Art as Focus or Footnote?

When I first visited museums, curators were catalogers. They organized, identified and labeled. Remember the brass attribution tags?

Today things are different. Curators are educators, critics, philosophers and marketeers, and interns do the cataloging.

Leonardo DaVinci's Cecilia

Leonardo’s Cecilia Marked Up by Mail Online

Of course, there’s a lot to like about 21st century curating. We still get great promotional posters, but mimeographed handouts have morphed into polychrome exhibition catalogs — works of art in themselves. And most art exhibits are now fleshed out with books, manuscripts, photos, sketches, and occasionally artifacts.

Many modern exhibits are also interpreted by a related movie or slideshow — often both — by audio guides delivered by headphone or cell phone, and by tours conducted by a docent. All include explanatory material writ large on the walls.

Enough!  It’s time for a usability reset. The curatorial guidance, which should be elucidating the art, is masking it like moss on a rock. The curator’s impressions, no matter how astute, insightful or learned, shouldn’t get in the way of our enjoyment — physical, intellectual or emotional.

The curator’s notes, which often read like a doctoral thesis, should be optional. The wall panels describing each piece should be succinct, uniformly informative, and legible at five paces.

I’m not advocating a return to the brass tag era. But I’ll scream if I encounter another exhibit where the wall panels, printed in small, artsy, pastel fonts, are barely legible, verbose, and almost as big as the art they describe.

Great art is visceral, emotional and uplifting.  It communicates not by language, but by eye.  The trained eye appreciates more, but the en pointe discourse shouldn’t obscure the objets d’art.

Let’s keep the 21st century curatorial technology, but restore the Renaissance focus. Let the art speak in its master’s voice..

The Hungry Cat

I have always been fascinated by people who succeed despite themselves.

Super Salesman

Mac, the Super SalesmanMac was just such a contradiction. He was a wildly successful appliance salesman who made a humdrum appearance, had very little product knowledge, disparaged customers, and was pathologically incurious.

What made Mac successful?  I found out when he had a stroke and came back to work before he could talk.  Lacking speech, he smiled, nodded. gestured and listened to customers, then led them by the hand to a washer, dryer or range, and proceeded to smile, gesture, and pound on the product, until the customer said “Yes.”

Woody Allen famously said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  I’ll buy that if by showing up he means consistently, persistently, and relentlessly.  Mac did that, but so do a lot of marginally successful people.  The secret of Mac’s outsized success was hunger, motivation, drive.  Mac wanted to succeed, needed to succeed, dreamt of success as teens dream of sex.

Bill, the Chain Store MagnateChain Store Magnate

Bill White, who built and owned a chain of stores, had the drive.  A recluse, so removed from reality that he spoke in an eponymous dialect, he was a notoriously poor judge of people and a micro-manager who never learned to delegate.  Bill’s speech erupted in flows of spittle when he was angry or excited. Not a plausible candidate for success, but he had the drive.

Mark, the Real Estate TycoonReal Estate Tycoon

While Bill had an Ivy League education, Mark missed out on college but nevertheless cobbled together a billion dollar real estate business that only stopped growing when his one-man band reached its scalar limits. Mark didn’t actually count the paper clips, but he hoarded and controlled an eclectic variety of staples from stationery to shingles. An asocial character with a learning disability, he rarely said hello, please, thank you, or good job, but could charm a snake when driven.

Super salesman, chain store magnate, real estate tycoon.  These are just a few of the successful misfits I’ve known and been amazed by.  You can probably point to politicians, performers, priests and professional athletes whose success would be surprising if they didn’t have the hunger, the drive, the self-motivation.

The Hungry Cat

Charles Tandy, of Radio Shack fame, told me once I wouldn’t have to worry about anything else if I just “hired the right cat.”  From the likes of Mac, Bill and Mark, I learned that the right cat is a hungry cat.  Success isn’t in the details, it’s in the drive.

New How to Stop Smoking Book

I just published a short self-help book on how to quit smoking. The book describes an easy-to-follow program grounded in behavioral psychology. I wrote the program nearly thirty years ago and used it to stop smoking after many abortive attempts using other methods.

How to Stop Smoking: A Behavioral Self-Help Program by an Ex-SmokerSo why another book about smoking cessation?  Search Amazon.com for “how to stop smoking” Kindle books and you’ll get over a hundred results, including mine, How to Stop Smoking: A Behavioral Self-Help Program by an Ex-Smoker. The difference is my book is short, and the program it lays out is both scientific and successful.

The book is short because it doesn’t need to be long.  Renouncing my academic training, I refused to stretch it out by rehearsing the medical literature on smoking, reviewing other methods for quitting, providing a detailed description of the behavioral theory behind it, etc. None of that would make the program easier to implement or more effective.

The book is scientific because it expounds a self-help behavior modification schedule based on the bedrock principles of reinforcement and extinction. These are the principles of operant behavior that inform behavior therapy and behavior modification programs.

Most importantly, the book is successful.  My friends, co-workers and I have used its behavioral program to quit smoking without drugs, therapy, hypnosis, electronic devices, and without undue hardship.  And everyone I know who completed the program remains a non-smoker, years later, without cravings or relapse.  I haven’t smoked a cigarette or wanted to in nearly thirty years.

If you or a friend is a moderate to heavy smoker, using one to three or more packs daily, and wants to quit — no matter the reason — please grab a copy of How to Stop Smoking: A Behavioral Self-Help Program by an Ex-Smoker. It’ll take less than ten minutes to read and could be a life saver, literally.

The DaVinci Principle: The Power of the Person

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
Henry David Thoreau:  Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

I think you’ll agree, Thoreau’s characterization describes most of us.  Like T.S. Elliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, we wander through life with “Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions.” But some of us can make decisions, sing our song and have it heard and followed by others.

The power of one person to profoundly change the world for all of us — what I call “The DaVinci Principle” — is a rare and remarkable gift given to few.  Our country took root and flourished because the Founding Fathers, and later, some of our Presidents had the power of the person.  Today, we can see it in industry (Bill Gates), entertainment (Oprah Winfrey), and politics (Nelson Mandela).DaVinci's Bobbin Machine

Leonardo himself is, of course, the prime example. DaVinci, gifted as an artist, poet, writer, and scientist took it upon himself not only to amuse and entertain us, but to inform us in things both large — as in tanks, and guns, and bridges, and flying machines — and small, such as the bobbin threading machine in the illustration at right. In DaVinci’s time, gifted people thought they had a responsibility to use their talents in the service of mankind — and they didn’t know they couldn’t. Ironically, it wasn’t until Freud used his talents to almost single-handedly change how we think about human behavior that we got confused about responsibility and ability.

Freud taught us to recognize the roots of our behavior in our early childhood experiences. That’s determinism and today few would quarrel with it. But Freud never preached fatalism. He saw adult behavior as having childhood antecedents, but he also saw it as changeable. And his belief system surely never included the “the corollary of inevitable incompetence.” We can change our behavior, we are responsible for it, and we can use it to change the behavior of others. That’s why there was a DaVinci, and unfortunately, a Hitler.

In a world made inhospitable and cold by the post-Freudian abrogation of personal responsibility, we applaud Bill, Oprah and Nelson and the others like them who understand the power of the person and exercise it.