of art and that of the casual patron, who may never have taken a single art or art history course, but likes to visit art museums while on vacation. Indeed, it is quite possibly the underlying commentary inherent in “America’s Most Wanted” that has created the climate wherein museums feel compelled to resort to desperate measures to engage the public. After all, the common woman may not know much about art, but she knows when she’s being mocked.

However, this brings a host of other problems. Art museums need look no further than institutions of higher education to see the problem with the consumer-based, opinion-driven model of determining business practices. As student retention and student satisfaction surveys become the primary criteria for evaluating faculty, increasingly students emerge on the job market with no idea how to conduct themselves professionally, let alone problem solve. This gives way to social criticism of academia’s own self-absorption and monomania, and the most intellectual of the disciplines—the humanities—comes under fire, accused of shortchanging the students. This vicious circle has emerged from a long, bloody, brutal war: between the cultural elite (the universities) who are nonetheless dependent on the public for financial sustenance and the intellectually insecure public who nonetheless need the university to be successful and well-educated members of society.  As is often the case in long and protracted wars, both sides are losing.

In much the same way, museums’ chief aim ought to be to educate the public. Perhaps the public may see works of art that don’t fit their standards of what art “should” be, perhaps the feature exhibitions are by artists they have never heard of, but that is where the education needs to begin. One ought to feel a little bit humble when viewing a masterpiece that is 200, 500, 1000 years old or more.  They ought to experience a wide range of emotions when viewing a work of art: wonder, fear, serenity, and disgust. Indeed, if this is not occurring, I dare argue, then the artwork is not doing its job.

So, if crowdsourcing is not the answer, then what is? The answer to that comes through Martin Heidegger. Art, for Heidegger, stood to reveal truth. It was only when one slowed down enough to become absorbed in a work of art that the truth, the Being, of the thing depicted could reveal itself. In order to do this, the work needed to have preservers. Preservers didn’t mean majority opinion. Even a small group would qualify as preservers. These preservers would “know” the work. Here, Heidegger is not speaking about education, but rather states that “knowing does not consist in mere information and notions about something” [3]but rather  that the person truly knows the truth being revealed by the work. This preserving elevates it to a level more significant than mere theory. Theory might give someone an intellectual appreciation of the work in terms of its history, its formal qualities and so forth, but it doesn’t in and of itself reveal the work’s significance. Heidegger states,

Preserving the work does not reduce people to their private experiences, but brings them into affiliation with the truth that is happening in the work. Thus it grounds being for and with one another as the historical standing-out of human existence in reference to unconcealedness. Most of all, knowledge in the manner of preserving is far removed from that merely aestheticizing connoisseurship of the work’s formal aspects, its qualities and charms. Knowing as having seen is a being resolved; it is standing within the conflict that the work has fitted into the rift. [4]

 

Being a preserver does not require any formal training. Certainly, we still want the formal training of curators in presenting works of art that are historically important and display significant artistic achievement. However, the role of the public ought not to be that of mere consumers: the role of the public ought to be as preservers of the work in service to the work itself. The public should not be disdained, but neither should museums prostitute themselves in an effort to woo them.  Rather, an atmosphere should be cultivated in the museum which is one of deeply meaningful discovery, one that rather than trying to compete with the high-speed world of social networking, should provide a refuge from it: a place where the public can slow down and become absorbed in the work itself. If art museums wish to create an image for the public, that image should be as a place where one can escape their absorption with the world, with their lives, with all of the things that prevent them from seeing the truth of the work, of the meaning of the objects they encounter in the world, of Being itself. Here is a place where you won’t be marketed, where you won’t be rushed through, here is a place where you can experience what it’s like to view a work of art while learning about everything the work of art has to offer. The public can be empowered, but within boundaries and constraints that communicate the awe, wonder and humility that the work can bestow.

 

-Amy Lapisardi


[1] Stephanie Cash. “Everyone’s A Critic (Or Curator) in Art in America (May 2011), pg 40.

[2] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton University Press, 1997) pg 213

[3] Martin Heidegger “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper Collins, 1971). Pg 65.

[4] Martin Heidegger “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper Collins, 1971).

 

Permalink Comments Off on Heidegger, Danto and Crowdsourcing

Katie Gingrass Gallery and Kant: A philosophical Analysis of “Au Naturel”

April 24, 2011 at 12:15 am (Uncategorized)

April is a good month for nature. April is associated with spring, with Easter and with Earth Day. What better way to bring in the spring than by contrasting Katie Gingrass Gallery’s exhibit, Au Naturel, with Kant’s aesthetics?

Au Naturel boasts of a plethora of artists. Indeed, samplings of the work of twelve artists competed with one another for space on the gallery walls. The work ranged from realistic depictions of nature to interpretations that seemed to emerge directly from the unconscious. Since my goal is depth of analysis rather than breadth, I will be focusing on the work of three artists: Karin Haas, Christine Alfery and Colette Odya Smith.

The theme of the show was nature. 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said in the Critique of Judgment, “Nature is beautiful because it looks like art, and art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as art while yet it looks like nature.” [i] Art, for Kant, must be able to stir a universalizable judgment of beauty. This emerges through what Kant calls disinterestedness. Far from being mere apathy, disinterestedness is when the individual views the art without being “prejudiced in favor of the existence of the things, but be quite indifferent in this respect, in order to play the judge in things of taste.” [ii] Our judgments in turn serve as an exemplar: it may not be the case that everyone who views the work of art will conclude it to be beautiful, but rather that they ought to. The person of taste therefore sets a standard by making an assessment that has the quality of being universal.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in a work of art that depicts nature for Kant: it shouldn’t merely replicate our sensory experience of nature. We ought to have the awareness that we are viewing a work of art. Technique should be “punctiliously observed” without being “painfully apparent.” [iii] That is, while Kant may be a formalist, the formal qualities must not be such that one simply thinks they are looking at a technically proficient rendition of a natural scene. The work ought to additionally be original: artistic genius doesn’t merely replicate or follow the rules that she has been taught, but rather “has a talent for which no rule can be given” and “hence originality is its first property.” It is here that the relationship between nature and genius is most pronounced as “nature, by the medium of genius, does not prescribe rules to science but to art, and to it only in so far as it is to be beautiful art.”[iv]

Karen Haas’ work exemplified the originality of which Kant spoke: her unique work—delicate pencil drawings of animals and nature—was extraordinarily detailed, with a soft blending of colors. Marten’s work seeks to symbolically represent her own relationships. The interplay of the animals displayed a beauty and simplicity that, upon closer look, showed a profound complexity. Most provocative was the work, Marten, in which she depicted the furry woodland creature with a smaller marten springing from the main figure. At times, the marten’s fur looked almost spike-like, adding an almost imperceptibly subtle surrealism to the drawing. The pencil drawing Raccoon was similarly striking. Sandwiched in-between Raccoon and Marten was a piece “untitled” which was a floral piece. The symbolism on this piece was less obvious and at times seemed overpowered by the other two.

Christine Alfery presented mixed media works that she described as “driven by dreams and feelings” where she sought to “create language that is universal” and which would allow her to “not be afraid of the mysterious.”[v] The most evocative of these was Red Winged Black Birds. One is immediately drawn into the dreamscape by the vibrant reds and oranges. It is as if you are carried alongside the small bird silhouettes, illuminated by patches of color. Indeed, it is a work that appears to emerge directly from dreams and inspires the awe of nature. Here one encounters the experience of Kant’s free play of the imagination that he says “always takes place when a given object by means of the sense excites the imagination” which then “excites the understanding to bring about a unity of this collective process in concepts.”[vi] Viewing the work, I felt my own imagination excited and was well aware that I was not just subjectively enjoying the work, but arriving at a universally valid judgment of taste.

In a truly Kantian spirit, Colette Odya Smith expressed her intent to “move between abstraction and representation to show different viewpoints”[vii] through her rich pastel interpretations of the natural world. Her works, Drifting, Rich Remains and Cast Loose, which she described as being “inspired by God’s viewpoint”[viii] enveloped one in a sea of blueness. Upon continued observation, the subject matter came into view. In Drifting, after a few stunned moments of looking at what seemed to be abstraction, part of a tree revealed itself. If Kant’s aesthetic theory tells us that a work of art should depict nature—and do so in a way that renders it as distinctly artistic without overwhelming us with its technique—then no work could better exemplify this than Drifting.  The technique is obviously very well developed—there is no question—but the technique never takes over the work, you never get the sense that you are merely looking at a technically proficient nature scene, but rather are temporarily lost in a delicate unfolding of the environment that is as interpretative as it is accurate.

In conclusion, the artists represented at Au Naturel are as numerous as they are diverse. At times, the gallery seemed to overwhelm the senses with its choices. I would have preferred to see fewer artists represented so that more work of each individual artist could be exhibited. That said, the exhibit provides a sampler that enables one to see the many different styles represented by a variety of artists, both locally and nationally.

-Amy Lapisardi


[i] CJ:45.

[ii] CJ:3.

[iii] CJ:45.

[iv] CJ:46.

[v] Artist’s statement, Katie Gingrass Gallery.

[vi] CJ:21

[vii] Artist’s Statement: Katie Gingrass Gallery.

[viii] Ibid.

 

Permalink Comments Off on Katie Gingrass Gallery and Kant: A philosophical Analysis of “Au Naturel”

Academia Meets the Art World

April 20, 2011 at 2:02 am (Uncategorized)

Welcome to the official launching of The Beautiful and the Sublime. The purpose of this online magazine is to create a bridge between academia and the art world by publishing a unique kind of arts review: reviews of current gallery openings, theater productions and dance performances through the lens of classical and contemporary aesthetics. Whether it’s Aristotle or Danto, Hegel or Ficino, Deleuze or Kant, you can expect to see careful yet accessible analyses of the arts with a philosophical slant.

I am looking for submissions from writers with both knowledge of aesthetics and an interest in reviewing the arts. Articles should be between 500 and 2000 words. While submissions should exhibit a comprehensive knowledge of aesthetics, it should be written for an intelligent but diverse audience. Please send all submissions and inquiries to submissions@beautiful-and-sublime.com

Permalink Comments Off on Academia Meets the Art World

« Previous page