Friday, 15 October 2010

Aesthetic or Anesthetic

I've just started reading The Arts and the Creation of Mind by Elliot Eisner. In the introduction there's a short section which deserves to be shared:
"Efficiency is largely a virtue for the tasks we don’t like to do; few of us like to eat a great meal efficiently or to participate in a wonderful conversation efficiently, or indeed to make love efficiently. What we enjoy the most we linger over. A school system designed with an overriding commitment to efficiency may produce outcomes that have little enduring quality." (My emphasis)
I'm looking forward to reading more of these insights.

On a related note the following RSA Animate video has just been made public. It's of 'Sir' Ken Robinson. I've been critical of Sir Ken in the past - he tends to err a little too far toward hyperbole for my liking. I'm also rather skeptical of his acceptance of a knighthood since, to my mind, it goes against all that he professes to stand for. Still, this makes some important points, so I'll leave you to decide for yourself.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Why Bother? (Effort, Achievement and Risk)

Lucy Gunning: “Climbing around my room”. Video, 1993

"...effort is nothing more, and also nothing less, than tension between means and ends in action, and that the sense of effort is the awareness of this conflict." -John Dewey

I was involved in a really interesting series of studio discussions with some of the Photographic and Electronic Media students last week. They were sharing experiences from over the Summer break as a method of reintroducing themselves to thinking about how these experiences and observations might be placed within the context of reflecting upon, discussing and working towards art making. One thing in particular struck me amongst the many fascinating things we discussed - this was the extent to which almost everyone, myself included, had invested time, energy, money and especially expectations in the pursuit of specific experiential encounters: holidays, weddings, childbirth etc. Somehow almost all of us (though there were some exceptions) had bought into to the conventional notion that only these kinds of experiences are worthy of aspiring towards, making an effort for or sharing with other people, whilst everything else - jobs, relationships and a multitude of other 'commonplace' experiences - are merely a necessary part of - or, at best, a pleasant distraction from - our striving to acquire money or opportunities to achieve these other more 'unique' experiences. By way of contrast (though I didn’t mention it at the time) I was reminded of Xavier de Maistre’s extraordinary, but at the same time extraordinarily modest, expeditions:

“…in the spring of 1790, a twenty-seven-year-old Frenchman, Xavier de Maistre, undertook a journey around his bedroom, later entitling the account of what he had seen Journey around My Bedroom. Gratified by his experiences, in 1798, De Maistre undertook a second journey. This time he traveled by night and ventured out as far as the window ledge, later entitling his account Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom. […] …it was not Xavier’s intentions to cast aspersions on the heroic deeds of the great travelers of the past: Magellan, Drake, Anson and Cook. …it was just that (de Maestre) had discovered a way of traveling that might be infinitely more practical for those neither as brave or as wealthy as they.” -Alain de Botton

Much as I love this idea of a unique journey amongst the commonplace and familiar and much as I admire artworks that transform our understanding of such experiences, I’m nonetheless tempted to think of this particular case as an inventive but somewhat extreme example of the Principle of Least Effort. Indeed, De Botton goes on to say of De Maistre that: “He particularly recommended room-travel to the poor and to those afraid of storms, robberies, and high cliffs.” This seems a form of travel most suited to the risk averse, the unadventurous and the lazy:

“The most indolent beings won’t have any reason to hesitate before setting off to find pleasures that will cost them neither money nor effort.” -Xavier de Maistre

But is this really laziness? The great beauty of this idea (though it was patently intended as a parody) is it’s wonderfully unconventional simplicity, but would it be true to say that no effort is required? Effort has nothing to do with the grandeur of the ends but rather, as Dewey suggests, the conflict or tension between ends and means. As the games of every child clearly attest, it’s quite possible to create a genuine and engaging challenge even with the most meager of materials or environment. The effort in this instance then, becomes entirely a labour of the imagination: to embark on the journey anew, as if never before travelled and to voyage over each encounter, savoring every intricacy with the curiosity of the most inquisitive and observant tourist.

So what correlations may we draw between effort expended and our sense of achievement?

In psychology there’s a process known as Effort Discounting, which describes how our sense of reward diminishes as effort increases. We naturally tend to prefer low-effort routes to rewards. An analogue of this effect has also been observed in a neurological study published in 2009 by Botvinick, Huffstetler and McGuire. From a survival perspective, effort discounting makes evolutionary sense since there’s very little point in pursuing food, for example, if the resources expended in order to acquire it outweigh the benefit gained. But human tastes are far more complex than this alone would suggest. We often expend inordinate quantities of energy in seeking things to satisfy all manner of strange and exotic desires, despite the fact that these things provide very little in the way of energy return. It’s the promise of pleasure which drives many of these desires - desires that are essentially aesthetic in nature: food, music, art, literature, dance and even holidays. However, even with these unique experiences, we almost always have an underlying sense of how much effort is deserving of the end result and we quickly tire of what we anticipate to be unrewarding pursuits. Equally, when we gain something with unexpected ease the pleasure is often multiplied.

These observations strongly suggest that, as beings, we’re very highly attuned to the economics of effort and reward - to our own individual cost-benefit analysis. But there’s one further set of experiences for which we’re frequently prepared to exert ourselves physically or cognitively and these are processes that are in themselves pleasurable - that provide stimulating feedback or the release of mood elevating endorphins. Many areas of human endeavor exploit this tendency, from sport and exercise to art and craft. There’s little doubt though, that many of these pleasures are acquired tastes and to expect them to arise spontaneously or to be appreciated as immediately gratifying is frequently unrealistic or frustrating. For example, the pleasures of exercise are relatively easily acquired by comparison with the pleasures of creation which require skills and sensitivities that take time and practice to develop:

“Children who have not learned that drawing skill is based on practiced observation will be very frustrated when they reach the next developmental stage. They will wish they could draw more realistically. As they get older, they mistakenly believe that they lack talent while others are gifted in drawing. They give up because they see others who can do better. Art educators refer to this as the "crisis of confidence." -Marvin Bartel

In all this talk of effort and reward there is one further consideration that demands our attention: risk. I’ve written about risk previously, but in that instance it seems I neglected a vital aspect which has only become clear to me through a recent exchange in which I was asked if a grade for effort might be a legitimate method of encouraging students to take risks “particularly in the creative arts, where the "willingness" to fail is such a hard thing to encourage?”

The important thing to bear in mind in relation to effort and risk is that the teacher and student both need to understand, and agree upon, exactly what is being assessed (the "ends" for which effort is being expended and risks taken) and this ideally shouldn't be set by the teacher but rather negotiated between tutor and student (though, of course, this isn't always possible, especially when there's a fixed curriculum to follow).

Much as it might appear to make intuitive sense to grade students on their effort, their “willingness” to expend effort or to take risks should never be c0-opted by the temptation or threat of a grade but rather by the aim of improving what they do to the greatest possible degree. Success should therefore not depend upon an artificial extrinsic reward, but rather on achieving what they set out to achieve or, ideally, even more than they set out to achieve. This is the value of self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation, as opposed to fixation upon rewards, or conversely, being continually reminded of others' “evaluation” of how much effort needs to be put in. Ultimately it comes down to establishing what exactly the student is aiming for, so that the teacher can support them to achieve this - or, if they're aiming for something unrealistically difficult, to encourage them set their sights on something a little more achievable and to help them to see how this is something genuinely worth working towards instead.

Willingness to fail can only come about when students (or anyone for that matter) feels secure enough to take risks. So it's the teacher's - indeed Education's - duty to ensure that every possible measure is taken to alleviate pressure upon students and certainly not to add a little extra in the form of an intimidating or distracting grade for effort.


BARTEL, M., Teaching Observation Drawing to Young Children. Goshen College Publication.[Online]. Available from:

BOTVINICK, M. M. & HUFFSTETLER, S., McGUIRE, J. (2009). Effort discounting in human nucleus accumbens. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 9(1), 16-27. [Online]. Available from:

DE BOTTON, A., (2002) The Art of Travel. Penguin. p.243-245

DEWEY, J., (1897). The Psychology of Effort, Philosophical Review 6: 43-56. [Online]. Available from:

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Tact of Leaders (an essay on criticism and how to take it)

How do leaders and people in authority gain an accurate picture of what’s going on around them and how sensitive (in both senses of the word) should they be towards criticism?

There’s a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez entitled “the Autumn of the Patriarch” in which a decrepit and beleaguered but ruthless dictator finds himself without any close confidants to whom he can turn for a truthful description of what’s happening in his country and how he’s perceived as its leader. He finally resorts to visiting the servants’ latrines in the basement of the building in order to read the descriptions and see the caricatures of himself scrawled in graffiti across the walls. Thus it’s possible for him to gain some kind of perspective by juxtaposing these representations with the ridiculously fanciful distortions presented to him by his aides who are terrified of uttering the slightest word of negativity or criticism to him.

It has always been the case that leaders have intimidated their subordinates but it has also been the case, on occasion and sometimes for generations, that certain cultures have developed in which criticism is positively encouraged. In his 1958 essay “The Beginnings of Rationalism” Karl Popper traces the progress of the “tradition of critical discussion” back to the Ionian School of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales:

“I can hardly imagine a relationship between master and pupil in which the master merely tolerates criticism without actively encouraging it… At any rate, there is a historical fact that the Ionian school was the first in which the pupils criticised their masters, in one generation after the other… It was a momentous innovation. It meant a break with the dogmatic tradition which permits only one school doctrine, and the introduction in its place of a tradition that admits a plurality of doctrines which all try to approach the truth by means of critical discussion.” -Karl Popper

How might we create a culture in which criticism is not only tolerated but positively encouraged? Criticism is such a vitally important component of any discursive environment because it has the potential to identify and articulate genuine weaknesses, problems and difficulties and raise them for discussion and debate in such a way that they may be overcome, or that improved solutions might be developed and implemented. Criticism has a deeply powerful role to play in all aspects of culture and society but it can also be significantly intimidating for the same reason. Criticism has the potential to undermine and disrupt situations and conditions which may have been reasonably workable, if not wholly perfect beforehand. It can divide people, cause acrimony, suspicion and long-lasting distrust. Criticism often makes those who are criticised feel insecure, and when criticism is made of superiors they're very likely to interpret it as an affront to their authority or professional position. It's necessary therefore that all criticisms are proffered with a generous helping of tact in order that the person making the criticism doesn't undermine the very ground on which they stand, not to mention the value of the criticism offered. In 1848 John Stuart Mill was well aware of this necessity when he wrote:

“In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground…”

Such tact can take the form of considerate, well timed appropriately toned comments but in certain circumstances even this doesn’t guarantee open approval. In group situations the process of offering criticism can be even more complicated and often puts the individual making the criticism in a very vulnerable and uncomfortable position. In such group situations the tendency towards groupthink is very strong indeed and may even lead to individuals being ostracised if they’re seen to express what might be interpreted as dissenting opinion.

Groupthink can arise just as easily within egalitarian peer groups as it can within the hierarchy of groups with identified leaders. However, it’s only within hierarchical groups that leaders are likely to unwittingly dissuade critical input:

“For example, subtle constraints, which the leader may reinforce inadvertently, may prevent a member from fully exercising his critical powers and from openly expressing doubts about a risky course of action when most others in the group appear to have reached a consensus.” - Irving L. Janis 1982

In the book “Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes” from which the above quote derives, Janis describes how amiability amongst small groups of leaders can actually lead to unquestioned reinforcement and implementation of ill-formed decisions with potentially disastrous consequences. He therefore advocates a nine-point list of checks and reviews which are intended to counter groupthink and to arrive at thorough and fully considered outcomes. What I find most interesting here is that Janis’ suggestions are universally discursive in nature and place a great deal of emphasis on the leaders’ active promotion and “acceptance” of critical opinion.

In ideal circumstances the counter-opinions of others can be extremely useful to ensure that all avenues have been fully explored, but even within the solitude of our own thoughts there’s a constant process of give-and-take occurring between judgment and critical analysis which allows us to make more informed decisions about the experiences that we encounter. In 1996 the neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran put forward the hypothesis that the right and left hemispheres of the brain react differently to unexpected experiences. Whilst the left hemisphere of the brain seeks to maintain rationality and the continuity of belief, using a variety of cognitive processes and self deceptions; the right brain acts as a kind of devil’s advocate or “anomaly detector” that registers, and responds to, inconsistencies. The right brain (the side most commonly associated with creativity) therefore challenges and counters the left brain’s tendency towards superficial or unexamined answers.

So whether it is within group situations or the confines of one’s own mind, critical input is a vital tool in arriving at informed decisions. But who stands to gain the most from such decisions? In the case of individuals the answer is obvious but the case of groups it is less so. Everyone in a group benefits from the positive actions of the group, but the leader of any group always benefits (or suffers) the most. Despite the energy, vulnerability and tact which is necessary to giving criticism, it’s always the case that the person who stands to gain most from critical input is the leader of the group. This is a useful observation because it allows us to recognize something about what we could call the “economics of criticism”: something is given and something is received; something is sacrificed and something is gained. But, of course this isn’t always the case. The person making the criticism might not be doing it for purely altruistic reasons. Sometimes criticism is offered simply as a reprimand or retribution for some perceived injustice or incompetence. In this case it would be better to think of such criticism as defiance. Defiance is an expression of non-co-operation or counter action whereas criticism, when extended in the fullness of its potential, offers the hope of positive change. The obstacle to genuine criticism then, is that it’s too easily mixed with, or mistaken for, defiance.

It will be clear by now that there’s certainly a need for a high level of tact in the delivery of critical opinion to ensure that it’s taken in the spirit in which it was intended. But if we think further about the economics of criticism we can see that there’s also an additional emphasis on leaders themselves being willing and able to sustain criticism and engage it meaningfully, since, if they fully understand what they may have to gain through their acceptance of criticism, they’ll realize that such gifts also come with responsibilities. It might be useful here to develop this formulation of criticism as a kind of gift which needs to be packaged very carefully, but in addition to this careful wrapping there’s also a significant imperative, on the part of the receiver, in having the humility to understand that whilst not all gifts are things which are desired, they nonetheless represent a sacrifice on the part of the giver and the promise of a positive gain on the part of the receiver. The respect which this demands is a vital from of tact and one which all leaders would do well to cultivate.

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.” –JS Mill

This essay was originally published on here.


David Miller (1983). A Pocket Popper. UK: Fontana.

John Stuart Mill (1848)1988. On Liberty. London: BPCC Paperbacks.

V.S. Ramachandran, The evolutionary biology of self-deception, laughter, dreaming and depression: some clues from anosognosia, Medical Hypotheses, November 1996, 47(5):347-62.

Irving L. Janis (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. London: Wadsworth

Friday, 1 October 2010

David Bellingham – Elected Works

The following is a text written to accompany the current exhibition of works by David Bellingham at Cairn gallery (details below).

David Bellingham, 2010. Image by Laurie Clark.

Do they? Is this true? Do ideas really transcend objects? Or is the reverse the case - as is also suggested by this text piece - are ideas outlived by objects? And there’s yet another dimension to this relationship: ideas are also formed by objects - as William Carlos Williams famously repeated: “No ideas but in things.”

It's at once an aphorism, a manifesto, a short poem, a collection of traces upon a surface and a proposition in two contradictory phrases. But the power of this statement lies entirely in the duality between one interpretation and its near opposite, in the oscillation between the two, neither of which can be accommodated by the other. It is, in fact, two aphorisms, two manifestoes, two short poems combined in a single black and white configuration of concrete language.

In many ways we do indeed believe that ideas, and the thoughts from which they arise, transcend objects and the limited forms from which they, in turn, are composed. Ideas lead to deeds (sometimes to creations even) and it’s through these that both objects and people are judged. But ideas are also easily forgotten, as are the deeds which come as a consequence. Only objects endure. The difference is equivalent to that between text and spoken word. One endures and the other disperses the moment it is uttered. But the immediacy and transience of the second is often valued over the permanence and impersonal nature of the first. Speech has an object - it goes directly in search of an enemy, or a friend, and it's this immanence, this more personal intention which lends the spoken word it's significance.


This text piece has found various forms in David's practice from canvas, to wall text to ceramic mugs. I own two such mugs - one of which I use at home and the other I use at work at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen. For several years it has followed me to tutorials and critiques making its quiet statement and keeping me refreshed and therefore better able to do my job. Rarely does anyone comment on or question my mug, which I assume to be either a suggestion that it's accepted as reflective of my general philosophical attitude, or perhaps because it's a little daunting or even the reverse: simply another superficial remark or branding attached to one of many mass produced objects which we use on a daily basis.

At one time the mug I use in Aberdeen was frequently borrowed by a colleague on the regular days that I wasn't around. I'd frequently return to work to find the dried dregs of coffee in it or occasionally it would be absent from my desk and I’d only find it some time later unwashed and abandoned in one of the studios. Despite not wishing to seem possessive about something as trivial as a mug, I finally I gave in to my irritation and decided to request that my colleague stop using it. This was immediately accepted but I've subsequently noticed that there's a hairline crack across the shoulder of the handle which has presumably been caused by a fall whilst washing it up in one of the porcelain studio sinks. It's impossible to know for certain whether I did it myself or not but it barely matters because the mug still functions perfectly well and has, in some ways, gained more character because of this unique flaw. I’ve come to like it. It seems, in its own way, to say something about David’s text. It’s a counterpoint to the authority of the opposition set up between objects and ideas. It’s a statement about the role of imperfection itself as both a thing and an idea but also as a property which we have a strangely ambivalent attitude towards.

We often think that it’s the quality of materials that makes things valuable. In addition we prize refinement, workmanship and the evidence of human investment and ingenuity. Such things confer value upon objects but it’s nonetheless the case that these material qualities are superseded by the associations carried by an object. In spite of even the most humble commonplace materials and mass production processes we’re highly susceptible to the aura of association, and this can come in a multitude of different guises. Advertising and design are predicated on this very inclination on our part. We’re impressionable consumers of value and our values shift according to constantly changing eddies in the climate of association, history and meaning. And this is why something as simple and unprepossessing as a cracked mug can seem all the more valuable and unique than its almost identical but more perfect twin.

Elected Works
Works by David Bellingham elected by:

John Bevis, Ross Birrell, Pavel Büchler, Laurie Clark, Thomas A Clark, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Simon Cutts, Francis Edeline, Adam Gibbons, Harry Gilonis, Jim Hamlyn, John Janssen, Julie Johnstone, Peter Manson, Jonathan Monk, Ken Neil, Lisa Otty, Roger Palmer, Dominic Paterson, Colin Sackett, John Shankie & David Shrigley

12 September – 16 October 2010, open by appointment

28 Viewforth Place
Pittenweem, Fife
KY10 2PZ Scotland