"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Symbolic Color and Hard Content

Last week I got an invitation to review the latest issue of Hand/Eye from Annie Waterman. If you aren’t familiar with Hand/Eye, check it out. This issue is devoted to Global Color and the photos alone will knock your socks off. Icing on the cake that the writing is solid, too.

Activist Mary Fisher writes poignantly about red. It was timely. I was coming off the second week of my 2011 Mastery Program and we discuss strategies to take work deeper. Participants are charged with assessing their own symbolic use of color. Sure, there are cultural and societal memes related to color - holiday colors, Halloween colors, colors for weddings and mournings. But each of us has a distinctive color vocabulary - one that’s personally symbolic. If we don’t analyze it intentionally, it operates in our work by default.

So what does blue mean to you?

India Flint wrote about her iceflower recipes and she’s always a good read. Author and Fulbright scholar Catherine McKinley describes the rich black mourning cloths in Ghana as one of her most memorable textile encounters, and shares her memories of the funeral of a friend’s husband with Hand/Eye readers.

Emotion. The profound power of color and pattern and making. Color is a life lesson. The essays from Hand/Eye this month are contributions worthy of rumination.

The profound power of making and art. Color and emotion. A rich and offensive - even frightening - mix for some viewers, and perhaps by association, for some artists.

There are various sorts of controversy in the art world. Some of it is manufactured. Stunts by artists who are 99% personality and 1% art. It takes all kinds. What about artists who want to comment on sensitive topics in their work? A discussion in class focussed on work that references the destruction of the World Trade towers. On the anniversary of 9/11 artists’ responses to the loss were featured on Facebook and on the front page of the major newspaper in Seattle. When is work honor, when is it an invasion of privacy and when is it shameless self-promotion? Are images of people jumping from collapsing buildings ever legitimate subject matter for a work of art?

I suspect each reader will have his or her own opinion of this, and it may be based on how close to a tragedy he or she is. Hard to have an impersonal opinion when the tragedy is personal.

And what about the potential to be criticized or ostracized because of work you’ve made? We’re all familiar with the idea of being politically correct. If I make art that offends someone’s sensibility, will it impact my ability to make a living? Am I morally obligated to make it anyway? Andres Serrano is an artist who has spent an entire career challenging societal and religious norms and it’s probably safe to say that viewers either hate his work or love it, but the reaction is never neutral.

Recently a colleague wrote to say that a piece of hers - which featured an AK47 gun and real letters from soldiers (some of which contained profanity) - was returned by an exhibition that accepted it, before the exhibition had actually been mounted. The work was considered inappropriate. It was probably the profanity that blocked the piece from exhibition, since the venue was a family oriented one. Or maybe it was the anti-war sentiment of the piece.

My friend questioned whether she should continue with the theme. I wondered how she could not. It’s hard reality that difficult work may not find an approving audience or a welcoming venue. But hard work still needs to be done.

Challenging viewers is one of the honorable duties of a committed artist. But shock value has to be handled carefully. In my opinion, it’s morally wrong to use shock value just to provoke a reaction and draw attention to yourself. On the other hand, the world can be an inhospitable and unjust place. Not every artist feels compelled to address this in her lifetime, but if it’s the call you get, you must honor yourself, and answer.


  1. I agree that the cynical use of shock value is wrong. But I think it's too simplistic to say that you either hate Serrano's work or love it. I am neutral -- I'm not offended by the materials or the subject matter, but I am underwhelmed by the art. There are two dimensions here: how you respond to the shock value, and how you evaluate the art. Don't compress them into one dimension (love/hate).

  2. Of course you are right and I made the mistake of writing without addressing and honoring the multiple dimensions of reality. Thanks for calling me out on this, Kathy.

  3. Unfamiliar with Mr. Serrano's work, I looked it up. I was immediately put off by the description of his chosen media and subject matter -- I didn't even have to take a look at any of his work. It seems to me his approach to "art" is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut: overkill. I am prepared to look at art which may disturb me -- but only if the work has been created with subtlety. Work doesn't have to be "in your face" to make a statement; in fact, I'd rather it not.

  4. No matter how you feel about an artist, I think it's imperative that there be free rein on one's ability to produce art, in whatever form. It is difficult to get beyond the "shock value" in some situations and then it can be even more challenging to evaluate it as art, but that falls into the eyes of the beholder. New truths could emerge or, perhaps you decide it's less than riveting. This is true of all art to a degree.
    As artists, I think we absolutely need to honor the passion that we feel and not temper it for an audience. It shouldn't be watered down just to show it at the public school library. Of course, the library may decline and that's ok -- other, more appropriate, venues will emerge.

    On another note, can't wait for the new issue of Hand/Eye -- what a fabulous publication. Every issue is a feast and this one looks particularly enticing.

  5. "each of us has a distinctive color vocabulary - one that’s personally symbolic." Fascinating! Of course I use some colors repeatedly and some rarely, but I've never considered their implications. I shall ponder this, thank you for sharing the concept. Goodness, it would stretch me to be in the Mastery class!

  6. Thank you for calling attention to Hand/Eye, Jane. The topic of symbolic use of color is a rich one.
    'Challenging viewers is one of the honorable duties of a committed artist'... YES - and even when the work doesn't find acceptance it is important to put it out there, if you have heeded passion's call to respond to an issue.