Sunday, December 27, 2015

Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives

Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives

How to fine-tune the internal monologue that scores every aspect of our lives, from leadership to love.

“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve,” Debbie Millman counseled in one of the best commencement speeches ever given, urging: “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities…” Far from Pollyanna platitude, this advice actually reflects what modern psychology knows about how belief systems about our own abilities and potential fuel our behavior and predict our success. Much of that understanding stems from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, synthesized in her remarkably insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (public library) — an inquiry into the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.
One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

The consequences of believing that intelligence and personality can be developed rather than being immutably engrained traits, Dweck found in her two decades of research with both children and adults, are remarkable. She writes:
For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.
At the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” so winsome, Dweck found, is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning. Dweck writes:
Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
This idea, of course, isn’t new — if anything, it’s the fodder of self-help books and vacant “You can do anything!” platitudes. What makes Dweck’s work different, however, is that it is rooted in rigorous research on how the mind — especially the developing mind — works, identifying not only the core drivers of those mindsets but also how they can be reprogrammed.
Dweck and her team found that people with the fixed mindset see risk and effort as potential giveaways of their inadequacies, revealing that they come up short in some way. But the relationship between mindset and effort is a two-way street:
It’s not just that some people happen to recognize the value of challenging themselves and the importance of effort. Our research has shown that this comes directly from the growth mindset. When we teach people the growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and effort follow. . . .
As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.
The mindsets change what people strive for and what they see as success. . . they change the definition, significance, and impact of failure. . . they change the deepest meaning of effort.
Dweck cites a poll of 143 creativity researchers, who concurred that the number-one trait underpinning creative achievement is precisely the kind of resilience and fail-forward perseverance attributed to the growth mindset. She writes:
When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.
In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.
In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

But her most remarkable research, which has informed present theories of why presence is more important than praise in teaching children to cultivate a healthy relationship with achievement, explores how these mindsets are born — they form, it turns out, very early in life. In one seminal study, Dweck and her colleagues offered four-year-olds a choice: They could either redo an easy jigsaw puzzle, or try a harder one. Even these young children conformed to the characteristics of one of the two mindsets — those with “fixed” mentality stayed on the safe side, choosing the easier puzzles that would affirm their existing ability, articulating to the researchers their belief that smart kids don’t make mistakes; those with the “growth” mindset thought it an odd choice to begin with, perplexed why anyone would want to do the same puzzle over and over if they aren’t learning anything new. In other words, the fixed-mindset kids wanted to make sure they succeeded in order to seem smart, whereas the growth-mindset ones wanted to stretch themselves, for their definition of success was about becoming smarter.

Dweck quotes one seventh-grade girl, who captured the difference beautifully:
I think intelligence is something you have to work for … it isn’t just given to you.… Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.
Things got even more interesting when Dweck brought people into Columbia’s brain-wave lab to study how their brains behaved as they answered difficult questions and received feedback. What she found was that those with a fixed mindset were only interested in hearing feedback that reflected directly on their present ability, but tuned out information that could help them learn and improve. They even showed no interest in hearing the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong, because they had already filed it away in the failure category. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, were keenly attentive to information that could help them expand their existing knowledge and skill, regardless of whether they’d gotten the question right or wrong — in other words, their priority was learning, not the binary trap of success and failure.

These findings are especially important in education and how we, as a culture, assess intelligence. In another study of hundreds of students, mostly adolescents, Dweck and her colleagues gave each ten fairly challenging problems from a nonverbal IQ test, then praised the student for his or her performance — most had done pretty well. But they offered two types of praise: Some students were told “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this,” while others, “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” In other words, some were praised for ability and others for effort. The findings, at this point, are unsurprising yet jarring:
The ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.
In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.

The most interesting part, however, is what happened next: When Dweck and her colleagues gave the students a subsequent set of harder problems, on which the students didn’t do so well. Suddenly, the ability-praised kids thought they weren’t so smart or gifted after all. Dweck puts it poignantly:
If success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.
But for the effort-praised kids, the difficulty was simply an indication that they had to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or a reflection of their poor intellect. Perhaps most importantly, the two mindsets also impacted the kids’ level of enjoyment — everyone enjoyed the first round of easier questions, which most kids got right, but as soon as the questions got more challenging, the ability-praised kids no longer had any fun, while the effort-praised ones not only still enjoyed the problems but even said that the more challenging, the more fun. The latter also had significant improvements in their performance as the problems got harder, while the former kept getting worse and worse, as if discouraged by their own success-or-failure mindset.
It gets better — or worse, depending on how we look at it: The most unsettling finding came after the IQ questions were completed, when the researchers asked the kids to write private letters to their peers relaying the experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems. To Dweck’s devastation, the most toxic byproduct of the fixed mindset turned out to be dishonesty: Forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their scores, inflating them to look more successful. She laments:
In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful — especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away. What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.
This illustrates the key difference between the two mindsets — for those with a growth one, “personal success is when you work your hardest to become your best,” whereas for those with a fixed one, “success is about establishing their superiority, pure and simple. Being that somebody who is worthier than the nobodies.” For the latter, setbacks are a sentence and a label. For the former, they’re motivating, informative input — a wakeup call.

But one of the most profound applications of this insight has to do not with business or education but with love. Dweck found that people exhibited the same dichotomy of dispositions in their personal relationships: Those with a fixed mindset believed their ideal mate would put them on a pedestal and make them feel perfect, like “the god of a one-person religion,” whereas those with the growth mindset preferred a partner who would recognize their faults and lovingly help improve them, someone who would encourage them to learn new things and became a better person. The fixed mindset, it turns out, is at the root of many of our most toxic cultural myths about “true love.” Dweck writes:
The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All — you, your partner, and the relationship — are capable of growth and change.
In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset. Like “they lived happily ever after.”
One problem is that people with the fixed mindset expect everything good to happen automatically. It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their love, sort of the way it happened to Sleeping Beauty, whose coma was cured by her prince’s kiss, or to Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly transformed by her prince.
This also applies to the myth of mind-reading, where the fixed mindset believes that an ideal couple should be able to read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences. She cites a study that invited people to talk about their relationships:
Those with the fixed mindset felt threatened and hostile after talking about even minor discrepancies in how they and their partner saw their relationship. Even a minor discrepancy threatened their belief that they shared all of each other’s views.
But most destructive of all relationship myths is the belief that if it requires work, something is terribly wrong and that any discrepancy of opinions or preferences is indicative of character flaws on behalf of one’s partner. Dweck offers a reality check:
Just as there are no great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way.
When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait — a character flaw.
But it doesn’t end there. When people blame their partner’s personality for the problem, they feel anger and disgust toward them.
And it barrels on: Since the problem comes from fixed traits, it can’t be solved. So once people with the fixed mindset see flaws in their partners, they become contemptuous of them and dissatisfied with the whole relationship.
Those with the growth mindset, on the other hand, can acknowledge their partners’ imperfections, without assigning blame, and still feel that they have a fulfilling relationship. They see conflicts as problems of communication, not of personality or character. This dynamic holds true as much in romantic partnerships as in friendship and even in people’s relationships with their parents. Dweck summarizes her findings:
When people embark on a relationship, they encounter a partner who is different from them, and they haven’t learned how to deal with the differences. In a good relationship, people develop these skills and, as they do, both partners grow and the relationship deepens. But for this to happen, people need to feel they’re on the same side. . . . As an atmosphere of trust developed, they [become] vitally interested in each other’s development.
What it all comes down to is that a mindset is an interpretative process that tells us what is going on around us. In the fixed mindset, that process is scored by an internal monologue of constant judging and evaluation, using every piece of information as evidence either for or against such assessments as whether you’re a good person, whether your partner is selfish, or whether you are better than the person next to you. In a growth mindset, on the other hand, the internal monologue is not one of judgment but one of voracious appetite for learning, constantly seeking out the kind of input that you can metabolize into learning and constructive action.
In the rest of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck goes on to explore how these fundamental mindsets form, what their defining characteristics are in different contexts of life, and how we can rewire our cognitive habits to adopt the much more fruitful and nourishing growth mindset.
Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

Kierkegaard on Boredom, Why Cat Listicles Fail to Answer the Soul’s Cry, and the Only True Cure for Existential Emptiness

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Kierkegaard on Boredom, Why Cat Listicles Fail to Answer the Soul’s Cry, and the Only True Cure for Existential Emptiness

“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

Boredom has a long cultural history and an adaptive function in human life — it serves a vital creative purpose and protects us by helping us tolerate open-endedness; in childhood, it becomes the wellspring of imaginative play. And yet we live in a culture that seems obsessed with eradicating boredom, as if it were Ebola or global poverty, and replacing it with a peculiar modern form of active idleness oozing from our glowing screens.
No thinker in the history of humanity has done more to shed light on both the problem of boredom and its existential solution than Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — a man of such timeless insight into the fundamental desiderata of the human soul that he was able to explain, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the psychology of online trolling and bullying, the reason for the eternal tension between the majority and the minority, and why anxiety fuels creativity rather than stifling it.

In a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), which also gave us Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, the Danish philosopher defines boredom as a sense of emptiness and examines it not as an absence of stimulation but as an absence of meaning — an idea that also explains why it’s possible, today more than ever, to be overstimulated but existentially bored.
Bemoaning how “utterly meaningless” his life has become, 30-year-old Kierkegaard writes:
How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like… I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain… Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death. And what could divert me? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.

In this conception, boredom becomes indeed an emptiness of meaning rather than a lack of diversion. In fact, Kierkegaard likely influenced Tolstoy when the beloved Russian author, in his own existential quest for meaning, asserted that “for man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”
Kierkegaard also illuminates our modern cult of productivity and our compulsive busyness as a hedge against that dreaded boredom:
Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.
Such a conception explains, for instance, why all the cute-cat listicles spewed by the BuzzWorthy establishment of commodified distraction are hapless in assuaging the soul’s cry — which is, after all, the task of philosophy — in the face of such terrifying boredom springing from a lack of meaning. Alan Watts, another prescient sage of the ages, termed such futile strategies of diversion “orgasm without release.” Noting that such “misguided diversion” is itself the source of existential boredom — which is “partly an acquired immediacy” — Kierkegaard adds:
It seems doubtful that a remedy against boredom can give rise to boredom, but it can give rise to boredom only insofar as it is used incorrectly. A mistaken, generally eccentric diversion has boredom within itself, and thus it works its way up and manifests itself as immediacy.
Illustration by Edward Gorey from ‘The Shrinking of Treehorn’ by Florence Parry Heide. Click image for more.
Kierkegaard laments that “habit and boredom have gained the upper hand to such a degree” in society and argues that this stems from how deeply boredom is woven into the fabric of our cultural mythology:
Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse.
In a remark at once amusing and disquieting in the context of modern childhood — recently, while playing with my four-year-old niece, she pressed her thumb into the circle portion of my arm tattoo as one would press a device button, expecting it to perform some entertaining animation and being visibly disappointed when it didn’t — Kierkegaard offers an illustrative example of this mythology’s aftermath:
How corrupting boredom is, everyone recognizes also with regard to children. As long as children are having a good time, they are always good. This can be said in the strictest sense, for if they at times become unmanageable even while playing, it is really because they are beginning to be bored; boredom is already coming on, but in a different way. Therefore, when selecting a nursemaid, one always considers essentially not only that she is sober, trustworthy, and good-natured but also takes into esthetic consideration whether she knows how to entertain children. Even if she had all the other excellent virtues, one would not hesitate to give her the sack if she lacked this qualification.
It would be quite impossible to prevail if one wanted to demand a divorce because one’s wife is boring, or demand that a king be dethroned because he is boring to behold, or that a clergyman be exiled because he is boring to listen to, or that a cabinet minister be dismissed or a journalist be executed because he is frightfully boring.
And yet boredom, he argues, is our basic constitution:
All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others.
Illustration by Maira Kalman from ‘Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag,’ a most unusual alphabet book. Click image for more.
Echoing his own admonition against our busyness as a distraction from living, he adds:
Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable… The other class of human beings, the superior ones, are those who bore themselves… They generally amuse others — at times in a certain external way the masses, in a deeper sense their co-initiates. The more thoroughly they bore themselves, the more potent the medium of diversion they offer others, also when the boredom reaches its maximum, since they either die of boredom (the passive category) or shoot themselves out of curiosity (the active category).
So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of “idleness” — a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives. Kierkegaard writes:
Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.
Much of this, of course, is semantic play, further complicated by the messiness of translation. But Kierkegaard’s distinction between boredom and idleness seems rather similar to Van Gogh’s distinction between the two types of idlers. Implicit to the positive counterpoint of the perilous kind is the “fertile solitude” necessary for a full life.
Echoing Seneca’s timeless admonition against compulsive busyness, he admonishes against our tendency to conceive of life as a series of tasks to be accomplished rather than moments to be filled with living:
There is an indefatigable activity that shuts a person out of the world of spirit and places him in a class with the animals, which instinctively must always be in motion. There are people who have an extraordinary talent for transforming everything into a business operation, whose whole life is a business operation, who fall in love and are married, hear a joke, and admire a work of art with the same businesslike zeal with which they work at the office. The Latin proverb otium est pulvinar diaboli [idleness is the devil’s pillow] is quite correct, but the devil does not find time to lay his head on this pillow if one is not bored. But since people believe that it is man’s destiny to work, the antithesis idleness/work is correct. I assume that it is man’s destiny to amuse himself, and therefore my antithesis is no less correct.
Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.
Our compulsive busyness also manifests itself in how we attempt to relieve ourselves of boredom — a strategy he explains through the agricultural metaphor of crop rotation done badly, which “consists in continually changing the soil,” a sort of grasping after “the boundless infinity of change.” Kierkegaard explains the failure of this boredom-alleviation method, which twentieth-century psychologists would come to term “the hedonic treadmill” of consumerism:
This rotation of crops is the vulgar, inartistic rotation and is based on an illusion. One is weary of living in the country and moves to the city; one is weary of one’s native land and goes abroad; one is [weary of Europe] and goes to America etc.; one indulges in the fanatical hope of an endless journey from star to star. Or there is another direction, but still extensive. One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver; wearying of that, one eats on gold; one burns down half of Rome in order to visualize the Trojan conflagration. This method cancels itself and is the spurious infinity.
This he counters with the correct strategy — a method akin to mindfulness training, which emerges again and again, across every major spiritual tradition and secular school of thought, as our most promising gateway to happiness. Kierkegaard writes:
The method I propose does not consist in changing the soil but, like proper crop rotation, consists in changing the method of cultivation and the kinds of crops. Here at once is the principle of limitation, the sole saving principle in the world. The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes. A solitary prisoner for life is extremely resourceful; to him a spider can be a source of great amusement… What a meticulous observer one becomes, detecting every little sound or movement. Here is the extreme boundary of that principle that seeks relief not through extensity but through intensity.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Open House for Butterflies’ by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.
A masterwork of timeless insight, Either/Or is infinitely rewarding in its totality. Complement it with legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, a wonderful vintage field guide to joyful solitude, then revisit Kierkegaard on why haters hate.

Miranda July

Tate’s Exploration of Performative Painting


From Action to Inaction: The Tate’s Exploration of Performative Painting

David Hockney, “A Bigger Splash” (1967) (All images courtesy The Tate)
LONDON — It is with the pairing of two 20th-century giants in one room, Jackson Pollock and David Hockney, that the relationship between performance and painting is introduced in A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, an exhibition currently on view at the Tate Modern. Pollock’s “Summertime: Number 9A” (1948), is presented horizontally on a raised platform, characteristic black drips sprinting over an unprimed canvas with references to Mondrian located in blue, red, and yellow blocks filling certain spaces where lines intersect. Projected above is a video made by Hans Namuth and Paul Fallenberg of Pollock painting in 1951, documenting a process Harold Rosenberg described as a recasting of the canvas as an arena of action.
Then there is Hockney’s 1967 “A Bigger Splash,” rendered by a painter resistant to Abstract Expressionism. “When you photograph a splash,” he noted, “you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else.” Realizing a splash could never be seen this way in real life because it happens too quickly, Hockney chose to paint “A Bigger Splash” “very, very slowly,” so as to capture the essence of the moment. In the flesh, the painting is a testament to Hockney’s ability. Considering street photography’s debt to Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment,” “A Bigger Splash” is a painter’s challenge to photography; reclaiming the painting as a frame that captures action at a time when the representation of life in motion was taken over by the street photography movement.
Niki de Saint Phalle, “Shooting”
Between Hockney’s representation and Pollock’s non-representation – both approaches driven by a certain reactivity – the exhibition continues on. It charts a history of artists engaging with the physicality of motion, and the possibility (or impossibility) of capturing movement within the often static surface of a white frame, be it a canvas or a cube. Yet in this apparent stasis, a drama unfolds as artists grapple with the paradox of  how to contain and preserve live action after the act within a representational space.
From this Pollock/Hockney prologue, the exhibition extends into curated rooms. These open with an example of action painter Niki de Saint Phalle’s thick, plaster ‘canvases’ literally shot at (once by Robert Rauschenberg) to reveal paint contained within the surface. In the same room, a Kazuo Shiraga foot painting rendered in thick black and red oil paint is paired with a Shozo Shimamoto canvas painstakingly pierced in uniform lines. Both artists were members of the Gutai Art Association, which explored the theatricality of painting in Japan. Then there is Pinot Gallizio’s comment on modernization’s impact on painting, “Industrial Painting” (1958), which was created with a team of assistants marking a roll of canvas that was cut, presented as fabric on live female models and sold.
A blue Yves Klein monochrome completes this grouping, hung next to “Anthropometry of the Blue Era” (1960), a video showing Klein’s body paintings being produced in a gallery, a polite audience watching Klein, the ultimate performance-painter dressed in his Sunday best, directing his naked muses. It is this image of Klein, the gentleman action painter, that lingers when entering the next space, dedicated to the Viennese Actionists. Photographs of an orgiastic performance by Günter Brus and Otto Mühl, “Total Action: Ornament is a Crime/Material Action No. 26 ” (1966) depicts naked bodies lathered in a red-brown paste, wrestling on the floor.
Valie Export, “Identity Transfer 1” (1968)
It feels weighted by the destructive tendencies of a male-dominated movement in this space; making it almost fitting that a wall text nearby explains how Mühl, after establishing the Action Analytical Organization in the 70s, was jailed in ’91 for drugs and sexual offenses. As if in response, the next two rooms, addressing issues of gender, queerness and subversion, opens with two images by Viennese Actionist contemporary, Valie Export, “Identity Transfer 1 and 2” (both 1968), an artist whose work, though linked to the Actionists, was singular in its feminist focus.
In the first room,  practices dismantling rigid socio-political constructs approached through the metaphor of surface and space take place: Geta Bratescu’s “Towards White,” 1975, a remarkable series of black and white photographs, shows the artist turning her studio into a white frame, herself included. In Kang So Lee’s “Painting,” 1978, the artist paints his body, imprints it on a sheet and exhibits the resultant sheet like shed skin. Wu Shanzhuan’s “Public Ink Washing,” 1987, shows the artist hurling ink at Chinese characters referencing state control pasted on a wall in a room. It’s a performance that reflects on the political currency of the performative act both in the moment of its genesis and as it is preserved for posterity. In these staged performances, how one represents performance is equally as important as how one renders the performance’s representation, recalling the Pollock/Hockney pairing at the outset: an Abstract Expressionist action painter paired with a Pop realist.
In the next curated gallery, the exhibition seems to have illustrated the performative turn in its entirety; a turn that, according to Eda Cufer, coincided with the time when art became contextualized by ‘total politic’: the revolutionary ’60s and ’70s and all their political (and representational) battles. Exploring the transformative power of painting using the body as its canvas, it is here that the politics surrounding representation transfers to self-representation. From Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits to Luigi Ontani’s camp portrayals of himself as Krishna and Saint Sebastian, Sanja Iveković’s video, “Make Up Make Down,” 1974, and Bruce Nauman’s “Flesh to White to Black to Flesh,” 1968, the subject is the object, the body is the tool and the surface and the artist are one. It is action painting taken to its absolution.
Lucy McKenzie, “May of Teck” (2010)
But the turn is not yet complete: the viewer must enter the next room devoted to Edward Krasiniski, who taped a blue line at a fixed height to the walls of his studio and home to connect his paintings into the spaces they inhabit. Here, aside from the taped line, rows of small, portrait-sized mirrors hang from the ceiling, transforming the space into a three-dimensional canvas with the line becoming the point of perspective; a horizon of sorts. Gazing into the mirrors, self-portraits captured by the mirrors’ reflection, viewers are caught within a live, representational space as both subject and object; activated and implicated in the performance of representation entirely. Total Politic.
If only the exhibition could have stopped in that dramatic moment. But it continues hereafter with a series of cabinet-style solo presentations that fail to connect, ranging from a literally inaccessible installation by Marc Camille Chaimowitz to Lucy McKenzie’s imagined stage for Muriel Spark’s 1963 novella, A Girl of Slender Means. It feels like a different exhibition altogether. A show illustrating how sometimes, the desire for active art can result in empty installations that feel as if they’ve sucked the air out of the room, even if these were once the stage in which action did indeed occur.
Yet all is not lost. Thinking back to the works leading up to this anti-climax, the exhibition ends with an affirmation. Sometimes, even a single image produced by action, for action, can be more effective than a contrived space that stops action dead in its tracks.

A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance runs through April 1, 2013 at the Tate Modern (Bankside, London). 

Painters’ Lives Chronicled as Infographics


10 Painters’ Lives Chronicled as Infographics

by Allison Meier on July 24, 2013
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Detail of “Visualising Painter’s” Lives by Accurat (all images courtesy Accurat)
At about the same time Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock was losing himself to depression, Matisse’s longterm relationship with his wife was unwinding, and when Mondrian was discovering Cubism, Miró was delving into Surrealism. All these little landmarks of 10 abstract painters’ lives have been charted into infographic form, so you can contrast the timelines of what it takes to be an artist.
The infographics, part of a project called “Visualising Painters’ Lives,” were made by the Milan-based design agency Accurat under the direction of Giorgia Lupi and Michela Buttignol. They’ve also mapped “geographies of time” by social media use and created a visual data column for La Lettura.
“The painters’ selection was arbitrary,” the creators explained to Hyperallergic. “We selected 10 we found more materials about, almost contemporary as a time span, and sharing the same influences. We selected abstract painters because our attempt was to ‘abstract’ shapes and elements we could re-use as symbols to build the visualization with.”
All 10 timelines together
All 10 timelines together (click to view larger)
On each of the painter’s individual charts these begin with a sort of logo compiled from their iconic shapes, as well as their hand usage and zodiac sign, and then sprawl out into travels, acquaintances with the influential, awards, important exhibitions, and color charts of their styles, major works, and controversies, making it more than just a timeline, although like a timeline it does culminate in their ultimate death with a tiny black cross. Each of the 10 artists has their own symbolism used to mark acquaintances or other details, such as some crossed gold mobile lines for Miró and black splatters of paint for Pollock, and their color palette shifts as the years and art periods tick by.
Where they are all layered together on a “visual index page,” you can really see the breadth of their careers, with Pollock’s shockingly short in comparison to Picasso, or the wealth of love affairs, where Picasso again wins and Mondrian goes forward unattached. A woman named Lily Stumpf also appears as a love interest for both Klee and Kandinsky, and you can even compare traveling and see Matisse rambling from all over from Paris to London to Morocco to Russia to the United States.
Here are excerpts from each of the 10 artist’s infographic lives:
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Pollock’s infographic (click to view larger)
Detail of Pollock's timeline
Pollock’s early life troubles, including the death of his father and battles with depression, although then he gets to meet Lee Krasner
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Picasso’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Picasso's timeline
Picasso’s numerous love affairs
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Miró’s life (click here to view larger)
Detail of Miro's timeline
Miro’s impressive acquaintances
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Mondrian’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Mondrian's timeline
Mondrian getting his start, along with his influences
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Klee’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Klee's timeline
Chronicle of Klee’s art periods, major works, and color palette
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Boccioni’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Boccioni's timeline
Boccioni’s art career, cut short by his death in WWI
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Kandinsky’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Kandinsky's timeline
Kandinsky was right handed, and a Sagittarius
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Klimt’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Klimt's timeline
Detail of Klimt’s life, where his works were criticized as pornographic
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Dalí’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Dalí's timeline
Dalí tries out all the art movements
Visualising Painter's Lives by Accurat
Matisse’s life (click to view larger)
Detail of Matisse's timeline
Matisse’s busy travels and crossing love affairs
View all of Accurat’s “Visualising Painters’ Lives” infographics on their Flickr.

Have a Creepy Christmas with These Unsettling Cards!!


Have a Creepy Little Christmas with These Unsettling Victorian Cards

"May Christmas be Merry" (19th-century Christmas card) (via Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington)
“May Christmas be Merry” (19th-century Christmas card) (via Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington)

Anthropomorphic cats, murderous frogs, and insects dancing by the moonlight aren’t exactly part of our Christmas card tradition today. However back in the 19th century, Victorians thought nothing unusual about sending their loved ones a grim image of a dead robin with the words “May yours be a joyful Christmas,” or a card with a boy greeting a jellyfish hovering in the air.
Many of these strange Victorian Christmas cards are making the rounds on social media this holiday season (@HorribleSanity has shared some especially disturbing ones, like the scene of a frog-on-frog stabbing, and Saint Nicholas stuffing a kid in a sack). But where do these visuals come from, and what do they mean? Some of that significance is now lost to history, yet it’s important to consider that Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in the early 1800s. So over the 19th century, the iconography of the pre-Santa Saint Nicholas, the trees, the presents, the snow, evolved gradually.

“May yours be a Joyful Christmas” (via Tea Tree Gully Library)
“May yours be a Joyful Christmas” (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

"A Merry Christmas to you" (via Horrible Sanity)
“A Merry Christmas to you” (via Horrible Sanity)

The rise of Christmas in Victorian England is often cited as going back to Queen Victoria, who with her German-born husband Prince Albert celebrated their 1848 holidays by decorating an evergreen tree, something captured in an illustration widely shared by the Illustrated London News. According to the BBC, the first major Christmas card dates to 1843, with Henry Cole illustrating a happy family around a dinner table. It was a little expensive for the average citizen, still the tradition caught on, so in 1880 alone, the BBC states, the new industry “produced 11.5 million cards.”
So competitive was the new trade that, as Tara Moore writes in Victorian Christmas in Print, even Alfred, Lord Tennyson was given 1,000 guineas to write a Christmas card poem. Moore adds that “there is the assumption that a culture that encourages Christmas is at least tacitly Christian; nonetheless, people of other beliefs at times found it beneficial to take part in what they saw as a celebration of middle-class values and English identity.” Some poetry and imagery fixated on the nativity story, but others were more about a cultural Christmas, often purposefully removed from religion.
And alongside, pagan traditions endured in Britain and throughout Europe. In 2013, Sarah Elizabeth Troop chronicled a few of these “Monsters of Christmas” for Atlas Obscura, such as the well-known Krampus, a sort of evil counterpart to Saint Nicholas, and the more obscure Mary Lwyd, a skeleton horse from Welsh tradition who challenges people in a battle of rhymes. There’s some influence of this on the cards, as well as general interests of the era, whether science, art, or religion. Ernst Haeckel’s natural history illustrations of squids and jellyfish made it into card illustrations, and social messages were often evoked, such as dead birds reminding people of the poor children dying in the winter streets. So while they are profoundly, undeniably, bizarre to view now, even the creepiest of Victorian Christmas greetings likely had some contemporary meaning to the sender.

"A heart Christmas greeting: Four jovial froggies / a skating would go; / They asked their mamma, / but she'd sternly said, 'No!' / And they all came to grief in a beautiful row. / There's a sweet Christmas moral for one not too slow. / Just so!" (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)
“A hearty Christmas greeting: Four jovial froggies / a skating would go; / They asked their mamma, / but she’d sternly said, ‘No!’ / And they all came to grief in a beautiful row. / There’s a sweet Christmas moral for one not too slow. / Just so!” (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)

"May all jollity 'lighten' your Christmas hours" (19th-century Christmas card) (via Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington)
“May all jollity ‘lighten’ your Christmas hours” (via Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington)

A boy with a blue jellyfish, illustrated by Ernst Haeckel (via John Holbo/Flickr, who has more examples online)
A boy with a blue jellyfish, illustrated by Ernst Haeckel (via John Holbo/Flickr, who has more examples online)

"Absent friends [natives, may we soon see them again! A merry Christmas to you" (1876) (via National Library of Ireland/Flickr)
“Absent friends [natives], may we soon see them again! A merry Christmas to you” (1876) (via National Library of Ireland/Flickr)

"I have come to greet you" (inside it says: "Loving Christmas greetings, may smiling faces ring around your glowing hearth this Christmas day, may fun and merriment abound, and all your world be glad and gay" (via TuckDB Ephemera)
“I have come to greet you” (inside it says: “Loving Christmas greetings, may smiling faces ring around your glowing hearth this Christmas day, may fun and merriment abound, and all your world be glad and gay” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

"A happy Christmas to you" (late 19th century (via Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)
“A happy Christmas to you” (via Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove)

"Best wishes for Christmas" (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)
“Best wishes for Christmas” (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)

"A joyful Christmas" (via Derbyshire County Council Record Office)
“Wishing you a Merry Christmas” (via Derbyshire County Council Record Office)

"A happy Christmas" (1908) (via NYPL)
“A happy Christmas” (1908) (via NYPL)

An example of one of the first Australian Christmas cards, collected by Bessie Rouse (via Sydney Living Museums)
An example of one of the first Australian Christmas cards, collected by Bessie Rouse (via Sydney Living Museums)

A Krampus Christmas card (via Tea Tree Gully Library)
A Krampus Christmas card (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

"A joyful Christmas" (via Derbyshire County Council Record Office)
“A joyful Christmas to you” (via Derbyshire County Council Record Office)

(via the Library of Birmingham)
A rather gloomy Moth-themed card (via the Library of Birmingham)

"A happy Christmas" (via Boston Public Library)
“A happy Christmas” (via Boston Public Library)

"So please excuse this impecunious card, As all I'm good for is a used up." (via Tuck DM Ephemera)
“So please excuse this impecunious card, As all I’m good for is a used up.” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

(via the Library of Birmingham)
“Every good wish for your Christmas,” with frogs! (via the Library of Birmingham)

"A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" (1876) (via National Library of Ireland/Flickr)
“A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” (1876) (via National Library of Ireland/Flickr)

"A happy Christmas to you" (via TuckDB Ephemera)
“A happy Christmas to you” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

"Wishing you a merry Christmas," featuring a goldfinch, bee, and cricket (via University of Glasgow Library/Flickr)
“Wishing you a merry Christmas,” featuring a goldfinch, bee, and cricket (via University of Glasgow Library/Flickr)

A Christmas pudding-themed card (via Laura Seddon collection/Machester Metropolitan University)
A Christmas pudding-themed card (via Laura Seddon collection/Machester Metropolitan University)

"With many merry Christmas greetings" (via TuckDB Ephemera)
“With many merry Christmas greetings” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

"Who's Afraid?" (via TuckDB Ephemera)
“Who’s Afraid?” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

"Wishing you a purr-fectly happy Christmas" (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)
“Wishing you a purr-fectly happy Christmas” (via Nova Scotia Archives/Flickr)

"A happy Christmas to you" (via TuckDB Ephemera)
“A happy Christmas to you” (via TuckDB Ephemera)

"Here's a crow for Christmas" (via TuckDB Ephemera)
“Here’s a crow for Christmas” (via TuckDB Ephemera)