Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Why Writing? A Reflection on the Past

With a few blog postings now under my belt, I want to pause and reflect on the why of all this. Some people have a lot on their minds that they want to write about, and are quite prolific. They build a dedicated fan base and are motivated to provide fresh content to their readers on a regular basis. But what about those of us who are primarily writing for ourselves, and are sharing our thoughts with an almost-nonexistent audience? Despite telling myself that I was going to update this blog on a regular basis, it's been over five years since I last did. Is this because I've had nothing to say, or I've just been too busy to pause and reflect? The better question is: why do I feel the need to write at all, that is, from where did this urge originate?

I have enjoyed writing ever since my very-progressive seventh-grade English teacher had all her students keep a journal, which opened up a whole world to my impressionable young mind. I really enjoyed putting ideas and stories on paper, and I was convinced that I would become a writer when I grew up. By my junior year of high school, another influential English teacher warped my mind by turning me on to a lot of strange hippy-era literary works. Soon I was absorbing everything written by Richard Brautigan and Hunter S. Thompson, and I was handed many odd non-fiction works that told me how the history I'd learned was wrong, how completely our educational system was flawed, and how American politics had been corrupted. It was an eye-opening year, and I was forever changed. I now questioned everything, and I started to write satire and short fiction. I subscribed to Writers' Digest. I became the Features Editor in my school newspaper and contributed stories and poetry to the literary magazine. In my senior year, I wrote an apocalyptic science fiction skit that was performed in my school's theatre (and depressed the whole audience). 

I craved reading and writing, so I took extra classes, and graduated high school with a total of seven years of English credits. Art was there as a sideline talent, but writing was everything to me. In my senior year, I was on the yearbook committee and, during these after-school sessions, I ended up designing the cover and some interior pages of our yearbook, which was my first real experience with creative layout and graphic design, way beyond the confines of the school newspaper's rigid column inches. Students liked my design, complimented me on it, and it felt great to get noticed for it. In their next catalog, the yearbook publishing company used my cover as an example of "an effective use of gold leaf" (or something like that), and that design went on to win a Best Yearbook Cover award. I was starting to drift away from writing at that point, as the artistic muse began to pull me toward the fine arts. I continued to write through my four years at college, but it was more often than not a term paper – not anything I'd call creative. Creating Art (with a capital A) ruled my life at that time, and the young teenage dreams of becoming a writer quickly faded. 

Writing was a talent that never completely vanished from my life though. Throughout my adult career as a graphic designer, I've been called upon to write slogans for print advertisements, copy for radio ads, and descriptions of products and services for brochures. I have freelanced as a proofreader for several corporate newsletters and publications. Writing has always been a natural and easy thing for me to do; I have never thought of it as a chore; it was just a talent that came in handy once in a while. Writing has never been my main job... it was always "that extra thing I did."

And still is.

As I've gotten older and have become more reflective about life, I've started getting that urge to write again. The computer – with the blessings of onscreen editing –  has made this a much more enjoyable experience than it was in the past, when I suffered many long nights with the burden of manual typewriters and correction fluid. The process of revisions was a real chore for me back then, and I always dreaded typing up that final version of a term paper. It's so much easier to write and edit documents in this brave new cut-and-paste world. There is a lot of nostalgia surrounding the manual typewriter right now, but every time I touch one, I'm reminded of why Smith Corona went out of business. It's too much work to write on one effectively, and a perfect example (in my opinion at least) where the interface gets in the way of the function. I'm sure I wouldn't be writing this now if not for computers and modern technology; certainly this blog would be seen by far fewer readers if it needed to be mimeographed and tacked onto bulletin boards throughout the world!

Luckily, armed with the latest in modern technology, the many thoughts and ideas pent up for decades in my head may have found a less-stressful mechanism for release, and I've finally started writing again - for me. The outlet for this resurgence, of course, is this blog, which I've vaguely decided will cover "past, present and future events, and my thoughts on art, music, jobs, technology, politics, stupidity, and whatever else strikes me as interesting." Where it takes me is anyone's guess. Pending some actual free time between freelancing gigs, the long-dormant writing bug might bite me again, and that teenage dream might come back with a vengeance!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

An Artist Statement on Artist Statements

Something that has always bothered me in the art world is the tendency for creators to release an "Artist Statement" to go along with their work. This is often an overblown paragraph or two of obscure references, aesthetic contrivances, and egotistical massaging to make the work appear more artistically profound, and to give it meaning. I've found that these statements usually bear no resemblance to the actual work, and seem interchangeable with other artists' statements.

These self-indulgent explanations of one's art can be seen on the site, Artist a Day. Though I visit the site often, and am inspired by many featured artists' works, I've observed that the more abstract the piece, the more obtuse and irrelevant the explanation of the artist's motivations for the work. I'm hesitant to point out any particular artist, but I have had a long-standing belief that art should stand on its own merits, without the viewer being influenced by the artist's stated intentions.

During my time in college (in the mid-1970s), I learned early on that mere act of titling one's work can influence the viewer's perception of it, and that phenomenon really intrigued me. I preferred that people would judge my paintings and sculptures on  aesthetic and creative merit alone. My work was usually quite abstract,  so I opted to name my artistic output in a more-benign manner, by assigning descriptive names like Spray Paint #4, or Wood and Steel #3 (more for my own organizational needs that anything else), as well as that favorite - and ironic - standby, Untitled.

One of my painting professors (who will remain anonymous here) was always really really bothered by my "boring" titles. To my mind there was nothing unusual about taking this approach to the naming of one's work, as it was a well-established norm in the world of modern art. But, since I was a pretentious young PITA in college - thriving on challenging my professors' perceptions as much as they challenged mine - I conducted an experiment to confirm my theory, that the title alone has a significant influence on the interpretation of a piece of art. As part of a class assignment (which was centered on the Cubists), I created a very-abstract watercolor painting of my living room, which came out looking nothing like that room - or anything else. The piece consisted of colored angular shapes that revealed only a vague hint of the original rough sketch of the room upon which it was based. I even turned the painting upside down to further obscure its origins. It wasn't a masterpiece, but I was focussed more on what to name it for my little experiment and less on the actual piece's artistic value.

(Note to self: Please post of photo of that painting as soon as you dig it up!)

I was listening to the stereo as I was working on the painting, and contemplating what to call this new piece. A new song that I liked, Dance on a Volcano, by the progressive rock band Genesis, came on the radio. (Yes, believe it or not, rock radio stations in the 1970s actually played a huge variety of album tracks!) Right then and there, I decided to use that song as the name of my piece, hoping that my professor wasn't a Genesis fan or that anyone else in the class would pick up on the reference to a fairly-obscure album track.

I happily brought my finished painting to school. In most of my art classes, we would have peer review sessions in order to evaluate and comment on each other's work. As I placed my painting on the easel, I proudly announced the title of my work. A long and passionate discussion commenced about how the power of volcanos, the shaking and loudness of nature's fury, the rhythm and movement of dance, and the fragmented dynamism were effectively conveyed to the viewer. At the end of this animated analysis, my professor asked me, "Ken, why did you name your painting Dance on a Volcano?" I calmly answered, "It was the name of a song that was playing on the radio. That'a all." Nobody said anything else. The professor broke the long silence with "Okay, who's next?" He never bothered me about my titles again. I look back at this incident and realize what a cocky young bastard I was. But, in truth, my professors all liked me anyway; I guess they thought I had talent or something.

Getting back to the issue I have with the dreaded Artist Statement, I'd like to take back what I wrote earlier about not calling out any particular artist for writing about his "vision." Korean artist Duck-Bong Kang creates large figures out of lengths of painted PVC pipe, carefully arranged so that the subjects look like they are blurred by motion. Here's a sampling of his work:

It's an interesting technique, visually exciting and and a well-exectuted idea. However, I just can't make the connection between it looks like and what he says about his work:
My work addresses communication and relationships, which are perhaps two of the most important terms to explore if one is to reveal our fundamental nature. Whether they want it or not, people need to engage with others in a social relationship they live and they communicate within this social space. In my work, the void a full, yet empty form reflects the emptiness of modern people within contemporary society. Whilst searching for existential values within social relationship, people these days tend to hide themselves, as their superficial relationships with one another become more complicated. When we care too much about how we are seen through other people's eyes rather than focusing on who we really are, we start to feel a sense of selfbetrayal. The existential void may lead us to cry out, with the weight of depression caused by this inauthenticity. No matter how hard you try to fill the existential void, you continue to feel worse because of the never-ending sense of emptiness. In reality we can't hold on without constantly trying to fill the hole inside — we manage to survive by hiding ourselves, like taxidermied likenesses.

Sam Biddle, who wrote a Gizmodo post about this artist's work, summed up my own feelings very nicely:
I'm not entirely sure what a blurry guy on a bicycle reveals about our absorption by social networks and the terrors of modernity, but you can at least file this work under "looks cool."
Yes, indeed. "It looks cool."

I love that statement because it's one I used quite often back then to explain why I came up with a particular piece... "I just thought it looked cool." In college, I experimented with technique a lot, and would freely mix incompatible media (literally oil and water sometimes) just to see what would happen. That was my primary motivation. Many of these experiments failed; some of those damn things never ever dried. But for me, the pieces that succeeded were the ones that I thought looked cool, and didn't look like one big messy mistake. Seeing the randomness of the results - those happy accidents - would surprise, delight, and encourage the developing fine artist inside me to further develop techniques I could call my own. My best work made me happy simply because I liked what I'd created, other people liked it, and it looked cool.

I wish more artists would be more honest about the true motivation for their work. Instead of all the verbose nonsense they proudly wave in front of their art, wouldn't it be refreshing to have an artist admit their true motivation? Perhaps:
  • I had a lot of that color paint left over and wanted to use it.
  • I can't get dates, but at least I can hire nude models.
  • I like to make money, so I create pretty things that regular people will buy.
  • I'm really a disturbed person and doing this keeps me sane. (Okay, I'll let this one slide!)
All kidding aside, this is among the most persistent of the many pet peeves I have. Artists that make us sound like elitist  douches aren't helping the public's perception of artists or the Arts (with a capital A) one bit. In an age where arts funding is always threatened, can't we all just drop all the lofty pretense and let the work stand on its own?

I'll tell one more relevant tale of my artistic life in college. During my junior year, I noticed a poster outside our school's gallery announcing an upcoming show featuring "lesbian feminist art." I thought, "Well, that's interesting... what the hell is lesbian feminist art, and how is it different from any other art?" Later that week, I attended the show's opening and, for the life of me, I couldn't perceive how this art was any different from regular art. Some pieces were brilliant; some were crap. There were no overt clues in the paintings and sculptures that would have led me to conclude that the artists were all lesbian feminists.

I want to strongly note that I didn't have any bias then - or now - against the sexual preferences or politics of anyone else. I was in art school; there were a lot of variations among us. We were all a pretty accepting and inclusive group, and probably way ahead of the curve at that time. I had both straight and gay friends, and as far as I could tell, their art was just their art. Of course, our art is influenced by our upbringing, attitudes and feelings, but the fact that this group of women had chosen to label their show in such a specific way, and that somehow their art was a direct reflection of their lifestyle, really got under my skin. If the art was obviously centered on that particular view by showing (as a bad and obvious example) two woman kissing, I would have at least been more accepting of the appropriateness of the show's label. But there was nothing controversial or confrontational about any of the art. To me it was just another student art show, but since those in attendance were ooohing and aaahing all about the work's relevance to the cause, surely I was missing something.

I attempted to discuss my confusion with the creators of the show, but these fellow artists couldn't answer why this lesbian feminist art was different enough to warrant a special gallery show. What had happened to arts for art's sake? Frustrated after talking with these artists, I decided that I would make a statement of my own. Even if just to ruffle a few feathers, I always liked to make people question their assumptions... and think. I had my own upcoming solo show to prepare for, and I had an idea. I decided to print up some very special posters to advertise my event. The posters boldly announced that the art show would feature the works of "Ken Palmer, Male Heterosexual Artist."

Let me tell you, the backlash began within days of those posters going up, and continued through the opening. There were two reactions to the show. The first was that people were misinterpreting my work based solely on the title of the show. People were talking about it... a lot. I'd never been aware of the phallic imagery so deeply hidden in my work! I could have predicted a reaction such as that one, because of all of the previous fun I'd had experimenting with placing misleading titles on my work. 

The second reaction, however, came as a complete surprise. Apparently it's okay to have a lesbian feminist art show, but if you declare yourself a male heterosexual, then you're a sexist pig. I hadn't expected that reaction at all, and was unprepared for the nasty comments I received. "How could you be so insensitive?!!" It bothered me more that I was being personally attacked for just being what I am (a male heterosexual artist... with a sense of humor, apparently lost on some) and that I had to defend myself from the total misinterpretation of my intentions. Some people just can't take a joke. Lesson learned; I would never made any male heterosexual art ever again!

I guess I also should have prepared an Artist Statement first.

(Addendum: After doing a little bit of searching on the subject, is this a good place to start?)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Craigslist Want Ad Ignorance, or, How Not to Get Hired

As an under-employed creative professional in a souring economy, I careen through various cycles of optimism and pessimism in my quest to secure full-time employment. During my days/weeks/months of searching, I've come across some really horrible employment ads posted by prospective employers. I don't mean horrible as it relates to the description of the actual position offered, but horrible in the incredibly inept and unprofessional way that the job is pitched. One in particular has burned into my brain for being particularly offensive to my editorial sensibilities. I'd almost forgotten about it, but it recently resurfaced in my sent mail folder as I was doing some purging of old email. The original link has long since expired, so I think that enough time has passed that I can now safely assume that I did not score this gig! But I have really wanted to preserve it for all web eternity and felt the need to share it with the world, to give those who don't know me very well a glimpse of my particular brand of humor, to which I've alluded in many a cover letter.
So, without further delay, I present the actual screen grab of my actual email response to an actual ad:

Obviously I don't recommend responding to most ads in this manner, but on that particular morning I must have been in a unusually-cranky mood, and was feeling frustrated by yet another week of being totally ignored by prospective employers who, though they advertise heavily that they are looking for employees, never actually seem to hire anyone. I see the same ads resurface month after month. Who is this perfectly-suited ideal employee that they dream of hiring? If you're hoping to find an experienced art director who knows how to crochet and has 10 years of experience rebuilding car engines, you're not going to find a matching candidate. But you still will be inundated with applicants who --like me-- may not fit all the job requirements, but are willing to learn if given the chance. I always say that I've never been qualified to do any of the jobs that I've done. Given the chance though, I've learned --and mastered-- whatever the job requirements were, and often have become the resident expert... that guy to whom other people come for advice on technical or creative matters. 
But I digress... let me get back to the central issue of the above-referenced job posting. What is particularly galling to me is that --in all seriousness--  I often think, "My God, these people actually have JOBS??!!" With the high rate of unemployed and underemployed workers in this country, how is it possible that there are so many stupid people in high-level jobs? 
There, I said it. I'm serious. We all talk about these people in our workplaces; folks who, for some reason or another, have ascended to positions of power in the company with barely a double-digit IQ. They may be devoid of technical skills, management skills, or lack some other factor that normally would keep them out of the corporate gene pool, but (bless their small intellect) they've succeeding in working their way to middle management or beyond. Everyone in the office knows who these people are, sits at meetings with them, nods approvingly at their inane comments and suggestions, talks about how unbelievably stupid they are (behind their backs), and mutters "I know I could do a better job than that idiot!" In addition, based on the economic consequences of some really bad decisions made by corporate and political leaders in the past few years, I fear there are a lot more of these people running the world than one would expect. And they all think they're so smart...
There have been many studies on intelligence to illustrate this misperception, and some researchers and writers have recently provided an explanation. Essentially, ignorant people over-estimate their own intelligence, and sincerely believe they are smarter that they really are. This is known as "Illusory superiority." Quoting from that source, 
"One of the main effects of illusory superiority in IQ is the Downing effect. This describes the tendency of people with a below average IQ to overestimate their IQ, and of people with an above average IQ to underestimate their IQ. The propensity to predictably misjudge one's own IQ was first noted by C.L. Downing, who conducted the first cross-cultural studies on perceived 'intelligence'. His studies also evidenced that the ability to accurately estimate others' IQ was proportional to one's own IQ. This means that the lower the IQ of an individual, the less capable they are of appreciating and accurately appraising others' IQ. Therefore individuals with a lower IQ are more likely to rate themselves as having a higher IQ than those around them. Conversely, people with a higher IQ, while better at appraising others' IQ overall, are still likely to rate people of similar IQ as themselves as having higher IQs.
Of course, ignorance is bliss --as was concluded in another study-- so maybe I'd actually be better off living in a cloud of blissful ignorance. Many people seem to get along just fine without knowing very much about the world around them. As further illustration, when I occasionally watch late-night television, I'm always shocked --and dismayed-- to see interviews such as the following: The Tonight Show wth Jay Leno: Jaywalking." It's a train wreck, and done for comedic effect, but it's also a very sad commentary on the state of education in this country. Some of these people will eventually blunder into leadership positions, and that's not funny at all.

This thought-provoking book, "Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance" by Robert Proctor, explores this territory as well, though its central premise focusses more on one's ability to distinguish "knowledge" from "belief." Essentially, what you believe to be true does not make it true. But belief has had profound impact on historical and political events, so it is not a trivial thing. If I will admit to any character flaws, one issue is that I have a low tolerance for stupidity. It's hard to deal with in general, it's difficult to have a logical argument with a ignorant and closed-minded person, and it seems more pervasive in our society than I could have imagined. From the millions who believe the doomsday predictions of wackos with no credibility, to the hoards of computer users who continually re-post along every bit of Internet lore (even though every "This is real!!!" post has been widely and thoroughly debunked), our society seems to get dumber by the second. And in a country where reality TV rules the airwaves and intelligence is looked down upon as a source of shame and mockery, it reminds me far too much of grammar school, when it was so painfully uncool to be a smart kid.
So, this is the environment in which I continually have failed to secure a new job despite my best efforts throughout the past year or so. Every time I read an ad similar to the one I answered so flippantly that day, and during interviews with people who obviously have no business sitting on the other side of the desk, I feel frustrated, and once again hear that familiar refrain in my head, "How come I'm the one without a job??!!" I imagine that these blissfully-ignorant and unqualified people prefer to hire other blissfully-ignorant and unqualified people. Not only do they overestimated their own intelligence, they overestimate the intelligence of those they hire, taking care not to hire someone smarter than themselves, for fear that their own intellectual prowess would be challenged. 
Nobody consciously makes bad hiring decisions, but I am frustrated how some people manage to rise above others in the workplace based solely on their good looks, charisma, and brown-nosing ability, rather than on skill, intelligence, and value to the company's success. I was fortunate enough to have worked for a few very smart bosses in my career, but that is a rare gift; I've suffered under more than my fair share of the other type as well.
So, why then, do I expose the thoughts in my brain here on these pages, and yet continue to feel upbeat and optimistic about my future? Despite the present economic environment, I cling to a hope that I will once again surround myself with other intelligent and creative people, earn a paycheck, and make a contribution to society and the economy. I still believe that such a future is out there somewhere, and that I will find my place in the working world once again. 
I... believe... 
An interesting thought...
Of course, the reality is that I may be totally suffering from delusions. Perhaps, I actually am one of those ignorant people who thinks he's smarter than he actually is. It's a troubling thought. However, if ignorance is bliss, I'm far too aware of what's going on. So, though it's an interesting theory, I have to conclude that --with this self-awareness-- I really am just smart enough to dismiss it!
(My apologies to all the dumb people who accidentally stumbled onto this rant, though you probably didn't make it halfway through all these paragraphs anyway! But if you did somehow make it to the end, congratulations, you're now an official member of the Elitist Liberal Intellectuals!)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Voting with Left Brains, Right Brains, and No Brains

(Originally written on November 2nd, 2010)

Today I voted in the U.S. midterm elections, attempting to raise my one small voice above the volume level of both right-wing and left-wing pundits that has become harsh and deafening in its relentless din. The sheer number of negative political television ads assaulting my eyes and ears by a wide variety of semi-anonymous coalitions (thanks a bunch, Supreme Court!) is staggering. Each side is convinced that their views are the only correct ones and, at least during this election cycle, talk of "reaching across the aisle" and cooperating together has been nonexistent. Can't we all just get along? Apparently not. "So-and-so hates puppies!" "What's-his-name supports terrorists!" "Vote for ME because I'm just like YOU!" Yeah, okay...

So what does this have to do with brains, as in the title of this entry? We hear a lot of talk about whether one is governed by a right-brained or left-brained personality. It would make for a nice and tidy theory to separate all of us into these two categories, but I don't think we humans are as simple to define as that. Despite the urge to define us as either conservative or liberal, for example, most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. Between black and white are many shades of grey.

I think of myself as being blessed (or cursed) with equally right-brained and left-brained traits. I don't mean that I fall into some specific shade of grey; it feels like there are two distinct sides of my personality and thinking processes. Fortunately, instead of having a split personality, I think both sides of my brain have no trouble working peacefully together (unlike the Democrats and Republicans).

On one side of my personality, I exhibit a “geek streak” that loves using logic to solve technological or logistical/organizational problems, and I’ve always kept up with the latest news of advancements in science and computers. Yet I also revel in the beautiful chaos of the natural world and the wonderful art and music that comes from some amazing and creative individuals. The musical and artistic endeavors in which I'm involved use improvisation and chance as an essential ingredient, but also have a distinct underlying technological --and logical-- order. One side keeps the other in check; neither side dominates. Our political system is supposed to function that way too, if anyone needs a reminder!

I think of myself as happily applying both sides of my brain every day. At first glance, there seem to be so few of us who inhabit both of those worlds, and experts prefer to put people into nice, neat, easily-defined categories.

I don’t think I’m alone though. Some of the most-creative people I know are computer programmers. These types of people excel when they think outside of the box. Creativity is often the common key to successful problem solving, even in the seemingly closed and analytical world of an accountant or IT professional.

We all possess both sides of our brains, but making the connections between each side is a more-essential trait than is usually mentioned. As I happily straddle both hemispheres, I have always been able to relate to how the “other side” thinks. Perhaps that’s why I served as the liaison between the PC Support techies and the magazine editors and designers at my job; I understood how each of their thought processes progressed. Despite their differences, they had to come together to work toward a common goal: getting that monthly magazine out the door. We don't live in an ideal world, so the solution is to embrace that grey zone, somewhere in the middle.

Of course, from watching the news on television, that conclusion would appear absurd to the political pundits. Too many people have closed themselves off from allowing their other side to be revealed --or even considered-- whether in politics or in life. There is far too much clinging passionately to one's opinion and too little actual analysis of facts. A lot of folks tend to equate belief with knowledge, and opinion with fact. No matter how strongly one believes something, that doesn't make it true.

Unfortunately, by proclaiming these beliefs over and over enough times, these opinions are perceived by some as truth, and once belief passes that threshold, it's very difficult to get people to change their minds, even if they is no logical or factual basis to their claims. As these false truths are further cemented in place through constant reinforcement by the makers and reporters of the news, public opinion is actually influenced and swayed. Trying to sway public perception using only the facts makes people defend their beliefs even more emphatically. It's an argument that can't be won, but it can be endlessly debated and analyzed on the evening news.

If people would only take a few minutes to educate themselves on the "actual facts" of the issues before them before voting, instead of relying only on a few unsubstantiated talking points (that they heard from somebody who heard it from somebody somewhere), then real change could start to happen. Until that day, I will do my patriotic duty and continue to cast my ballot in the feeble hope that the general population will someday become just a little bit more intelligent.

I hope I'll live to see that day, because right now I see few signs of America's intellectual rebirth coming to pass anytime soon. The sheer will of the ignorant masses is a force that can't be dismissed so easily. It is often both underestimated by, and masterfully manipulated to the advantage of, many politicians. The current volatile political climate makes for an exciting evening news broadcast, and many heated debates will revolve around it, but in the end, we the people --for better or worse-- decide the outcome. My hope on this election day is that each one of us uses that power wisely.