Things I’ve Noticed 1: Art

I’ve decided to start a new series here on the blog.  I will share things I’ve noticed.  I see little things here and there, and wonder about them.  I thought about starting a different blog to house these thoughts, but how many blogs does one guy really need?!  Here’s he first in the series:

I was in San Francisco a few months ago, and I noticed some things about art.  I was in a beautiful high-end art gallery near Ghirardelli Square.  The salesperson took quite a bit of time with me and walked me through several art pieces.  Reproductions of the art in question were selling for $60,000 and $70,000.  This was an enjoyable experience.

After visiting the gallery, I stopped to watch a street artist one block down from these same galleries.  She was dirty, a bit rude, and looked destitute.  She asked if she could draw a picture of me for a dollar.  I declined, but ended up giving her a dollar after she chided me for taking a picture of her.

It took me a few minutes of reflection to notice that she was engaging in the same creative process as the artists whose work was on sale 300 feet away: making art for sale.

This made me wonder about the value of art.  It it only display that makes a piece of art valuable?  Is it availability?  I realized as I handed her the crisp dollar bill that I was paying with a piece of art: a portrait of George Washington, that’s available to anyone willing to provide a dollar of value in exchange.  I briefly considered the possibility that the George Washington portrait pointed to availability driving value, but I realized that the street artist in front of me was willing to provide me with an original for a very small amount of money.

I realized instead that the value of art comes from context.  The salesperson in the gallery was willing to learn about my taste and sell me on the story of the pieces of art I was considering.  The person on the street was not cognizant of the source of her art’s value.  If she was, she would be able to charge me for the application of her talent.

Paul Buxman and the role of disappointment

I spent some time with Paul Buxman today.  He’s a friend of mine, and also a really talented artist.  We check in at least once a year, when he brings in the year’s crop of paintings for me to photograph and archive.

Paul’s paintings tell stories on more than one level.  Visually, each painting tells a story about a slowly fading agrarian way of life in California’s beautiful central valley.  But taken collectively, they tell a story about the artist.

When I see Paul’s entire collection from a year, I see changes.

Paul used more red paint this year.  When I asked him about it, he told me that this year he discovered red, and brought it out from the back of his paint-box.  I also noticed more purity in the colors he chose, and he confirmed that he spent less time mixing colors this year.  I also noticed some different kinds of composition creeping into his work, and more diversity in the nature of his subjects.  His paintings this year feel a touch more realistic, and also a little more wild; a little less controlled.  All these facets of his art make me wonder about Paul’s life, and the events that shaped the artist this year.  So I asked.

Paul told me that this has been the best year of his life.  When I asked why, he started listing off events and feelings that seem to me like anything but the ideal year.  But in looking back, he’s been able to see God’s hand in his life and in his family this year.  The struggles he has been through this year have brought his life into sharper relief.  They’ve brought out the reds.

I’m challenged.  I’m challenged to accept the hard things in life as a gift from God; as his tool for molding me into the shape He wants for me.  I’m challenged to try putting myself into places that seem less safe.  I’m challenged to work harder, as if I’m working on things that benefit someone else instead of me.  I’m challenged to let God show me where to find the red paint.

Abstraction, progress, and my theory of creativity

I’ve observed abstraction both in the movement from assembly language to high-level coding frameworks and in the human upgrade from chiseled stone to steel tools. In all cases, abstracting principles and moving to higher-order thinking enables progressive leaps forward.

Changing the basis for a decision can affect an entire discussion. In some ways, those who figure out the end are more powerful than the best of those who design the means.

But so many times we live exclusively in a world of means. We don’t stop to divine the ends, or even move up the systems-thinking chain. Answers to intractable questions may be available laterally. When people see such answers, they often call them the results of creativity. They don’t realize that creativity is only the result of a habit of mind.

So what makes abstraction into progress?

Completion of the abstraction is one factor. If the abstraction is mostly complete it can be useful. But it can’t allow the freedom and comfort of giving our minds entirely to the higher-order frame of mental reference. Though being able to mentally scale referent frames may be the habit of a strong, creative mind, it’s better for progress that the abstraction be completed and society function at the new, higher level.

Critical mass, support, and surrounding infrastructure are also part of the picture. The pace of change cannot be too fast, or the ecosystem that surrounds the abstraction will choke it off.

What else am I missing?

Things … feel

Most of the time, it doesn’t feel. Only under strain does its existence make itself known. When heavy, it’s considered.

Its purpose is the only indication of a moment to feel. If it doesn’t feel wrong, most of the time it doesn’t feel at all.

Glad to be chosen. In a sea of so many others, it feels selected as if by a narrow-gauge beam of light. Unless it’s the wrong one. Then, it may cry out at the description it’s forced to give. Some of them always feel wrong; as if forced to witness every atrocity committed in this vein as each one is given expression. Words can’t commit suicide, but there are some that would like to try.

Its feelings are numerous, and it has all the time in a decade to feel them. From cold to creaking to stifled to full. It witnesses all the life, and bears each part in turn. With each passing month it feels more.

How would I know?

Waiting for David

I read the story of King David’s anointing in the Bible with the kids this evening.  It’s amazing how reading in a new format (i.e. a children’s bible) can give you new ways to think about the stories.

I realized something: it was a long time from David’s anointing until the time that he stepped onto the public stage and starting fulfilling his God-given role as King of Israel.  What did he do during that time? He chased sheep.

David was specifically called by God to do something, and was then placed right back into his everyday life.  How many times do you think he wondered (while tending those dumb, smelly little animals) whether God had really called him?

Of course, with hindsight, we can see that God was training David.  He was giving him the chance to learn leadership; to learn how to shepherd God’s people.  God was training his hands for war: sending bears and lions to teach David to fight, protect and kill.  But it must have all seemed like drudgery at the time.  It probably felt as if God had never called him.

Have you ever been called by God to do something, then dropped back into your everyday life?  Do you ever wonder, “Was God really asking me to do that?” Do you wonder why nothing’s changed?  Could it be because God is preparing you, making you ready for the day you’ll fulfill your destiny? Might he be using small, everyday tasks to build character, to shape your skills?

If you feel that God spoke to you at some point in your life, sit down and think about it.  Write down as much as you remember and pray for direction.  It could be that God’s not finished with that call yet.

Initial Thoughts on Behavioral Finance

As part of my course of studies at Fresno State, I’ve been exposed to a (seemingly) newer academic area: Behavioral Finance (BF).

I’m finding this whole area of Behavioral Finance a lot more interesting than I expected. It seems to represent a much more sophisticated, wilder look at the world of corporate finance than the previously accepted norm. My perception is that the previously-held convention was largely based on the idea of homo economicus, the completely rational decsion-maker who always interpreted data correctly and used formulas and models to make the mathematically optimal decision every time. It seems like BF looks at the business world much more through the lens of psychology, seeking to explain why people act as they do instead of as formulas tell them they should.

I wonder how accepted behavioral finance is as an academic area? Is it a small corner, or is it widely accepted as being on the cutting edge? I guess people have been discussing investor behavior for a long time, but this seems to take area of exploration to the next level.

I expect that the emergence of behavioral finance as a discipline (or sub-discipline) makes room for all kinds of new and interesting academic research. Is it proper to say that there are emerging markets within academia? If so, I think I just found one.

P.S. – I started writing a novel this afternoon.  Is anyone interested?

Sarah: A picture of grace

In slowly reading through the Bible again, I’ve come across the story of Abraham and Sarah (or Abram and Sarai, as they started).  I’ve always pictured Sarah as a graceful figure, since she’s both the wife of the great Abraham and the mother of a nation.  But a different picture of her has emerged as I’ve been reading.

Almost every mention of Sarah’s name is coupled with an example of bad judgement.  First, there’s the Egyptian deception in Genesis 12 (admittedly not her idea, but she was definitely involved).  Next, in Genesis 16, she brings her servant, Hagar, to Abraham for use as a sex-slave.  Hagar’s desires are never mentioned or considered.  Then, when her plan works and Hagar’s expecting a baby, Sarah’s jealousy drives her to cruelty.  This cruelty is so extreme that pregnant Hagar leaves the community and flees into the desert in an act of near-suicide.

Yet in Genesis 17:15-16, God give Abraham great promises for Sarah.  He changes her name from Sarai, which means something like ‘my princess’ or possibly ‘quarrelsome’, to Sarah, which means ‘princess’.  God promises to bless her and give her a son. She also receives the female version of Abraham’s blessing: that she’ll be the mother of many nations.  God goes even further than he had with Abraham, and promises that kings will descend from her line.  Noticeably absent from the text is the reason God is blessing her.  In Abraham’s case, his faith has already been credited to him as righteousness.  In Sarah’s case, her account was surely overdrawn.  God is clearly not blessing her because she’s great, but because God is great.  He’s showing her unmerited favor, blessings she clearly doesn’t deserve.

So Sarah emerges for me not as an illustration of gracefulness, but as an illustration of grace.  If God looks at people like Sarah and decides to bless them, how can I not wish blessings for the undeserving?  Am I to place myself above God and wish ill of anyone? In the end, God’s blessings, when they’re seen in the light of their undeserved-ness, serve to glorify Him, not Sarah.  The blessings may have been for her, but they’re still God’s blessings.

Be a photographer, not a business person!

So, people ask me all the time, “What do I need to do to make money taking pictures?” I usually try to be very helpful, because I truly want everyone to succeed and do well. But it occurred to me the other day that maybe I shouldn’t encourage people to enter the portrait photography market. It’s not the only way to make money in photography, but it’s the one people usually ask me about.

I think, instead, that I should encourage people to sharpen their photography skills for pure enjoyment. I recently talked to a very successful, well-known, high-level photographer. I asked this person what his/her plan is for improving their photo skills. This person’s answer: “I don’t. I’m a business person, not a photographer.” That’s when it hit me that success for a photo studio is not about the quality of photos, but about the quality of the business that you can build around your photos. That’s not bad news for me; I enjoy running a business (most of the time).

But it is bad for my artistically-minded friends who would rather take cool pictures than play with spreadsheets. Here are some useful questions to ask if you’re thinking about doing portrait photography for money:

  • Do I have a good grasp of accounting?
  • Would I rather make art, or figure out merchandising strategy?
  • Do I like to sleep?
  • How strong are my computer skills? They’ll have to be well above average for portrait photography.
  • Am I any good at setting up systems for workflow, accounting, computer networks, business analysis, etc?
  • Now, setting up a business is not rocket science. Most people can do it with enough time and determination. But you should know, if you’re thinking about getting into portrait photography as a business, that you’re doing business, not just photography. Even if you’re working out of your home. It seems like something you can get into on a very small scale, but it won’t be like that for long. For a whole host of reasons that experience alone can explain, it’s far more complicated than you think. It’s more like setting up a manufacturing operation than opening a retail business.

    No, I haven’t given up on the idea of art, and yes, I do get to use nice camera equipment. But I just want to be totally honest and not encourage people to try something they may regret in the long term. Instead of opening a business, try making images that you love. Work hard on them. Learn all you can. Don’t feel like you have to be professional to be a great photographer. Just be a great photographer!

    Why religion and politics shouldn’t mix

    This is one of my favorite topics. I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it for some time now. I don’t have it figured out to my satisfaction, but I came to a new thought this morning, so I figured I should share.

    I was pondering the nature of religion and the nature of politics, and I realized they have something inverse in common. The reason religion and politics should not mix is partly due to their relationship to compromise.

    Religion in general and Protestant Christianity in particular should not compromise. The philosophical game of religion is played on the field of truth claims.  Negotiating or compromising on truth claims is like kicking field goals for your opponent.  It’s not a good idea.  This is the (very good) reason that people have died for their religious convictions throughout the centuries.

    Politics, on the other hand, lives with an entirely different relationship to compromise.  For a politcian, compromise IS the game.  Legislature and governance is all about negotiating between competing interests.  If different interests didn’t exist, governments wouldn’t need to exist, either.  That’s why politics is so easy to criticize, fun to talk about (e.g. ‘Those idiots in [Washington, Sacramento, Madison, Dakar, etc.] wouldn’t know the right thing to do if it bit them on the hand!”), and so demanding of wisdom.  Compromise IS the task of government, and it’s not an easy one.

    So every time a pastor asks his congregation to vote a particular way, he is speaking from one realm into another: he is speaking from a position that’s used to wielding divine authority to make absolute truth claims into a realm where issues always have different sides and a single voice bearing the best idea is not guaranteed to make headway.  In politics, strength of conviction falls subservient to the power of coalition.  That’s not a fault of politics; it’s just the nature of politics.  But this pastor is likely to create an unproductive voting bloc.  He’s likely to create or encourage a group of people to take a position they can’t back down from.  In the end, it makes for bad politics and bad blood.

    And every time a governmental leader speaks toward the realm of religion, it’s natural (but altogether inappropritate) that he should ask for compromise and ecumenism.  He, who is used to compromise as a way of doing business, naturally expects this from the realm of religion.  And he’s dead wrong.  Religion thrives on truth claims, and asking religious people to deny what they know as truth for some greater good is like asking religion to drink poison.

    There are many outworkings of this continued tension between church and state, and they’re likely to be messy.  I can’t claim any kind of special ability to negotiate such perilous waters just because I understand the larger principle.  But I can offer one guiding question for discussion: what can we do to build up a HEALTHY wall of separation ‘twixt the two very important areas?

    Children and powerlessness

    It just occurred to me that babies and children are constantly in the position of accepting whatever happens to/around them. That works fine in our house, where the adults look after the kids’ best interests. But it sobers and saddens me to think that there are many adults in this world who don’t care as much as we do. I’m going to pray for all children in such situations this morning.