Commentary on the parallel project

I had invested in this quite heavily as much of my previous work had felt less coherent and somewhat detached from what I thought of as my nascent voice.

But two things happened to throw that idea; the first was the final assignment which quite fortuitously incorporated some exciting real world requests, and the second was the corner I’d inadvertently painted myself into by choosing positive anthroposcenery as my theme, because there appears to be little of it.

A further complication is that I need to be emotionally engaged with my subject which meant finding examples of this kind of landscape locally and I was stumped. My garden offers some possibilities but not on a scale that felt right for me. Eventually, and by pushing my self-imposed brief somewhat, I found three, only one of which is remote. These are a rewilding venture at the recreation ground where I would sometimes take my dogs, the osprey nest which is supported physically by a structure built and maintained by The Woodland Trust, and the local seal which is being seen further inland than in the past, an observation attributed to the better quality of the water. In these three examples, there are efforts to improve insect life, to re-establish breeding colonies of birds that had been extinct in the UK before the 1950s, and an inferred preponderance of aquatic flora and fauna sufficient to support a predator column culminating in a sea mammal.

So how would I place this work outside the studio context? There seem to me to be two key aspects to the viewing context; one which allows for accessibility, the other providing an environment in which the work is shown off to its best. In this instance, I would add the wider environmental context, probably including information about rewilding of open spaces, repopulating of historical breeding grounds, and the impact on diversity of species of reducing river pollution.

Physically, I could see the three pieces in a plain walled gallery, hung at eye level, and well-spaced horizontally; each accompanied by brief accounts of its ecological context. I would include a monitor looping the videos interspersed with short pieces delivered by local (to the project) experts, and qr codes leading to the sources of these digital accompaniments. The launch might include a live talk by one or more experts on the wildlife/ecological issues addressed by the paintings.

Alternatively, I might ask my neighbours to help me ‘wild’ the paintings in the nearby fields and woodland. And make a video of that, obviously!

Presentation seems to me to be both a physical and a psychological issue and I’ve been hunting for research that might contribute to my instinct that context plays a significant role in the perceived value (monetary or as art per se) of creative work. So far I’ve found none that cites directly established theoretical and experimental research but the principles of the Halo Effect, of priming, of the power of expectation and association along with cognitive dissonance would seem to apply here.

The Halo Effect (originally described by Thorndyke in 1920) is a phenomenon whereby being valued for one characteristic tends to confer (unearned) credibility in another. The research focuses on attractiveness in people and is extended to marketing (cf today’s social influencers) but I believe it could equally apply to valued/valuable/impressive environments. In short, if your work is placed in a prestigious gallery, the halo of their acquired status along with the atmosphere of the physical context would seem likely to cast its glow on whatever is displayed there. The same work displayed in a tent would not benefit from that glow and so may not be perceived as having value.

Similarly, when we choose to go somewhere – a gallery, the theatre, cinema, a holiday resort – we have usually invested in it, at least in terms of time and travel but also often in the cost of being there. Psychologically, we are primed – ready to perceive the event in a particular way – and also cognitively and emotionally invested in being right, in the costs and the time being worthwhile. Cognitive dissonance (originated by Festinger in 1957), should it not turn out quite as expected, would make it difficult to be critical. We set something up in our minds, give it our time and attention, and, quite often, see it at its best in a place where ‘good’ is the expected standard. Disappointment may be hard to confront, especially if other people, ones you value, seem to be enjoying the experience. Conformity with group values is another psychological shaper of behaviour if not, as in hiding disenchantment, attitude. Its role is social cohesion within a group and it can be very difficult to be the one who says that, for you, the emperor is baht more than his hat.

A more recent summary of paper evaluating interest in and memory for art work when viewed digitally and/or physically makes some comments that resonate:

Taken together, the findings are consistent with theories of situated cognition: “inherently, a mind exists in context,” as Lisa Barrett and her colleagues once wrote. It seems there’s something about the physical space of a museum exhibition that changes how our minds respond to what we’re seeing. This contradicts formalist art theory, the idea that the effects of art upon us are independent of time and place. Many museum buildings are awesome buildings, acting like cathedrals to the art within them. It remains to be seen how much the nature of building design influences art appreciation. The museum featured in this study is physically impressive – a concrete structure erected in 1916 with a glass-covered interior courtyard. But perhaps any physical space, once designated as a place of art, can accentuate our aesthetic appreciation.”

British Psychological Society Research Digest February 2015, reporting on Brieber et al’s paper Brieber, D., Nadal, M., & Leder, H. (2015). In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art Acta Psychologica, 154, 36-42 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2014.11.004

My advice to myself about exhibiting is to make sure the work is well presented in its own right – frame, mount, glass if necessary; and placed in a context that makes the most of its attributes. This would preferably be somewhere already known for displaying art work, but doesn’t exclude more inventive possibilities such as ‘wilding’ work where that might be contextually apposite.

My recent experience of exhibiting in a high street shop/gallery has informed much of this thinking. There is foot soldier work to do to capitalise on that first proper exposure to visitors interested in art and wanting to engage. Luckily, engaging with people has never been a problem but being in the right places to do that has not been on my radar until now.

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Brief summary of the Halo Effect. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-halo-effect-2795906. Accessed 17th September 2021.

Brief summary of cognitive dissonance. https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html. Accessed 17th September 2021.

Priming. This is a psychological state the predetermines how something will be recalled or construed. It can be influenced by subtle introduction of cues; for instance hearing a news item about a cat (this would occur ‘accidentally’ in the waiting room) will influence performance on a memory test in which words referencing feline characteristics, amongst many others, occur. We ran many of these as undergraduates. – leaving a blue book on the desk, for instance, to set the person up to recall more colour words, or more items associated with that colour. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/priming. Accessed 17th September 2021.

Conformity. First described by Jeness in 1932 but most well known from Asch’s 1951 experiments with judgments about the length of lines in which stooges gave the same wrong answer and the actual participants frequently went along with their response. https://www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html.

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