Commencement 2003

Commencement Address

Thinking and Doing
Lawrence R. Rinder '83
Reed College, May 19, 2003

Lawrence R. Rinder '83In 1924, a time of uncertainty and turbulent change not unlike our own, the physicist Albert Einstein was attending a banquet in Berlin. His dinner partner, Count Harry Kessler, asked him what work he'd been doing lately. "Thinking," was Einstein's response. "Giving thought to almost any scientific proposition," he went on, "almost invariably brings progress with it, for, without exception, every scientific proposition is wrong." Kessler reports that Einstein went on to explain that due to the limitations of human thought, every abstract formulation is inconsistent somewhere. "Therefore every time he checked a scientific proposition his previous acceptance of it broke down and led to a new, more precise formulation. This was again inconsistent in some respects and consequently resulted in fresh formulations, and so on indefinitely." Einstein was brilliant, but also profoundly humble. What were obstacles to others were, to him, invitations to creative discovery.

In my professional practice, I have found that it is indeed much more pleasant, and useful, to wonder than to know. Just out of Reed, armed with the knowledge I'd obtained, and emboldened by my newfound association with the prestigious Museum of Modern Art, I began giving slide lectures at high schools and junior high schools all over New York City. Typically, I'd have about 40 minutes with each group of students, barely enough time to get their attention, let alone impress upon them the importance of impressionism, symbolism, or abstraction. At first, I stuck to names and dates and the progress of artistic movements. But you try telling a graffiti-tagging, bling-bling-wearing, headphone-listening teenager why Cezanne's brushstroke is important. Sometimes too much knowledge can be fatal. The turning point came when I stopped telling and started asking. If, as Einstein proposed, every scientific proposition is wrong, just imagine the depths of fantasy embedded in what we call art history. So, I simply let the students decide. Good brushstroke or bad brushstroke? Too much color or too little color? And so on. Far from sacrificing the historical cannon I was being paid to teach, I found that the students themselves had eyes as good-if not better at times-than any of the critics or historians I had dutifully read. By making the image a starting point for a collective discussion I transformed my own teaching style from one of insistent dogmatism to fruitful speculation.

One virtue of working in the New York City school system under the auspices of the Museum of Modern Art is that no one questions your approach. So I was able to extend my experiments in skeptical pedagogy to rather marked extremes. One strategy was to mix together slides of fine artworks from MoMA's collection with images I had shot a few nights before off the TV or from neighborhood billboards. It was fascinating to see how this awakened the students' interest as well as their own sophisticated form of visual literacy. They had a keen sense of how to read and analyze advertisements, so it wasn't difficult to shift their focus from the manipulation of desire in a Nike ad to seductive distortions in a Picasso nude. Another, even more radical strategy I tried-admittedly only once-was to begin my slide lecture by suddenly tossing all of my carefully arranged slides into the air and then developing the talk according to the order in which the images were retrieved from the floor.

During my MoMA years, the disruption of fixed categories or chronologies was more a tool to gain the students' attention and open up possibilities for their creative interaction than it was a critique of those categories or chronologies per se. The more time I spent in the art world, however, the more I came to believe that the basic structure by which we define, teach, exhibit-and even see-art is indeed fundamentally flawed. I began to see the limitations of the many powerful concepts and categories that structure the peculiarly amorphous field we know as art. Art itself, we learn, is to be distinguished from craft. You are not likely, for example, to find a woven Pomo basket displayed alongside an oil painting at the Museum of Modern Art. Then there is the matter of trained versus untrained art-making. Talented or not, in many a specialist's eyes, if you have a degree in art (as I do) you have a greater claim to attention than someone who made it up from scratch (as TK did). Until recently, much serious thought was expended on the question of "high" versus "low" art. Works made for unabashedly commercial purposes were considered somehow beneath those made, ostensibly, for other, nobler functions.

So what? Are these questions of any consequence to those outside the field of art, or are they academic matters better left to the raucous annual meetings of the College Art Association? I believe that the way we define art is indeed relevant to a broader public, not only because art is part of most of our daily lives but also because, in my opinion, the way we define art mirrors other, profound social definitions. Specifically, I believe that what we see mirrored in the ways that the arts are defined in our society is a reflection of lingering sexism, racism, and class-ism. For these are the insidious ideas that lie just beneath the surface of terms like craft, untrained art, and low art. We have allowed the arts to become a kind of dumb show in which so-called values that would be considered discriminatory at best in everyday discourse take the stage to enact lingering myths of hierarchy. Creative works become surrogates with which time-worn dramas of inclusion and exclusion are performed.

For this very reason, these categories and definitions should not go untested. There is more at stake than the success or failure of individual careers. The ways we define and categorize art says much about our society as a whole, about our willingness to accept difference, to welcome change, and to find joy in the present. And, importantly, it is as much a matter for the viewer as for the curator or art historian. Museums labor under tremendous institutional inertia. Change comes slowly when there is so much at stake. For the viewer, however, change can be instantaneous, as swift as the opening of one's eyes.

I have been lucky, as a curator, to have worked at institutions that welcomed change and where my colleagues felt there was more to be gained than lost in expanding the definition of art. I have been able to mix things up, combining materials normally kept apart, challenging conventional assumptions through how and what I presented.

Rinder with tapaA particularly enlightening project was one I undertook about six years ago when I traveled with a Reed classmate, Lafcadio Cortesi, to Papua New Guinea to visit a tribe called the Maisin. The Maisin are known throughout Papua New Guinea for their remarkable tapa cloth paintings. Painting for the Maisin is traditionally the women's role, and the vast majority of them spend a good portion of each day gathered around a fire painting with vegetable dyes on tapa, a cloth-like paper that is made by pounding the bark of the mulberry tree. The Maisin paintings are neither sacred nor conventional. Each time they sit down to make a picture the Maisin derive an image, as one painter told me, "free, from the imagination." Yet, the Maisin do not have a word that corresponds exactly to our word "art." Instead they have the term "saraman," which means simply thinking and doing. Making a tapa painting which calls upon the hand to respond to the free-flowing mind is saraman, making a canoe which requires only undeviating skill is not.

The Maisin have a technique of painting that I haven't seen performed anywhere else in the world and which, in a funny way, echoes Einstein's formulation of thinking as a process of unfolding and ever-adjusting propositions. The painter begins with a large piece of blank tapa that is folded into fourths. The first design, which is typically of rather astonishing complexity, is then painted on the one exposed quarter of the cloth. Once completed the painter turns the cloth to expose the next contiguous panel, while hiding the one initially painted. The task is then to repeat, without looking back, the initial design. Once all four panels have been painted in this way, the cloth is unfolded revealing an image drawn from the imagination and transformed over time through successive acts of reflection and refinement.

At the time I visited the Maisin lands, tapa painting was undergoing something of a renaissance. New styles were being explored, and an increasing number of men were joining the women around the pots of steaming dye to try their hand at painting. One reason for this renewed interest was the tribe's collective decision to use proceeds from the sale of their paintings to help fund alternatives to the sale of logging rights to their TK hectares of virgin-forested ancestral lands.

Ultimately, I worked with the Maisin to present two exhibitions of their paintings in the United States. These exhibitions, in museum contexts, called into question the boundaries between art and craft, between trained and untrained artistic practice, and-because the tapa were made for commercial markets-between so-called high and low art. Although their practice, strictly speaking, fell outside the boundaries of art as I was taught to define it, I found greater formal skill, greater imaginative refinement, and far greater social relevance in their work than in virtually any other visual material I have dealt with in the well over one hundred exhibitions I have organized.

What has made my work in the arts continually exciting and challenging and, I hope useful, is that I have avoided resting on a comfortable bed of knowledge and instead have followed my heart to richer, if more ambiguous and challenging, territories. The fact that, as Einstein noted, our world of abstract propositions rests on shaky ground should hardly be cause for despair. Rather, it should be, as any common Reedie knows, an invitation to creative discovery, to expanded horizons, and to a lifetime of thinking and doing.

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