Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail

Strategic planning has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks.

I’ve been finding strategic planning in the usual places – the Laurel Historical Society is in the middle of a multi-year strategic planning effort, for example, and anyone familiar with museums, academia, and/or the nonprofit world should always have some level of awareness about strategic plans – and in unusual places as well.

The concept of strategic planning, I’ve realized, crops up quite frequently during walking seminars I lead along the National Mall from time to time. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington is the launching point for an historical overview of the Mall, juxtaposed in the ensuing three hours with its reinterpretation in the 1902 McMillan Plan and the still-ongoing 21st century re-reinterpretation (have no fear, Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1851 Mall redesign also makes a few appearances).

For me, the most striking aspects of both the L’Enfant and McMillan plans aren’t their immediate transformations of the Mall, but the long-term vision they also encouraged. When L’Enfant was designing the capital city, it had to have been tempting to name all of the circles and squares created through the implementation of his grid street system. Instead, he left them empty, preferring to allow future Americans to celebrate their own heroes. Similarly, when the McMillan Plan imagined the Mall and the heart of D.C. as a “monumental core” they did so knowing that it would be up to future residents, those not even born yet, to determine the location, subject, and appearance of those monuments, memorials, and museums.

What always strikes me isn’t the idea of explicitly accounting for the future in strategic planning, since I was the one who designed the walking seminar after all, but rather the responses of my clients. Their appreciation, amazement, even shock at the notion of designing with the future in mind speaks volumes to the popularization of immediacy and the true difficulty in taking the long view. Even when a museum or university undertakes a strategic planning process, oftentimes it’s for 5 or 10 years. That L’Enfant and the McMillan Commission were looking 50 years, 100 years, indefinitely into the future speaks to the adventurous vision and the value of their contribution to the physical and psychological landscape of the U.S.

The notion of strategic planning also comes up in a favorite pastime of mine, comic books. There’s the short-term planning – a single writer thinking about the next few story arcs of the book she writes – and long-term planning, on the scale of a grouping of books or even the entirety of a publisher’s line.

At the moment the big two of comic book publishing, Marvel and DC, are both in the middle of a company-wide reboot, Secret Wars in the case of the former and Convergence for the latter. While the need for either company to reboot their line is a topic for another day (hint: it’s unnecessary) there is a distinct difference in the levels of planning put into each, or at least the perception thereof. Secret Wars was spearheaded by writer Jonathan Hickman and his editing team as the culmination of a storyline that was introduced in Avengers (vol. 5) #1 and New Avengers (vol. 3) #1 back in December 2012/January 2013, and is rebooting decades of continuity (although the Marvel NOW! initiative in 2011/12 resulted in renumbering of books and new team compositions, it didn’t affect continuity). Meanwhile Convergence is rebooting a continuity that had just been rebooted in 2011 as the “New 52,” in part in response to Marvel’s major changes, to lagging sales for New 52 books, and also because they needed a respite from ongoing monthly book publishing for a few months while moving their offices from New York City to Los Angeles.

Even before the first books from Secret Wars and Convergence were released, and especially now that the first issues have hit the newsstands, there’s a distinct difference in public responses to the two crossovers. Criticism of Convergence is somewhat negative and at the very least cynical, while that of Secret Wars is a fair bit more open-minded. Critics aren’t quite sure what to make of the Marvel story, but knowing that it was meticulously planned and executed strategically, there’s more willingness to trust the creative staff and let things play out.

That trust comes not just from company goodwill, but from the public acknowledgement by Marvel of their strategic plan, tying it to future company goals and demonstrating to the public the connections between the current storylines and actions in the comics over the past few years. Obviously the nature of a publisher’s strategic plan is different than a cultural institution – the publisher only assures us that a plan exists, while a public entity makes (or at least should make) the entirety of its strategic plan available for public consumption.

And at the end of the day, “strategic planning” is an apt way of describing the way we plan our own lives – our tomorrow, our next week, five years down the road, fifty years down the road. Things don’t always go according to plan, but planning provides a framework for future actions, and serves as an exercise to develop a better sense of what’s meaningful and how best to achieve it, both the end goal and the process of getting there.

Note: Due to a technical hiccup, a draft version of this post appeared yesterday evening. All fixed now!

THATCamp CAA Reflections – Day 2

After some fascinating discussion about theoretical subjects of digital scholarship and rights and reproductions on Day 1, Day 2 of THATCamp CAA was far more about specific application of digital tools, and actual use thereof.

After a breakfast at my new favorite New York breakfast spot, Natureworks, I arrived at THATCamp CAA toward the tail end of a project demo session held in one of the conference rooms. While I didn’t have the chance to really look at many of the projects on display, some of them, namely “Simple Non-Secret Cryptography for the Humanities,” had real promise as creative approaches to humanities content. Also, Micah Walter’s demonstration of the Cooper Hewitt API was something I didn’t view at the time, but learned a great deal about in a later session. At the very least, it was encouraging to see so many creators demoing projects still in the development phase, an aspect of the process which is valuable to view, so as to help improve similar projects, but from which we are so often denied access (or creators are too afraid of sharing the inside of their efforts).

My first session was on U/X (User Experience) design, and participants were largely people like me – interested in learning more about design, with little to no practical experience in the field. After viewing the slick interfaces presented by Lev Manovich in his keynote the previous day, and thinking about reader interaction with a project I’m currently working on with a former classmate, the discussion was beneficial, providing an introduction to concepts and foundational texts to inform my work.

When it came to action, the most interesting session of my day was a two hour session on creative coding. Chris Coleman from the University of Denver led a workshop on how to create basic interactive programming using the Processing programming language, itself designed to teach coding through the use of a visual medium. While I’ve spent some time around programmers, and actually had the opportunity a few days before the THATCamp to work with some programmers and view the coding process over their shoulders, I never really understood the fundamentals of the actual process of coding, how information was input into a computer program and then transformed into something else. Fitting that Processing then is about that process, and in an extremely user friendly way. Commands written in Processing are executed on a virtual whiteboard, creating interactive shapes and designs constantly updated as the code is changed. I was able to create circles bouncing across the screen, changing colors and flickering in and out of existence. The experience gave me far greater insight into the work of programming than I had held before, and is certainly something I’d recommend anyone else curious about how computer programs are created without wanting to undergo training in C++ or R or any other major language.

The day wrapped up with a related session (at least, to me) on APIs led by Micah Walter of the Cooper Hewitt. As Diane Zorich, who proposed the session, put it, there is growing awareness among scholars that APIs are crucial to sharing and interpreting museum data, but few people actually know what they are or how they work. That was true of me, and I’d spent the preceding weekend staring directly at the Walters Art Museum’s API while attending their annual Art Bytes hackathon. Having someone who knew his institution’s API inside and out, and was in fact responsible for its creation, was invaluable. I wish I’d had the chance to learn about APIs before the hackathon, because they contain so much more accessible information than I’d thought, which could have led to a great expansion of my (already award-winning) team’s project.

The productiveness of the afternoon, with its programming practice and demonstration, was a rewarding cap to a positive two-day experience. THATCamp’s end marked my the end of my time in NYC, and it was an intriguing juxtaposition to walk through the hotel lobby past a number of art historians, some of whom I recognized as stars in the field, just arriving for the proper conference beginning the following day. There were certainly rock stars at THATCamp CAA as well, no disrespect to them. Art history, like most humanities discipline, still needs to work on fully incorporating digital scholarship into its disciplinary mainstream. THATCamp CAA continues to be a great start. If anything, THATCamp CAA needs to more fully embrace the idea of an unconference. Too many scheduled speakers, product pitches, and conference papers thinly disguised as discussion session proposals managed to creep into THATCamp (although, it should be said, there were far fewer scheduled speakers than THATCamp CAA 2013). Nonetheless, THATCamp CAA remains an important part of the conversation about the future of art history, and it was a wonderful experience to once again be able to attend.

THATCamp CAA 2015 Reflections – Day 1

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend THATCamp CAA 2015, the third annual THATCamp organized in conjunction with, and during the lead up to, the annual College Art Association Conference. This was my fourth overall THATCamp, and second THATCamp CAA; my attendance this year, just as it was in 2013, was supported with a generous travel fellowship offered by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for graduate students and early career professionals.

My approach to this year’s unconference was a bit different than when I attended in 2013. Rather than seeking out sessions largely related to the teaching-track and basic digital pedagogy (of which there were fewer this year anyway), I found myself gravitating to broader theoretical subjects, on the use and potential abuse of digital tools in scholarly pursuit. In general, sessions were far more geared toward fine-grained data analysis and visualization techniques. I’m not sure the ideas of APIs and U/X design even came up at THATCamp CAA 2013, yet they were buzzwords throughout both days this year. Granted, the session on APIs was a basic “here’s what an API is” discussion, but that’s the level I was on so I was glad to see it nonetheless.

During the first day of THATCamp 2015 another buzz topic was that morning’s publication of the long-awaited Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts. The Code has been in the works for a long time, and a year ago at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference I heard non-art historians excitedly discussing the Code and saying they expected it to serve as a model for other humanities disciplines.

Although I didn’t get a chance to actually read the Code until Monday night in my hotel room, I still attended a session that afternoon on “Public Domain Reproduction and its Metadata: Access, Dissemination, and Use” led by Ann Goodyear Collins and Christine Sundt, both of whom were involved in the creation of the Code. A publicly-available Google Doc covers the course of the discussion during the session, which explained some of the process behind the Code, discussed some of the finer point details which didn’t make it in the document, and addressed some ideal next steps and ways other organizations might respond to the Code in positive fashion.

I came to the discussion from two perspectives. As a recent graduate student who has grappled with permissions for publications, I’ve been forced to tweak projects in their early stages to avoid potential image access issues, worked with publishers who required detailed permission statements for images 18th century paintings and others who were entirely on board with fair use for material published in the 21st century, and even purchased art objects (in this case, c. 1920 postcards) just so that I could offer full reproduction rights to myself.

In the other instance, I’ve looked at the issue of copyright and fair use from the perspective of the Laurel Historical Society/Laurel Museum where I volunteer, which recently digitized 100+ years of local newspapers and is looking to digitize a collection of hundreds of 1900s amateur photography. There was an interesting negotiation between the desire to make images and files available, and the uncertainty of relinquishing full control of material so important to the institution (not to mention the not-inconsequential cost of scanning, storage space, etc.). It’s one thing for CAA, or an institution with massive resources and other revenue like the National Gallery of Art or Rijksmuseum to put their public domain material out there for free, and a different story for a local institution with little resources and an understandable reticence at losing control over the material they feel truly makes them special.

[Author’s note 3/19/15: I’ve cut out a paragraph here that describes a policy at the Laurel Historical Society, as it had only been tentatively approved as of posting date and has since had to undergo some additional revisions. The point of the rest of the post still remains, even without this description.]

The release of the Code of Best Practices and subsequent discussion was an exciting part of the day, and something I had been looking forward to for some time now. I only hope that it spreads quickly through the discipline of art history and the museum world, and really sees some changes for the working methods of our field.

Eyeballs on Writing

Many a doctoral candidate is told, by way of a reminder that perfection is too lofty a goal for a dissertation, that chances are high that the only people who will read the dissertation are the five members of the dissertation committee…if that.

Quite the solace.

It is true that the dissertation is primarily a display of the author’s scholarly bona fides, not intended for public readership, particularly in the present day. The thinly-updated dissertations masquerading as books from the 1960s and 70s I encountered during my own research, some simply just reproductions of the actual dissertation with a disclaimer tacked at the front, would certainly not sniff publication in that format had they been completed in 2014.

I’m at peace with the notion that my dissertation, the culmination of over eight years of study including two years of dedicated research and a third of intense writing,  won’t be seen by the public at large, and perhaps infrequently consulted by future doctoral candidates at best (I should note here that some of the most useful sources in my own research were prior dissertations). It’s proof of an ability to engage with existing literature, and an information dump of everything I’ve found related to my subject, written in a dry, but hopefully not too dry, academic style.

A respite from longform academic writing, which truly provided a positive change-of-pace during the dissertation process, was the chance to author a series of essays for Smarthistory at Khan Academy. To date, I’ve written three essays for Smarthistory: Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, and Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.

If you search for the Gainsborough work on Google, my essay is the 2nd result. If you search for the Wright of Derby painting, it’s 1st. If you search for Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, a painting which was voted “the Greatest Painting in Britain” in 2009, my 1300-word essay is the 3rd result.*

*And not just on google.com, it’s 3rd on google.co.uk as well.

Let that sink in. Tens of people might read my dissertation, but thousands upon thousands have read what a then-ABD American art historian has to say on this iconic image of British history. A serious scholar will absolutely turn to a scholar like Andrew Wilton, but frankly, I find public dialog about art to be more rewarding than deep-yet-obtuse scholastic minutiae…exactly the form taken by a dissertation.

It must be said, this admission doesn’t mean that I can’t do research and can’t engage in deep-yet-obtuse scholastic minutiae. I can, and as my PhD attests, I’m damn good at it. However, that type of inquiry doesn’t interest me as much as teaching to the public, and using my knowledge as a springboard for the growth of someone else’s understanding of a work of art, or of themselves.

Writing for the general public is also far more comfortable, and in turn far easier, than academic prose. Jargon, important but overwrought in most places, is replaced with more conversational phrasing. Ideas are far simpler to generate and explain. Language is used as a tool to encourage understanding, rather than a crutch to prop up weak ideas or as a shield to defend against opposing ideas.

In all of this discussion, my intention is not to slam academic writing or the importance of presenting one’s complex research to a scholarly audience. Rather, it is to acknowledge that I find more personal satisfaction in writing for an audience that includes students, lifelong learners, and casual fans of art. I enjoy being that gateway, the one who inspires an idle Google search to continue into deeper research on Turner, Gainsborough, Wright, or anything else art-related which strikes the searcher’s fancy. It’s the same reason I’ve been known to correct or otherwise tweak the Wikipedia pages for artists I’ve studied or whom I’m interested in. Better to meet an audience on their grounds rather than hope and pray they stumble into yours.

Educating to an Audience

Recently I received some of the highest praise an educator can receive after a lesson. Toward the end of a family walking seminar of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, I announced to the group that our seminar was coming to a close, and the two children in the group both made audible sounds of disappointment.

For just over 18 months I’ve been leading seminars for Context Travel at various sites in Washington, D.C., namely SAAM/NPG, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Mall. Only recently, within the current calendar year, have I felt like I was actually getting good at leading these seminars.

That’s not to say that for my first year the seminars I led were bad, just that only in the past several months, as I’ve gained more experience and delivered numerous iterations of each tour, have I really began to get into a groove.

This lag time corresponds with comments from other Context docents about their experiences in becoming comfortable with leading tours, and with the working world in general and how long it takes employees to fully integrate in their position and become skilled at their responsibilities.

What I attribute most to my increasing skill at delivering walking seminars isn’t a stronger recall of factual knowledge related to the seminars (although that leads into it) but rather a much better job of “reading” the clients, and adapting on the fly to meet their needs and to meet them in a place somewhere between my knowledge base and their intellectual interests.

Last week this point was hammered home by my attendance at a public lecture offered by a local historical society on whose board I sit, on the topic of editing and using Wikipedia. The speaker obviously possessed deep structural knowledge about Wikipedia and could edit it in his sleep, but was either unable or unwilling to take stock of his audience as his talk progressed, failing to realize that he was talking to a room of novices who had never heard of the concept of mark-up language, let alone what it looks like in practice and the ways in which Wikipedia’s mark-up language differs from HTML. His audience was lost, and while he did acknowledge that fact at one point, he never diverged from his presentation, so focused was he on delivering the content he had prepared to deliver.

Focusing on content delivery rather than engagement is a major issue for educators across the board, whether they are a college professor, K-12 teacher, gallery educator or public speaker. As experts, we look at the subject matter and pick out all of its nuances, the great stories and interesting facts that put it in the greater context of the world’s knowledge. However, we can become so enthralled with covering content that we don’t pay heed to what our students are getting out of the lesson, and what they will take away from it.

That tunnel vision is something I struggled with when starting to lead seminars, just as I did when starting to serve as a teaching assistant and then as a lecturer at the University of Maryland. It wasn’t until the freeing experience of participating in the University Teaching and Learning Program offered by the then-Center for Teaching Excellence at UMD that my pedagogy was jump-started, so to speak, and I began to put the learner first rather than my own ego and desire to just strictly deliver content.

Which, omitting a number of steps, got me to that high praise from 10- and 11-year-old learners at the NPG. Early on in the seminar it became clear that both of the kids had strong grasps of Revolutionary-era history, and of the role of antiquity in serving as a model through which early Americans understood the leading figures in their own nation. It meant that instead of ending the seminar on the third floor of the American Art Museum looking at a portraits of Eisenhower and Churchill, we spent time discussing the role Henry Knox played in pushing the British out of Boston in 1775 (and by that, I mean one of the kids recognized his name on the label and proceeded to tell me stories about this person whose portrait I had previously only talked about in terms of its formal characteristics). It meant rather than looking at video art by Nam June Paik, we spent more time talking about the early iconography in images of George Washington. The older child was able to recite the story of the Roman leader Cincinnatus by heart, so we took the extra time to talk about how Washington was considered a modern-day Cincinnatus and the way artists tried to reference this symbolism in their portraits of the man.

It meant that when the family was entranced by Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, we spent extra time talking about its interpretation of the untapped American wilderness and how the experience of viewing that painting mapped onto their experiences of having traveled through Yosemite and many places elsewhere in the American West. Rather than look at John Singer Sargent’s The Spanish Dancer, I instead discussed the similarities and differences in the Impressionistic approach to landscape versus the influences of the Hudson River School and luminism on Bierstadt’s work, completed just four years before Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

“But wait!” you say, “Sargent is crucially important to understanding the history of Americans working abroad in the late 19th century, and in the intersection of Grand Manner portraiture with the stylistic innovations of the Impressionists!”

Well, yeah.

Then again, is it more important that student gets a drive-by viewing of The Spanish Dancer just to say he covered Sargent, or is it better that he cultivates deeper understanding of material he already knows, that he realizes that at age 11 he can already utilize his prior knowledge to enhance and make greater meaning of new material, that he thinks back fondly about his learning experience at the National Portrait Gallery because it built on previously-scaffolded understandings of American history rather than because it had pretty pictures?

Sure, I didn’t get to talk about one of my favorite works currently on display, but this educational experience was never about me in the first place. Recognizing that has greatly improved my seminars, and far more importantly, has greatly improved the educational experiences of the clients spending three hours in a museum with me. And that’s the truly rewarding thing.

That Annoying Little Question

“So, what are you going to do with that?”

It’s a question anyone studying or working in the humanities is well-acquainted with. I get it all the time, especially now that my Ph.D. is all but completed. Friends and acquaintances use it to launch conversations we’ve most certainly had in the recent and distant past.

Sometimes it’s followed up with a few more questions: “Do you want to teach? Work in a museum?”

Well, yes, those are the two most likely professional destinations for individuals with advanced degrees in art history. I won’t begrudge the interlocutor – those are fair questions to ask. What bothers me is the tone. There’s a difference between asking questions for the sake of starting a conversation, and asking questions in the search for knowledge. The question of what an art historian does with an art history degree is almost always asked because the questioner truly doesn’t know what can be done with that degree. If they mention academia and museums, its often because those are the only possible fields they can muster.

(As an aside, it’s been over a decade since I’ve not been earning a degree in history, but in conversations with colleagues it’s quite obvious that my experience is not unique.)

It strikes me that these are largely monetary questions. I respond that, yes, I want to work in a museum or in some sort of field related to public arts education. Come on though, that’s really that’s not what I want to do with my degree. I want to tell stories, reach new audiences, inspire others the same way that art and museums have inspired me, and sure, I’d like to find someone to pay me to do so. That’s not an appropriate answer though, or at least it’s not the type of answer the questioner had in mind.

It can be difficult to respond that way, not in the least because it can devalue others – ‘I want to inspire future generations…what do you want to do with your accounting degree’ – and because it can be a difficult metric to measure.

 

That’s a handy segue into this article by Robert Stein of the Dallas Museum of Art on Medium, “Museums… So What?” which is a call for the development of tools and metrics which can clarify the impact museums have on their communities in non-monetary way.

As I’m applying for museum positions, many of which have financials at the forefront, Stein’s article is weighing on my mind. In particular, how other museums approach the justification their own existence, and how best to present a different set of values to stakeholders in the community.

Often museums either focus on their financial impact on the community – how many people walk through the doors, how much money that tourism encourages, or at the very least whether or not the museum breaks even – or argue that non-monetary social impact is immeasurable and thus we should just be taken on our word that we make a difference.*

*It seems true that some museums make this argument because they understand that, while financially self-sufficient, they truly don’t make a difference. We’ve all visited museums that inspire us, and museums which feel as tough they’re just existing as a vanity project. The goal is to avoid the latter.

Social impact is tricky to measure, and I’m not sure the best way to do it (nor does anyone else, hence Stein’s article), but it will be crucial going forward to allow museums to justify their existence. It will also be crucial in order to change the tenor of that pesky “What are you going to do with that?” question asked of art history majors worldwide.

Hopefully we can get to a place where the implicit value of the humanities to society is understood, and that question becomes one simply asked out of interest rather than confusion. The road to that place will be made easier through effective measurement of impact, as suggested by Stein, and may also be a function of time. The better museums are able to not only identify their impact, but use that data to better improve their offering and inculcate themselves more into the community  as a truly valuable resource, then the implicit value of the humanities will become a shared cultural value.

Luckily, I know that by that day I won’t ever have to worry about the dreaded question, because I’ll be living it.

Aside

A stray thought while taking a break from prepping for my dissertation defense…

Over the past few Sunday nights I’ve found myself an exicted passenger on the Ship of Imagination, the gimmick used by Neil DeGrasse Tyson to explore the universe in the reboot of Cosmos airing this spring.

This show has a very personal connection to me, one which I didn’t realize until watching the debut episode. It’s a bittersweet connection, full of wonder, tinged with questions of “what if?”.Image

When I was 13 or 14 years old, my father got me a mass-market paperback version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, by then in its second decade of continual print.

My father was an astrophysicist, among other things. He had grown up fascinated by math and science, pursuing them in school. He had met my mother at the University of Tennessee, where he was a professor in the Department of Physics and Astrophysics. Later he took a job at NASA Headquarters, and even though he rejoined the faculty at UT after a couple of years, my family remained in Maryland.

As a young child I excelled in school, across the board, which certainly pleased my parents. While my reading and writing skills continued on their upward trajectory throughout childhood and adolescence, my math and science abilities regressed to the mean around the end of elementary school.

This was not so pleasing to my dad.

Perhaps it was the abstract nature of increasingly-advanced mathematics, or more likely the fact that I adored my English and Social Studies teachers and found books more amenable to my outsized imagination than formulas and scientific theorems.

When my father gave me Cosmos for my first or second birthday as a teenager, I didn’t know what to make of it. I assumed it was dry, technical scientific information, and I may have never even cracked open the cover. I certainly didn’t read any of it.

While I understood at the time that Cosmos was my father’s attempt to last-gasp effort to turn my academic interests back toward his, I never truly understood the reason he chose that text in particular. Even years later, when the occasional pop culture reference crafted a vision of Carl Sagan (rightfully or wrongfully) as a man with great hair and turtleneck sweaters who fond of saying “billyuns and billyuns,” and that’s all.

Image

“The Greatest Explorer,” print by Dustin Harbin. Click photo for link to purchase. This sat on my desk (pre-office renovation) as a reminder to approach the world with eyes wide open.

Now, I see that for its practitioners science is not just data and theories, it’s a story, and the most talented astrophysicists and mathematician are visionary storytellers, just as much as any novelist, playwright, or painter.

Not until after his death was I spurred to research my father’s deep scientific interests and discoveries. One of his discoveries – the presence of specific gaseous substances on the outer edges of the solar system – was even obliquely referenced on a recent Cosmos episode…I think. Even still, I can’t claim to truly understand what he did, and never will.

Did my father think of himself as a storyteller, at the same time he was a scientist? He probably did. He saw his work as vital, with meaning sufficient enough to share with the world.

He also recognized the human impact of science, how discoveries didn’t just accumulate upon each other in and abstract framework, but directly affected our planet’s population – he also worked on nuclear energy, attempted to refine and streamline the production of power for the betterment of society.

He would have witnessed the negative toll of the pursuit of knowledge from the control room at NASA on January 28, 1986, when the exhilaration of the Challenger shuttle launch quickly turned to despair.

Placing a fresh copy of Cosmos in my hands was my father’s attempt to meet me on my own terms. He knew the wonders of the universe would capture my attention, enthrall me beyond belief, if only I gave a few minutes of my time to its chief evangelist.

I never read a word.

Cosmos said on my bookshelf for years. As I aged, I developed an increasing amount of respect for the book and its author, though never enough to read it. It’s no longer in my possession, most likely donated to a charity book sale or Goodwill.

What would have happened had I read Cosmos as a teenager? Would I be earning my PhD in Physics rather than Art History, following my father’s footsteps into a research lab, preparing to make the next great discovery about the fundamental structure of our universe? Probably not.

I do truly regret, however, that I never gave the book a shot. While it may not have turned me into a scientist, it may very well have changed the structure of my relationship with my father. He always respected my zeal for scholarship, but I think it pained him to see his beloved scientific pursuits completely ignored by his offspring. To have explored his work from a different perspective could have given me an opportunity to express more interest in his work, and as I delved further into my own work, to explain my academic passions on his terms. He understood the credentialling system of academia, and that a master’s and a PhD were, in and of themselves, worthy accomplishments, as were the peer-reviewed articles and book chapters I published along the way, but I don’t think I ever truly explained the importance of my work, the why that made it worthy of research and publication.

I wish that I had read Cosmos as a kid. I with that my father were still alive today, so that I could tell him finally, that I understand. I wish that I could go over to my parents’ house on Sunday nights to watch the show with him, and have him explain the great many things in the show that still baffle my mind. I wish he was around so that once I finally get my hands on a copy of the book I could rely on him to explain it.

I wish that I had realized that the gift of a book was a singular act of love, and that for one last time, I could tell him that I love him too.

How Do You Fight the Internet? JLA v. Oblivion Meme

The following essay appears on the exhibition blog for What’s In a Meme?, currently on exhibit at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland until April 26. See the blog post here.

What does a meme look like? We usually think of memes as a visual medium – videos, animated gifs, photographs and illustrations – with the occasional inflection of audible or temporal qualities. They’re tied closely to the idea of consumption. The meme is largely an inanimate thing, waiting to be identified and consumed by its audience.

What would happen if a meme were a corporeal thing? What would an embodied meme look like?

Comic book writer Dwayne McDuffie and penciller Gordon Purcell tried to figure that out in 2000. The two collaborated on a ten-page story, “Communications Error,” that appeared in JLA Showcase 80-Page Giant, the type of shameless money-grab that typified the era immediately after the comic collecting bubble crashed in the late 1990s. The anthology collected seven short stories featuring various combinations of members of the Justice League of America, which at that point included DC Comics luminaries such as Batman and Superman as well as forgettable C-list hacks like Aztek and Zauriel.

McDuffie and Purcell’s contribution, “Communications Error,” features taciturn Atlantean king (and constant punchline) Aquaman and D.C. native, inventor, and representative person-of-color Steel, spending time together in the Watchtower, the JLA’s headquarters on the moon. It’s an odd-couple story: Steel likes technology and surfing the internet, Aquaman is a boring killjoy. Things get exciting when Steel connects the Watchtower to the “interstellar internet” (really) to “gain access to databases from extraterrestrial cultures” (really) except he forgets to enable antivirus protection and accidentally downloads a computer virus (really). That virus? Oblivion Meme, a sentient piece of computer code that wants to bestow the gift of the end of existence.

The choice to identify the malicious code as a meme is an interesting one. It’s not necessary for the story that the villain has to specifically be a meme, and it’s clear that McDuffie and Purcell aren’t clear exactly what a meme is. McDuffie knows Dawkins’s definition of memes, though: in the middle of battle, Steel remembers his college linguistics class in which he learned a meme is a self-replicating “unit of culture,” which apparently looks and operates just like a computer virus. Rather than limit Oblivion Meme to computer screens, Purcell envisions the code as a tentacled mass of futuristic, techno-organic machinery (which looks eerily similar to the futuristic, techno-organic appearance of Marvel’s Warlock, created decades prior).

It’s worth noting that JLA Showcase 80-Page Giant’s cover date is February 2000, which means that it probably hit newsstands in late December 1999. Is the Oblivion Meme a transparent stand-in for the Y2K bug? Probably. Definitely.

Steel and Aquaman battle Oblivion Meme throughout their moon base to no avail, until Aquaman comes up with the ingenious solution of unplugging the interstellar uplink to halt its constant regeneration (really). They finish off the bad guy, clean up the Watchtower, and become friends. Also, Aquaman discovers that he likes pork rinds (really).

“Communications Error” is the awkward product of a generational shift in memes. By the time McDuffie and Purcell collaborated on the story, internet-based phenomena such as Bert is Evil, Hampster Dance, and Dancing Baby had begun to go viral, but there was still a sense of naiveté, as though these were popular media phenomena that just happened to be natively digital, rather than the precursors of a new genre of expression. Nonetheless, in its physical form Oblivion Meme certainly predicts the overwhelming hegemonic nature of internet meme culture. Leeroy Jenkins and Grumpy Cat may not seek to bring us the sweet embrace of eternal death, but they are representative of a pop culture hive mind that has transformed the way modern societies consume, transmit, and generate meaning.

Perhaps Oblivion Meme is a pretty accurate representation of the concept of memes after all.

Art History in the Age of Buzzfeed and Upworthy

Take some famous works of Western art, add some clickbait headlines, and see what you get…

She Looks Like a Nice, Quiet Girl. Until You Realize She’s Staring at You.

File:Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, from C2RMF retouched.jpg


They Pledged to Fight in Defense of Their City. They Could Never Have Guessed What Happened Next.

File:Jacques-Louis David - Oath of the Horatii - Google Art Project.jpg

It Looks Like a Bunch of Random Geometry. Wait Until You Hear What it Really Means.

File:Mondrian Broadway Boogie Woogie.jpg


WARNING: Once You See This Painting, You’ll Never See the Night Sky the Same Way Again.

File:Van Gogh - Starry Night - Google Art Project.jpg


He Led an Army of Tired, Injured Volunteers Across the River. What Happened Next Will Amaze You.

File:Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpg

He Thought He Heard an Infinite Scream. You’ll Never Believe His Response.

File:The Scream.jpg

Don’t Think That a Shell is Still Fashionable Summer Wear? Check Out How This Goddess Rocks It.

Sandro Botticelli - La nascita di Venere - Google Art Project - edited.jpg

She Just Wanted to Try on a New Piece of Jewelry. So Why Won’t This Artist Leave Her Alone?

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) - The Girl With The Pearl Earring (1665).jpg


One Painting That Sums Up What Politicians Across the World Will Never Understand.

File:PicassoGuernica.jpg


Proof That All You Need to Make a Connection is to Reach Out and Touch Someone.

File:Creación de Adám.jpg


If You Think This Boy is Doomed, Just Wait to See How This Story Ends.

File:Watsonandtheshark-original.jpg

Stuart and West, Artistic Rivals on the Ice

Portrait of William Grant

Gilbert Stuart, The Skater (Portrait of William Grant), 1782, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection.

One of my favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is Gilbert Stuart’s The Skater, a 1782 portrait of Scotsman William Grant. The unusual work pushed against the boundaries of Grand Manner portraiture, presenting the sitter not as an immobile businessman or politician surrounded with emblems of his family and success but in the course of physical activity, skating along the Serpentine River in Hyde Park.

Although moving, Grant doesn’t look particularly excited to be out for an afternoon skate. Arms crossed – which apparently is how folks skated in the eighteenth century, amazingly – his body moves in one direction while his stoic face stares out the other way. According to biographer Richard McLanathan, Stuart began painting Grant’s face with the intention of executing a more traditional portrait before switching to the on-ice idea.

The Skater received rave reviews at the 1782 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition and was the reputation-enhancer Stuart needed to strike out on his own, after nearly six years as a studio assistant in Benjamin West’s workshop.

Stuart owed his career to West, in terms of training, networking, and financial support. When Stuart arrived in London in 1775 to establish a career as a painter he was firmly set on avoiding West, the most successful American artist of the eighteenth century, who happened to be based in London. Things didn’t work out quite as how Stuart planned. In terms of artists working in the colonies he was one of the most talented, but his precocious ability was nothing in the growing artistic center of London, and his utter lack of connections doomed him before he could even begin.

When Stuart eventually caved in December 1776 and contacted West, he did so in one of the most pitiful documents I’ve ever come across in my research:

Pitty me Good Sir I’ve just arriv’d at the age of 21 an age when most young men have done something worthy of notice & find myself Ignorant without Business or Freinds, without the necessarys of life so far that for some time I have been reduced to one miserable meal a day & frequently not even that, destitute of the means of acquiring knowledge, my hopes from home Blasted & incapable of returning thither, pitching headlong into mistery I have this only hope I pray that it may not be too great, to live & learn without being a Burthen.

It’s easy to imagine the depths of despair which Stuart made legible in his letter, which seems as much a personal catharsis as an attempt to convince West to take him on. It was wholly unnecessary as well. West was glad to take on fellow Americans as students, without letters of introduction or any personal prior knowledge. Indeed, in later years Stuart would revise his story of meeting West, claiming that he showed up unannounced on West’s doorstop in the middle of a dinner party of expats, one of whom knew Stuart’s uncle. Stuart still comes off as impulsive in that retelling, but it’s understandable why he’d want to attempt to erase his pleading letter from history.

His revisionist history of his first interaction with West is just one of the ways Stuart attempted to downplay the influence of his mentor on his own career. Although West provided the young Stuart the necessary artistic training in order to compete with the skilled painters active in England, as well as with the access to a network of patrons, collectors, suppliers, and fellow artists necessary for success on a European stage, Stuart constantly attempted to distance himself from West in the public sphere.

The two artists held different goals for painting, and saw different purposes for art in society. West believed in history painting as a way to transmit morals and values to society at large. Stuart didn’t care about history painting, preferring portraiture. His goals – at least until he returned to America in the 1790s – were simply to make enough money and gain enough fame to exist comfortably in European high society.

Beyond working toward a different goal for art and in a different genre, Stuart simply resented West for the fact that Stuart needed to beg for his help. The younger artist was fond of mocking West to sitters and friends. Susan Rather recently wrote an article on “Contrary” Stuart’s outspoken persona, in which she highlights some of his lowlights in dealing with West: “He made fun of West’s technical flaws as a painter and his contrastingly impeccable appearance as a man,” calling him effeminate and mocking his sense of decorum.

One of the reasons I like The Skater so much is that as a hockey player and fan I rarely see my sport of choice reflected in art, let alone from the period I study (Henry Raeburn’s The Skating Minister is the primary other example). Which is why Grant’s awkward stance always stood out to me, and why I think the painting also functions as a jab at West.

Benjamin West didn’t keep a diary or maintain archives of his correspondence, but did essentially dictate the biography of West written by novelist John Galt, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, published in two volumes in 1816 and 1820.

Galt’s biography, more of a hagiography or a memoir than anything else, is full of barely-believable anecdotes about West’s life: he taught himself how to draw at age four, learned how to mix pigments from Native Americans, plucked hairs from his cat’s tail to make a brush.

The incredulous story that stuck with me the most wasn’t about West’s art-making, rather his extracurriculars. According to Galt:

During winter, at Philadelphia, skating was one of the favourite amusements of the youth of that city, and many of them excelled in that elegant exercise. Mr. West, when a boy, had, along with his companions, acquired considerable facility in the art; and having become exceedingly fond of it, made himself, as he grew up into manhood, one of the most accomplished skaters in America.

Galt continues to describe how a Colonel William Howe (who would later become General Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the Revolutionary War) met West through skating in Philadelphia in 1759, and four years letter recognized West by his skating when the artist took to the ice in Kensington Gardens. Howe introduced West to some other noblemen who spoke widely about his ability:

They spoke of his talents as a skater; and their praise, in all their usual haunts, had such an effect, that, in the course of a few days, prodigious crowds of the fashionable world, and of all descriptions of people, assembled to see the American skater. When it was afterwards known to the public that he was an artist, many of the spectators called at his rooms; and he, perhaps, received more encouragement as a portrait-painter on account of his accomplishment as a skater, than he could have hoped for by any ordinary means to obtain.

It’s easy to see where executing a portrait of an ice skater could be seen as commentary on West. I’ve no doubt that Stuart and Grant actually did go skating on the Serpentine, and even that it was a late consideration on Stuart’s part to memorialize that event in his portrait of Grant. Galt’s biography wasn’t published until 34 years after Stuart completed The Skater – did West tell the story of his skating prowess frequently? Considering the other major player in the story, Colonel Howe, was by then point leading the British forces in North America, it would come at no surprise that West would try to associate himself with a major figure in the news (and hint at a kinship with a stalwart of Britain, at a time where it would have been quite disadvantageous for the American painter to be seen as a rebel).

I wish I had a definitive answer as to whether or not Stuart was trying to use the unusual composition of The Skater to assert a new-found independence from West. That would certainly fit in with Stuart’s modus operandi and would make for a compelling story. What better way to establish oneself as a premier portraitist in London than to execute a masterpiece which not only outshines anything being produced by your master, but which references that master’s source of fame and reminds that West needed his skating ability to draw the attention of potential patrons, in turn a reminder that West’s artistic ability was not good enough on its own to allow him to succeed.

Harsh.