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The Above-Average Effect

June 24, 2010

The Above Average Effect or Wishful Thinking

There’s an academic think-tank at Cornell University named the Self and Social Insight (SaSI) Lab. Their work focuses primarily on the accuracy with which people view themselves and their peers. They’ve developed the idea of the “above-average effect” in an attempt to explain why people tend to hold flattering opinions of themselves when that observation can’t be justified from any objective viewpoint.

The idea of the “above-average effect” is tailor-made for the art world. The questions the SaSI group asks go straight to the heart:
how accurate is self-judgment?
do people recognize their own incompetence?
do people overplay their beliefs about their own artistic superiority over others?
how does self-deception work?
does wishful thinking happen automatically before it leaves a conscious trace?

If you ask a group of artists how good their work generally all will say that it’s way above average. Most artists innately hate and distrust criticism: they cling to any message consistent with their own high opinion of their talent. Even some observation as non-committal as “INTERESTING” (my personal favorite)confirms the thought: damn, I’m good. My own bias leans heavily towards artists who attempt to achieve more than a pallid imitation of the style du jour.

Loners have no traction for art critics or historians. Loners are invisible, at work in a vacuum: like Lee Bontecue who ‘disappeared’ after she left New York City. Donald Kuspit defines aesthetic significance by the numbers: at least 50 artists living in the same city have to be hammering away at the same initial idea. This idea must have exert a strong centrifugal force, pulling an ever-increasing numbers of artists into its orbit. It’s preferable that satellite artists live in same city so they can become part of a category like “New York School”. The closer an artist adheres to the group standard, the more positive their self-assessment. A fellow-traveler earns their ‘above average’ because they confuse quality with reproduction. This is only one reason for the high level of conformity in the arts.

Once upon a time an artist in Greenwich Village hung out a placard in front of his studio. It read “World’s Greatest Artist”. He produced hundreds of small scale abstractions, little still lives and portraits. Where the ‘above average’ self-assessment is concerned, he was the King.

Playing Solitaire

December 29, 2009

I recently asked another writer how his work was going.  His response was “I had a terrific day, I changed all the punctuation on that draft I started yesterday”.

I knew exactly what he was talking about because it  would have seemed like a productive day to me.  It’s also accurate description of a writer’s work day,  genuinely circuitous forward progress:  Onward and upward with the literary arts.

One of the least appealing aspects of the work world is having to spend hour on hour, day after day with other people (hell is definitely other people) in an office or academic environment.  I’ve never been a great one for regular working hours but I’m a demon when it comes to doing my own work. The price I pay for being a freelance writer  is being alone for long chunks of time. Being alone as an artist is nothing like being alone as a writer.  Artists don’t really notice they’re alone:  friends drop in, the radio or TV is on, you can do your work and talk on the phone. It’s relatively physical work and even if it does involve a computer there’s a lot of visuality going on. Because I do both, I know the difference between being alone in your studio and being alone with your word processor.  Writing makes smoking and drinking a really attractive addition to your workday.

I’ve had a number of arts residencies that threw artists with fiction writers together.  During my stays I’ve noticed that artists rarely get out of bed ’til late morning.  Conversely, the writers get up early and write in the morning and early afternoon working no more than 6 hours per day (more if there’s a deadline).  They then shoot out of their rooms for a bit of drinking and talking til a late evening beddy-bye.  Artists shuffle in to eat dinner, socialize a bit and then go back to the studio and work ’til 3am or so.  My point is that writers work to an entirely different rhythm.  When they complete what they consider to a reasonable amount of writing, they flee word processor  and solitude to  get socializing ASAP.

To give a more detailed picture of the writer’s job, I asked my friend Caroline Hagood, another freelance writer, to describe what her day.

Letters to Myself: The Life of the Freelance Writer

It’s hard to explain the peculiar existence that is the freelancing life to people who don’t, well, freelance. Sometimes it becomes difficult to separate my personal life from my professional one since both occur in pajamas, with 5 cups of coffee, and my ancient, chubby cat with the crazy eye on my lap. These are strange and wonderful days.

Let us imagine for a moment a day in the life of the freelance writer (okay, it’s me). Mid-morning finds me padding into the kitchen for a snack in my uniform of ragtag, and probably unsettling to the outside eye, assortment of pajama clothes. A little bit of work later, there I am shuffling (and sometimes marching, depending on how much coffee I’ve consumed) back to the kitchen for my reward for said work—some combination of meat and cheese if I’m lucky, cold soup out of a can if I’m not. Often, when feeling particularly dedicated to a project, I transform from writer to adventurer. I know I must eat to go on, so I dutifully forage for sustenance and then slurp my Progresso so that I can sally forth, trusty steed (okay, it’s the same fat cat with the oddball eye) beside me, to add another sentence to my city of words.

Really, all the hours of work, cans of soup, and pajamas to launder, come down to that one shining moment in the verbal zone. This zone often emerges out of the most difficult of writing tasks; you know the ones: they initially appear so confounding and insurmountable that you avoid them for as long as you can. Avoidance techniques differ from person to person, but my evasion is usually of the aforementioned meat and cheese variety; but it can also involve a number of pointless activities, including, but not limited to, internet research that is really just gussied up social network prowling, searches for long-lost items that have fallen behind furniture, and the organization of the iTunes library; the one item it never seems to include, though, is cleaning—a fact immediately apparent upon entering this scribbler’s apartment.

However, on those rare occasions, the avoided chore becomes a piece of writing I can be proud of. Watching that growth process, which many people describe as something that takes place outside of them, is rather extraordinary. It may not be the same as seeing a human born, but these word babies are the closest we logophiles get to that maternal miracle. Face it folks, sentence spawning is sexy.

Yet the maternal imagery doesn’t end there. As my link to just about everything writerly, my computer has become the umbilical cord that connects me to my aspirations. Every morning, I wake up and rush to turn it on, hoping to find a missive alerting me that I have become a writing success overnight (please note, this missive has not yet arrived). One of the most thrilling aspects of the life of the cyber-scribe is the refresh button, which seems to offer an eternal promise of newness; with a single click, everything could change.

The flipside of this button’s potential ecstasies involves refreshing up a storm and seeing, with supreme glee, that I’ve received a message, only to discover that it’s a) a rejection letter, b) the last person I would ever want to hear from in my life, or, worst of all, c) a piece of writing that I’ve emailed myself. I often use the email method instead of the perpetually misplaced memory stick that contains all my important writing, proudly purchased from a guy at Radio Shack who promised it would “change my life.” It didn’t; what it did do was remain permanently lost, causing my inbox to bulge with souvenirs from writing travels past.

If my email is ever successfully pilfered, the pirates will find themselves with slices of thought fraught with inconsistencies, typos, and, my personal favorite, evidence of interest lost. There is one reason, and one reason alone, however, that I would recommend that you don’t engage in this method of cyber memory: good old auto-epistolary disorder, or the unfortunate ailment that comes from accidentally receiving letters from yourself. Let me put it this way, there is nothing more deflating than waiting for a sign of extra-writerial life, only to find that you have been contacted…by your own writing.

Ah well, what’s a gal to do? The writing has become the best of friends over the years; indeed, the sound of a computer turning on has replaced the turning of a knob or the thump of a door in my social sonics. At certain points, living becomes writing with brief, almost surreal, interludes of “real life.” It starts to feel like my stories are reality and the outside world is the mad thing I’ve invented. Yet, at the same time, I need that outer world to write about and, oh that’s right, to have some extra-writerial fun. I’m telling you, the life of the freelance writer can be so insular that next time I receive a letter from myself, I’m going to respond. You never know, there may be some rich pen pal potential there.

The good-enough artist on the Ladder of Abstraction

December 13, 2009

The ‘ladder of  abstraction’ is a continuum that stretches between the specific and the extremely general. The ladder has 4 distinct levels; abstractions (theoretical and imaginary), broad concepts , groupings and hard-core specifics. ( ‘Abstraction’ here has nothing to do with, like, you know, ‘abstract’ as the opposite of ‘realistic‘.  The ladder of abstraction explains how you get Elsie the cow and farmer Brown into the White House just by stretching  conceptual levels.

The ladder of abstraction can ascend ( or descend) like this:

1. Bessie the cow

2. cattle assets

4. the economy

or this:

1. Aesthetics

2. Metropolitan Museum (or  the Los Angeles Art Museum)

3. Artists in  New York City (or LA)

4. Art student

All art is made for someone to look at.  A really interesting thing is how artists gets people to look at their particular artwork.  Where they start from is not as interesting as the incremental changes that become parts of objects .  The ‘ladder of abstraction’ is interesting to me because its logic levels can describe the territory between the bad artists and the good-enough ones. The good-enough artist and the no-good artist start at the same place and diverge somewhere else. The divergence doesn’t begin with ideas (most of the ideas that make up contemporary art have been in circulation since 1870) and have nothing to do with originality (there no such thing).  The differences have to do with usage. One of the factors that separate the so-so artists from the good-enough ones is percentages: what percentage of the current thing in play is self-developed as opposed to imitative?

A friend of mine defines the not bad/not okay artist as someone who’s

a. more interested in techniques than an ideas.

b. aversive to risk-taking.

3. whose entire involvement in artmaking  is focused on HOW rather than WHY.

My friend has had a number of studio assistants and draws them exclusively from this pool.

Although many artists are terrific at making things, the good ones are often totally disinterested in HOW and only concerned with WHY. The good-enough artist makes work that devours ideas.  The work is good-enough to look at and the most interesting thing about it is how it keeps all the idea’s elements in play; mixing, timing, combinations.

Here’s one example of a good enough artist;  Salvador Dali.

Dali was a prodigiously intelligent, technically gifted and ambitious artist; the idea of melting clocks requires an intensely risky imagistic leap of faith.  Dali exhausted his mine of ideas half-way thru his career.  At that point Dali and transformed innovation into repertoire, falling from the top of the ladder straight to the bottom where he met his imitators battling to rise up to the Dalian heights.

Dali imitators live with Bessie the cow on the lowest rung of the ladder of abstraction.   They colonize Dali’s original leap to a high level of abstraction but lack velocity. As painters they are technical wizards recreating the look of his work while reinforcing its staleness.

You can’t become a better or even good-enough artist by working within someone else’s parameters, the whole point lies in driving up the conceptual percentages.  Originality is not a requirement; what important is permutations and risk.  Risk ratchets up the conceptual ante propelling the object upward on the ladder.


November 24, 2009

When Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize I started thinking about prizes for artists. There are a variety of them, grants from foundations and governments, awards like the “anonymous was a woman”, Fullbright program and the MacArthur.  There are odd bits like artist’s residencies, visiting artist programs.

I always wonder about the processes for finding winners for all these different giving situations.  Do jurors prefer something that’s expected and recognizable, voting for a specific kind of artwork as opposed to voting for an individual artist?  Ultimately, any award granted is based on the “American Idol” model; an assumption that demonstrated accomplishments in the present predict achievement in the future.

American artists really need money to do their work but the US doesn’t possess an arts-friendly culture.  Do the prizes and awards ultimately make the culture friendlier? Although awards give artists  recognition and some money to buy studio time and materials, art-friendliness has yet to occur. If the prizes can’t/don’t change the culture, do they ghettoize the accomplishments they award and confine them to a narrow community of interest?

Many of my friends have won these prizes; NEA, MacArthur etc.  I’ve been delighted for them, happy that financial pressure was relieved.  Like Obama they earned their prizes for the quality of their work rather than its quantity or appearance.   Unlike the American Idol model, their future efforts were not rewarded.
I’ve just read a press release announcing the winners of something called “Artprize”. It’s founders claim it’s “the biggest art prize in the world” (this is true if you don’t figure in  the more meaningful MacArthur award). Its 10 winners each received $250,000.  The “Artprize” award process is unique and highly democratic.  It involves (among other things) artists applying directly and finding a sponsoring gallery.  The winners are those who got the largest share of votes from the citizens of Grand Rapids,  Michigan This is a process grounded on the flimsiest possible parameters for good, better, best.  Choices aren’t based on the voters’ wide exposure to contemporary art or even reflect enthusiastic community support.

The winning Artprize artists are pleasantly unexceptional.  All do kinds of work many other people do and all their work is nice; big hearted and a best of all, not ‘elitist’. The winning choices are the outcome of a popularity contest; uneven, not bad, fervidly middle-of-the-road.

I have profound respect for anyone who survives as an artist, I value their labor as well as intellect. I applaud work that is ‘approachable’ (I think this means that it has qualities anyone can appreciate without much exposure to anything else). Saint-Gauden’s beautiful work is a good example of ‘approachable’; it doesn’t preclude excellence, intellect or significance.  For the “Artprize”  ‘significant’ isn’t a consideration, the raison d’etre of the prize is predefined and limited by populism. Everyone gets chance at the big money no matter what kind of work they do. The best part of the concept is that it achieves a pleasant comfort level in an otherwise, arts-unfriendly environment.

Niki de St. Phalle made objects that are as approachable as you can get, but the work is not nice. It’s even magificent, in a deliberately populist way.  Her large-scale work has a distinctive, interestingly difficult edge that links sexuality to object-making.   She’s an intellectual whose work rose from a conceptual arena that interested many French artists of her time.
Not only is it approachable, you can walk on it and touch it, even go inside it. The interaction is part of it, integral to its meaning.  Her work is intellect in the disguise of a blow-up doll.  In terms of meaning and significance it’s light years away from the “Artprize” winner who was awarded the $250,000 for a sculpture of a moose made entirely of thousands of carefully welded nails.

Here’s more info on ArtPrize

About ArtPrize

The Basics

At ArtPrize, any artist—from established to emerging—has the chance to show work. Any visitor can vote. The vote will determine who wins the largest art prize in the world. We also took the unusual step to allow people in the city to open a venue and choose the artists to show in their space. There is not one official curator or jury for the competition.

The number of venues is fluid, so the number of competing artists is fluid. The possibilities are wide open.

We can’t predict what will happen, but it should be a lot of fun finding out.

Come and see.

  • Top prize: $250,000
  • Dates: September 23 – October 10
  • Location: Grand Rapids, MI USA
  • Winner is determined by public vote
  • All attendees of the event can vote
  • Top 10 entries will receive a prize
  • Multiple artists can collaborate on an entry
  • Artists may only submit one entry
  • Property owners/renters in downtown Grand Rapids can become a venue
  • Number of artists represented is only limited by number of venues that become available.

More posts on PRIZES

Here is a  12/15 post  from Real Clear Arts

Guess Who’s Winning $50,000?

Last night, United States Artists announced the winners of its annual $50,000 awards at a ceremony in Santa Monica. There were 50 lucky winners, including ten in the visual arts:

JudyPfaff.jpgDiana Al-Hadid, Brooklyn
Terry Allen, Santa Fe
Vija Celmins, New York
Anthony Hernandez, Los Angeles
Joan Jonas, New York
Kim Jones, New York
Martin Mazorra and Michael Houston, Brooklyn
Dave McKenzie, Brooklyn
Judy Pfaff, Kingston, New York (one of her installations is at right)
Dario Robleto, Houston

Looking at the list, it’s hard to draw any conclusions about winning characteristics, except one — New York (including Brooklyn, of course) is still the center of contemporary art.

On the other hand, for this round of awards, the fourth, “USA Fellows” in all disciplines — dance, architecture, design, literature, theater arts, music, media — come from 18 states, according to a press release. They range in age from 28 to 82.

Well done, Badly done, Not done

November 11, 2009

I still believe in tooth fairies, genius, originality and the auteur even though I know it’s a terminally modernist viewpoint. Writing, composing, art making of most sorts begins the same autoerotic way, all by your lonesome; totally in the dark. No standards except for your own personal impossibly high ones.

In his performance “And So On, End So Soon”, Robert Filliou set out the idea that Bien Fait, Mal Fait, Pas Fait (Well done, Badly done, Not done) are equivalent proposals.  These 3 equivalencies are frames of reference, a set of outcomes. For the “Good Enough” artist “Well done, Badly done, Not done” are potential endpoints, risks to be considered.

Over the course of becoming more jaded about other people’s creativity levels, I’ve done a lot of thinking about bad art, bad writing, bad music.  I’ve read reams of fatuous wall texts and captions.  I’ve been on award juries and suffered in darkened rooms thru hours of culling process, DVD after DVD.  I’ve watched endless videos; my aversion reflex now so strong I leave rooms where monitors lurk. “Badly Done” can be intentional (the mirror of well-done) in which case it’s a celebration of absurdity, illogic; it’s existential, its the good-enough flop.

‘Bliss-point’ is a term used to explain the eating behaviors of the overweight and obese.  Once you’ve eaten enough fats and sugars there you are, ready for seconds; food bliss achieved. It has nothing to do with hunger, it’s an autonomous process, the organism pleasures itself giving the brain a nice hit of yummy.

I think the concept of bliss point can be applied to the bad artist. Like having an eating disorder, the bad artist reaches bliss point through the process of makin’ lots-o-‘stuff’ without too much thought. This explains why bad artists are so prolific. It’s an ego-high with minimum effort.  Their ‘stuff” is generally based on someone else’s ‘stuff’, completely imitative but what the hell, they’re gonna make more. Imitation is not the highest form of flattery, it’s the flat- lining of intellect and effort.

‘Not Done’ may be the best strategy; who knows?



November 9, 2009

Artists are not part of a real system, they aren’t pieces in a large jigsaw puzzle in which each artist has one and only one Categorical Place.

Artist are part of a larger narrative made up of a constellation of small puzzle pieces. The only significant elements that establish visible positions are those that have some adhesive quality, some kind of ‘fit’.

This blog is based on the observation that there is a kind of ‘artist’ whose work creates a fit with its time, an artist whose work is a ‘good enough’ fit.   This fit may only last only as long as the life of the artist.   Vermeer’s work sank out of sight  after his death  (there wasn’t much of it to begin with).   His work regained its lost visibility some time later when it fit into a category that assigned it worth.   J.S. Bach, whose greatness is not currently in dispute, created a body of work that sank into obscurity after his death, no longer influential, resurfacing only when there was some cultural desire for it.

‘Fit’ is not created by some vague or simplistic standard of ‘quality’.  Fit is determined by its conceptual content, a context it comes into or creates out of necessity. The good-enough artist is part of a narrative that’s  infinitely elastic, accommodating any concept that wanders into the frame of reference along with anything that was there already.


November 9, 2009

Artists often tell  me they can’t understand why I wrote about someone’s terrible work.  I think it’s more of a question than lack of understanding; the question is ‘why didn’t you write about me’?  I can’t answer that question in a nice way. I write about work that interest me for some reason and like/dislike is irrelevant. I’m especially interested in art that I don’t get, work that has nothing in common with what I do, shares no similar concerns.

Artists also tell me they like my writing. I really like hearing that because you never know if anyone reads anything anymore or just looks at the pictures. I usually write for “Sculpture Magazine” and make it a point to write about sculptors I feel haven’t been sufficiently noticed. I try to do genuine criticism, never PR. While I ‘m not a ‘real’ journalist, I’m a fairly articulate artist who writes. I only write about what interests me and do it from several different viewpoints while keeping in mind several different kinds of readers.

For me, art-writing is the literary extension of the studio visit. I’m more interested in raising questions, more content-oriented than descriptive. No amount of description can compete with an image and no image can come close to competing with an object.

Magazines always publish an image of the artist’s work so too much description is superfluous. In a recent profile  I suggested that readers look at the pictures first before reading the article, just cut to the chase.All the Vermeers in the world I love images especially because they relieve me of having to make piercingly intelligent observations such as: it’s red, it’s big, it has many interesting details. Ideally I want the article to represent a 3-way dialog between me, the artist and the object. The writing is condensed from conversation I had with another artist while we sat talking around and about an object, the object’s objective and why it matters.