The Space Outside Your Head: Some Concluding Thoughts

Over the course of writing this blog, I have learned that many of my posts are about art and economics.  More broadly, they are about creativity and friendship, and how those things—and their social and public value—co-exist in a market economy.

So a few concluding thoughts on economics, authorship, the art of soccer, the structure of education, and the future of museums…

The first post, Monday Painter/Sunday Banker, generated a number of extended replies—from people I would call colleague-friends. Two bear mention.

The first came from a distinguished, emeritus economics professor I used to work for as a research fellow. No stranger to econometrics, regulatory industries, or wry and joyful erudition, he provided the technical answer to the “what if we did away with all the banks” question:

I can’t get away from the fun you could have with “do away with the banks.”  By the middle of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill had put in place that banks make the money supply and MV=PT, where M=money stock. V = the velocity. P=the price index. And T= the physical volume of trade (or PT is current dollar GDP). If there are no banks then M=zero and the equation (economy) collapses, as in 2009.

When I asked if I could reprint his answer, giving him credit, he demurred, saying the credit was mine.  It got me thinking. Credit is an open question for the category of colleague-friend—and the broader category of “the author.” I happen to be of the camp that credit is not zero sum (meaning that it is not like a tennis match where one person gains and another loses, so if the win is +1 and the loss is -1, they sum to zero).  I think that if you are working in really good teams, you give others credit, they give you credit, and a rising tide lifts all boats.  More than one person can win.  This is not a failsafe method, but maybe a risk worth taking.

I recently decided to start reading the sports pages of the Sunday paper, because I often wonder if sport trumps art or they converge at some level.  This week, I came across the story of Lionel Messi, the Argentine-born soccer sensation on the Barcelona team, as profiled by Jeré Longman in “Lionel Messi: Boy Genius” in the New York Times.  Longman wrote, “Today, soccer increasingly relies on size and muscle and speed.” But Messi has “immersed himself in the Barcelona style, which demands flair and creativity, not mere utility.”  Zero-sum thinking reminds me of that kind of tough, brawler play on a soccer pitch—a ruthlessness and thuggishness Longman ascribed to Real Madrid, Barcelona’s chief rival.  But Messi triumphed over that rough play with grace and ingenuity.  Soccer is technically zero sum, but it was nice to imagine that Messi played for love of the game and won, not just focused on winning at any cost.  Ideally, that seems like an art.

Back to the bank question, even equations have an aesthetic sensibility.  They always look true.  Numbers look exact, the way social psychological studies reveal that attractive, well-dressed people have a way of looking smart and trustworthy. But, in this case, the equation has two variables that are multiplied by each other and one of them goes to zero.  That zero variable is to the equation what kryptonite is to Superman.  It voids the whole thing.  If we really did away with all the banks, we might experience a resurgence in creative, resourceful thinking—in alternative economies, DIY forms of collective action, and things I love like barter:

From Trade School, an artist-run, barter-economy school, event at the Whitney Museum of American Art, March 25, 2011

The second extended reply came from a business school classmate, John Bodt, who works in wind energy.  He opined that the real hurdles for creative people are (1) a notion that anything dealing with money is “inherently evil” and (2) jargon.  I agree with him on jargon, that one of the biggest things anyone learns in business school is vocabulary—and the confidence that comes from comprehension.

As to whether money is “inherently evil,” I have always felt that for creative people to understand money isn’t a form of selling out but of understanding enough to trust oneself to make choices.  It is possible to understand economics without being rapaciously capitalistic, the same way you can know how to cook French food and still decide whether to eat fois gras and macaroons breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

For example, last winter I taught economics as a drawing class at RISD.  One of my students, Eliza Squibb, majored in textiles and made Supply and Demand Quilt Squares as a final project.  She based them off of a very dry PowerPoint presentation we found online and watched together.  This is one called Dead Weight Loss from Subsidy:

Eliza presented her project and then announced to the class that she was giving all the squares away.  This to me is a form of understanding economics and also choosing to disregard it–deciding that being generous is part of the work.

As a final note on the MBA-MFA question, I believe, it really relates to a fundamental shift in the structure of higher education in the next ten years—a barbelling between elite universities and disruptive alternatives.  MFA and MBA may cease to be professional categories and instead become behaviors and approaches.  You may not take years to become an artist or an economist or a lawyer, but take a shorter time to learn how to think creatively and to be able to analyze problems analytically too. Circling back to Daniel Pink, it’s not that “The MFA is the new MBA!”  It’s that you are a person so cross-trained and capable, a creative generalist, you are no longer a round peg that fits a round hole or a square peg, but a marble that goes through all of them.  Instead of teaching people to master domains, maybe what you want is just to teach them to be learners–to train people not to be champion question-answers, but resilient and versatile question askers, universal sockets in the world of specialized knowledge.  This is my hope.  Maybe this idea of interdisciplinary thinking is the intellectual equivalent of the kind of free trade Adam Smith advocated in his first articulation of economics.

Finally, the museums post generated thoughtful comments from Art21 readers on this blog itself.  On Monday, just after writing that post, I went to the keynote event for the Association of Art Museum Curators, where I saw a panel on the future of museums.

At the outset, I was honored to watch Philippe de Montebello, the longtime, now retired director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distinguished faculty member at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, be honored by his “colleague-friends.” He was given a service award that, in subsequent years, will continue to bear his name.  As he said, it was “totally humbling. But also I have to add that it feels very good.”

Although the panelists reminded me of the love of objects—the fact that for them objects will always be a starting point no matter whether museums develop more as conversational spaces for people and platforms for ideas—they said a few things that inspired me and dovetailed with my desire for arts institutions to broaden their approach, or at least develop their porosity toward creative work in other fields:

Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA suggested museums could “become the research and development center for society.”  She advocated “embedding curators, artists and designers in discussions” in fields as far removed from traditional definition of the arts as policy-making.  And on the reach of museum practice outside museums, she said, “People curate everything, including the olive oil aisle at Fairway.”

Her co-panelist Linda Shearer, the executive director of Project Row Houses in Houston, spoke about her experience working on a Joseph Beuys show at the Guggenheim years ago.  Beuys, she reminded us, had said everyone is an artist.  She then described her current work at Project Row Houses—what transformed “twenty-two boarded up shotgun houses”—into a neighborhood anchor and inventive arts venue.  When she talked about the mothers who came there to learn parenting skills and their pride in it, I felt the whole project was life as art, the art of the mothers.

The third panelist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor in the department of philosophy at Princeton, carried on the thread of creativity and conversation within and outside of the arts by talking about the development of mathematical theory in Europe, in tandem with the democratization of the postal service—what allowed scholars to exchange correspondence and collaboratively develop ideas.

As he wonderfully put it, “There is space where new thinking happens but it’s not between anyone’s ears.”

On that note, I thank you for the chance to write here.  And I wish you all well in your own creative work—as artists, economists, hurdlers, curators of the olive oil aisle, parents dreaming up whole worlds for rainy afternoons, scholars dreaming up whole new fields, experimental recipe-improvising chefs, mathematicians, museum directors, bankers, bakers, footballers, and colleague-friends.