Posted on August 29th, 2016 by Rachel
For the past month, we have begun doing evaluations of our Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America exhibit. We have been tracking, or completing “unobtrusive observations” of visitors, where data is collected about what attracts and holds the attention of our guests in the exhibition. We have also been completing short interviews where we ask visitors questions about their experience after leaving the exhibit. We hope to conduct between 70-100 evaluations before the exhibit closes in mid-January and have already completed about 25, due in large part to the work of our fabulous summer interns and volunteers.
“Its All Greek to Me” interactive.
I received a sneak peek at the data we have collected. I learned that the average stay was 30 minutes. The audience type was a mix between seniors, adults and young adults and many seemed to deeply engage with the exhibit content. When visitors were asked to sum up one “take away” message from the exhibit, one mentioned the long historical contribution of Jews to the progression of medical knowledge and practice. While some listed discrimination and stereotyping of Jewish doctors as a prominent theme, others remarked how so many Jewish immigrants were able to succeed, despite all the obstacles, in medicine. Still others were struck by eugenics or how modern medicine has come a long way since the early 1900s.
The Doctor’s Office
Visitors seemed to enjoy the doctor’s office and the old medical instruments. They also enjoyed learning about local Baltimore history, including the spotlight on Sinai Hospital, and seeing the 15th century medical books collected by Harry Friedenwald and on loan to the JMM from the National Museum of Israel. Almost all visitors exclaim “eww!” when they read in our Pharmacy window that a dead mouse was once considered medicine for the treatment of diabetes.
Check out all those post-it notes!
Visitors have also been continuing to add post-it notes to the comment board. One visitor commented that the exhibit is amazing for kinesthetic learners because of all the interactive parts. We got another slightly humorous comment from a Dr. Berman who explored the exhibit and got slightly panicked each time the “paging Dr. Berman” sound clip went off in the hospital section.
A blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.
Posted on July 28th, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read and respond to a variety of exhibition catalogs developed by the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees, 1933-1945
Public officials calling for tighter borders, refugee turmoil in Europe, and few that are willing to help them. This is not a description of the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis, although it has many similarities. This is the refugee crisis caused by the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany that would up to and exacerbate the toll of the Holocaust, and the story of some German Jews, with the help of their American counterparts, came to live in Baltimore. And although there are differences between that refugee crisis and the one we face now, there are countless lessons to be learned from the former that could help us cure the latter.
Lives Lost, Lives Found. Exhibit was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from March 14, 2004 to December 29, 2005.
When the Nazi’s gained power in Germany in 1933, it was only the beginning of trouble for European Jewry. The looming threat of the Holocaust was yet unforseen, and only the Jews of Germany had any real warning, culminating in kirstalnacht later in the decade. And of those Jews who desired to leave, sometimes only the wealthiest were actually capable. Many countries barred Jews from entering, with the reasons being that it was not their responsibility, xenophobic sentiment, or antisemitism. This made emigration even more difficult, and undoubtably resulted in countless deaths of those who failed to escape. In Baltimore, the Jewish community successfully petitioned the city to accept Jewish refugees, and in doing so saved many lives. The brave actions of a few saved many.
Although there were hiccups, the new immigrants successfully integrated into their new culture, and the Baltimore Jewish community continues to thrive. The xenophobic and antisemitic reasoning that contributed to so many deaths and so much suffering was, after all, completely unfounded.
So what does this tell us about the modern Syrian refugee crisis? I think there are several major lessons: failure to accept refugees will cost countless lives and increase the suffering of many who are already destitute, and should be avoided at all costs, fear of new groups ruining the cultural ethos of a nation is entirely baseless, and immigrants pose no real threat, and by working with other groups in the cities they immigrate to, and working with their kin and fellow immigrants, they may grow to be extremely successful and valuable to the society that adopts them.
Just something to think about.
~ David Agronin
Familiar Content; Different Layout: Response to “Chosen Food” Exhibit Catalog
Museum exhibit catalogs provide additional information about the topic displayed allowing for more in-depth research into the topic. Through my studies I have used them as research tools and generally found them as a way to interact with exhibits I might not be able to see in person. When reading the exhibit catalog for “Chosen Food” if found it an enjoyable and insightful read. I would never have thought that gifilte fish was ever not a staple of the Jewish diet. I particularly enjoyed the article “Passover Bunny Cakes” about the growing trend of trying to reconcile Jewish and Christian traditions as more families become multi-faith. This is something that I have been trying to reconcile in my own life as my family is Jewish and yet we celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas. There weren’t too many references specific to Baltimore, but there was one in the article about dinning out where they mention “Corned Beef” row on Lombard St. and the sandwiches you can get there. They ended one description of a typical sandwich from one of the delis with “often washed down with an Almond Smash soda.” That made me nostalgic for a moment as I remembered fondly, drinking the now hard to find soda as a kid.
Chosen Food: Jews and Medicine in America was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 23, 2011 to Dec 31, 2012.
There were a few aspects to this catalog that were different from exhibit catalogs I’ve read in the past. The way particular objects and images were highlighted and explained was not what I would have expected. Often in exhibit catalogs, after the article I see a section that looks a bit like a mini exhibit all its own with images of objects and their description as you might see on an exhibit card. Here the description of objects was tied into the articles and anecdotes. In general there didn’t seem to be any references to the exhibit, which I thought was a bit odd. The way anecdotes were interspersed between the articles was a nice personal touch to something that is very familiar to a lot of people. They made the catalog come to life and more of an experience than just reading a collection of scholarly articles.
~ Tamara Schlossenberg
Department Store Identity Crisis
My research at the JMM as of late has consisted of a lot of interesting reading on Jewish identity politics, which has led to my realization that there was a lot I had never critically considered about being Jewish. The big question we are facing with the development of our new core exhibit is, “Who is a Jew?” or, rephrased, “What makes someone Jewish?” But another question that has begun to spring up is, how do Jews fit into the white-black racial dichotomy, specifically in the United States? The answers to all of these questions have varied over history and upon a great number of variables. And I’d be terribly presumptuous in claiming I have a real answer! But reading the exhibition catalogue for the JMM’s 2001 exhibit “Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore” has added a few more pieces of the story to consider.
Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore. was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from October 7, 2001 to February 2, 2003.
The two essays that struck me most were “White Sales” by Paul A. Kramer, and “Expressions of Jewish Identity in Baltimore’s Downtown Department Stores” by Melissa J. Martens. The first describes the segregating practices of many Jewish department store owners, and the eventual desegregation of department stores, while the second describes how the stores helped shape and express Jewish identity. But the implication of putting these two essays back to back is, of course, not that expressing a Jewish identity has ever meant inherently being prejudiced, but instead that both essays are two sides of a many-sided die, adding building blocks of identity that have shaped Baltimore Jews.
Hochschild Kohn was the first department store to integrate in Baltimore.
Both essays show the challenges of forging a Jewish American identity: the first tackles a formerly common anxiety about being white (as opposed to black or an “ethnic white”) and the second describes the anxiety of being American (but also Jewish). Such complex ideas are not uncommon to scholarly essays, but now I only wish I could see how the physical exhibited tried to convey them. Regardless of how the efforts were manifested, I’m glad they were made at all.
Keeping It Kosher
For this blog post, I was asked to read an exhibition catalog from before my time here at the JMM for the exhibit Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity. Before reading this, my knowledge of Jewish food was extremely limited, basically to knowing that kosher meant Jewish food. But reading this catalog helped me learn all sorts of new things about types and attitudes towards Jewish cuisine. One of the coolest things I learned is about the New Jewish Food Movement, a modern trend towards making Jewish eating more ethically sourced and prepared. Part of the NJFM is the eco-kosher movement, which tries to focus specifically on the sustainability of food and the way it’s eaten.
Entrance to the Chosen Food exhibition.
The foundation of the New Jewish Food Movement is in the core values of Jewish eating that originally led to kosher food practices. However, those in the movement argue that these kosher values do not simply apply to the death of animals, but rather to the treatment of the animal during its life span as well as the treatment of those working to produce the food, such as employees at kosher food plants. For some, this even means going vegetarian or vegan. Learning about the New Jewish Food movement really opened my eyes about Jewish food practices and eating culture in contemporary America. There’s a lot of food trends right now in America that are focusing on eating in a way that is both healthy and ethical; the exponential rise of organic groceries is just one example. But the NJFM uses Jewish eating culture and history to drive the movement, making it a uniquely Jewish force in a field that’s growing every day—which is pretty awesome if you ask me.
~ Gina Crosby
Cornerstones of Community: The Historic Synagogues of Maryland
This exhibit was presented at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from May 16, 1999 to July 15, 2001. It analyzed the growth and change in the Baltimore and Maryland Jewish communities through their building of synagogues. These religious spaces changed to fit the community’s needs. One obvious characteristic is documented by the gradual moving of sacred spaces first uptown and then out of the city as the German Baltimore Jewish population increased their status. Not only did the exhibit look at the spaces in their Jewish context when they were built, but it also looked at what the spaces eventually became when congregations moved on. The German Jewish population may have moved to the outskirts and then eventually out of Baltimore, but the newly arrived Eastern European Jewish population took over some of the city shuls formerly occupied by the German Jewish. Many others have become African-American churches and masonic lodges. The buildings remain “Cornerstones of Community,” even if they are no longer Jewish houses of worship. This exhibition was about more than the buildings, although it did look at architecture as a way of expression. It focused on the communities they contained and how the buildings fit their communities needs.
Lloyd Street Synagogue , JMM 2003.047.031
The Jewish Museum of Maryland has two historic synagogues on our campus. The oldest synagogue in Maryland, the Lloyd Street Synagogue has been occupied by both the German and Eastern European Jewish congregations and was briefly a Catholic church in between. The other synagogue on campus, now occupied by B’nai Israel, was originally built by the Chizuk Amuno congregation that broke away from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and built the original Lloyd Street Synagogue. Both buildings tell their own stories of adaption and community and their presence on campus is a continuation of the “Cornerstones of Community” exhibit.
B’nai Israel, JMM 1984.045.001
~ Rebecca Miller
Establishing Identity: German Jews in America
For this week’s blogpost I read a book called Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore’s German Jewish Refugees 1933 – 1945 produced by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The center theme of Jewish immigrants finding identity in America has been prevalent through the history of Baltimore and the United States as a whole. While Jewish families experienced the pogroms (organized mobs meant to kill and harm Jewish people) for years in Eastern Europe and Russia many Europeans living in Germany, France and Belgium had experienced less of this violence, what could be called a relative degree of calm. This all changed after the First World War, Adolf Hitler a young soldier from the first world war quickly rose to power in the National Socialist German Worker’s Party later referred to as the Nazi party. As early as 1919 his publications such as (Mein Kampf or “My Country”) began to ride on the anger caused by the recession and poor resolutions established in the post war treaty of Versace, one particular outlet of his rage was Jewish Germans whom he accused of being corrupters and undermining Germany as a country.
Many German Juden (Jews) quickly noticed the trends of violence and hate seeing the foreshadowed consequences firsthand as their stores were blockaded and eventually destroyed. Those with the means fled abroad, many to local countries in Europe (France, Belgium, and Austria before it was annexed) Many were only able to send their children abroad to countries such as the United States, at the time Maryland was an established port city with a large immigrant population, some of which were Jews which had come over generations earlier and established themselves. With their eyes set to the United States a wave of German Jews began an exodus to the land of opportunity.
Nazis close Jewish businesses in Germany
Things became complicated, the United States had been lenient on immigrants for years but the 1920’s saw an unprecedented amount of quotas, the response was legislation such as The Quota Act of 1921 which limited the number of immigrants allowed in the US. A few families managed to make their way over only to find themselves isolated and with limited family. It was tough putting together the means to survive, the United States had just come out of a depression and previous immigrants had firmly established themselves in the community. Many arrived as mere children working to survive without the help of family. Discrimination was not unheard of in the United States as well, while less immediately dangerous it gave an incentive to try and establish a local identity to this new generation of immigrants. Throughout the years the Jewish families from the Deutschland (Germany) eventually garnered respect as they created their place in the local community while maintaining their faith, as generations moved on they assimilated to American culture, the city of Baltimore was truly shaped by their experiences and participation.
Jewish immigrants on Ellis Island, the main processing center for immigrants entering the United States.
~O. Cade Simon
Chosen Food and Shabbat
Chosen Food by the Jewish Museum of Maryland does a fantastic job discussing the impact that cuisine has had on the Jewish culture in America.
Matzah Ball soup, challah and brisket are a few family favorites that my grandmother prepared for Shabbat dinner on Friday night. It is a common stereotype, that Jewish mothers and grandmothers love to put a large amount of food on the table, while insisting that their guests are “too thin” or “need bulking!”. Generalizations are rarely a good thing, though upon reading Chosen Food, I see that this seems to compliment the Jewish family. Jewish immigrants struggled to provide enough food for their family which has resulted in an inherent instinct to keep children well fed. Today a large and colorful dinner table can be seen as the mark of a financially stable family.
Jewish food is often mixed with a variety of different cultures. In addition to the classic Chinese food accompanied by a movie, I have had Shabbat dinners with sushi, Mexican food, pasta and Mediterranean food. Most of these occurred with Towson Hillel or on a BBYO trip, and I continue to be impressed with how so many types of food can be incorporated into a Jewish meal. It speaks volumes about the nature of Jewish people who are willing to mix their culture with another, rather than stubbornly maintain the authenticity.
Lastly, the article discusses the importance of Shabbat and how it can provide a feeling of home to anyone, wherever they are. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Whether I am in Baltimore, Jerusalem, or Philadelphia, I always feel home at a Shabbat Dinner. Shabbat at college allowed me to stay connected to the Friday night tradition I grew so accustomed to. Similarly, when I was in Israel for the March of The Living, our Shabbat meals were possibly the best parts of the weekend. The mood is lighter, there is an air of relaxation and of course, food is fantastic. Shabbat, to me, always acts as a time to relax and recharge for the week ahead. This is much better accomplished with a warm meal and some great company.
Tallits and Big Business
Jewish lawyers, Jewish doctors, Jewish deli owners, Jewish merchants. Mention any of these words together and Jews and non-Jews alike nod their heads in acceptance. But Jewish department store owners? Even after attending a Jewish school for many years, this combination never occurred to me. The “Enterprising Emporiums” catalog brought this connection to my attention, and in the “Expressing Jewish Identity” essay, it spoke about how Jewish businesses combined their Jewish customs and knowledge with their American image and business needs. I found it especially interesting that one radio show that included an episode regarding a bar-mitzvah, using terms such as “Shul” and “Tallits” which assumes that the general public understands these references. However, it left out whether or not the public did or didn’t understand everything in the episode. After working with different school groups during my internship, I know that many students and teachers in Baltimore rarely have any real exposure to Judaism and wouldn’t be able to define a “synagogue” much less the Yiddish “shul.” I wonder how that compares to Baltimore one hundred, or two hundred, years ago.
Going off this, I wonder how Jews and non-Jews felt about the occasional display of Jewish items in a store alongside the secular or Christian items. These days, I still consider it a small victory to see a menorah alongside a Christmas tree, but I’m disappointed that this feels victorious and notice the discrepancy between huge tree and the small Chanukah objects. Did the Jewish storeowners wish they didn’t need to cater to the Christian American majority for the sake of their business? Did they feel happy to be able to emote their Jewishness at all? Equally interesting, how did the shoppers feel about Jewish displays, objects, or events? Did they notice? Did it bother them? Did they know what the objects were? Did it ever spark any dialogue? I always wonder about the ‘human’ element, each side’s thoughts in relation to every action. This catalog and essay made me feel even more connected to Baltimore, and one day, maybe I’ll be able to find some related interviews and get to see inside people’s heads from this time and place even more!
The Other Promised Land
As I have come to understand it, being Jewish is not as much about the religion as it about having a consistent community of people around you. In The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish American Dream, the article titled Baltimore’s Backyard: Jewish Vacations in Maryland speaks about this idea of vacation as a means of spending time with your surrounding community.
The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity and the Jewish American Dream was on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland from July 11, 2006 to April 9, 2007.
Deborah R. Weiner writes about 1910s “when Progressive Era values met Jewish traditions of tzedekah and mutual aid, Jewish philanthropies began to sponsor vacations for working-class women and girls who spent their days bent over sewing machines or raising large families in dark and cramped tenements” (Weiner 34). There are many members in a community and some are less represented than others, namely women, but when women band together to help each other that only makes the community grow stronger. What I found interesting is that The Daughters in Israel, a women’s charity, opened the Vacation Camp for Jewish Working Girls which then became what we know today as Camp Louise. The tradition of women helping women carries on today which means the efforts of the 1910s have not gone to waste.
In the article mentioned above discusses popular vacation sites and patterns that Jewish Baltimoreans created for themselves. These places have shaped the Jewish community of Baltimore. These spaces helped shape traditions and culture, community and identity and I think that was my biggest takeaway. If there were no spaces to relax and understand that leisure time is a necessity, there would be no Camp Louise today for young girls to enrich their lives, there would be no Ocean City or Pen-Mar to create new memories and feel the nostalgia of the old, there would not be a sense of closeness that can only happen in a relaxed state surrounded by the people who really matter. If there is one thing that being Jewish is really about (for me anyway) it is the company of those people in times of trouble and in times of leisure.
~ Rachel Morin
Posted on July 7th, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read and respond to one of two readings, “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing” and “The Art of Failure.”
If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing by Kris Wetterlund
(Read it yourself here.)
Wellcome Library, London.
No More “That”
“If you Can’t See It Don’t Say It” by Kris Wetterlund talks about how to look at art and create descriptive museum labels that incorporates the story of the art based off what is present in it. The writing described in the article is a much different style than I am used to writing. Throughout my college career I wrote art exhibit entries for classes, modeled off short articles highlighting a specific piece of art. In these I would describe what I saw, but the main writing would be the context of the work; where it came from, how it was made, and how it fits into a historical or prehistorical context. For museum labels, according to Wetterlund, the context should be condensed or left out so that the label can focus on describing what the viewer is actually looking at.
Wetterlund also offers some advice that I can see being valuable in writing outside of the museum setting, such as using the active rather than the passive voice. I have heard this advice many times but very few teachers or writers have offered useful suggestions besides looking at verbs and making sure the subject is the one doing the action. In a tip box on page 20 of the article suggests removing “that” and “then” where possible. Just in typing this blog, I see the impact such a simple edit makes.
The article contradicts itself in the final section about storytelling. The first thing the author says is to not include information that the viewer can’t see when writing labels, and then they include a label for a “Bible Quilt” by Harriet Powers that does not tell us anything about the images actually on the quilt, but instead about how the quilt was made and how the museum got it. This change in approach to museum labels was not well explained in the article. A reason for the different style of label could perhaps be the type of museum the piece is displayed in. The first example of a museum label seen in the article is for Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s “The Attributes of the Arts and the Rewards Which Are Accorded Them,” on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Being an art museum where people are there to view the art, it would make sense that the label should focus on what the viewer can see. The “Bible Quilt” is on display at the National Museum of American History where the focus would be on the stories of the objects and how they are relevant to American history, more so than the artistic techniques employed.
For the most part the article is easy to understand and breaks down what the author feels are the most important things to consider when doing interpretive writing in a museum setting.
History Might Need More
In If You Can’t See It, Don’t Say It, Kris Wetterlund offers advice on how museum professionals can engage with their visitors more efficiently through the writing on labels. Her central point, as the title says, is that you should only address visible elements of an object in its label. Its provenance, importance to an artistic movement, and place in art theory are all unimportant distractions for a reader who just wants to figure out, concretely, what they are looking at. This is generally good advice–simplicity and focus should always be objectives of museum labels–but Wetterlund’s main emphasis is art museums, and her recommendations become problematic when you attempt to apply them to history museums.
The goals of art museums and history museums are fundamentally different. In a history museum, every object in an exhibit works together to create an interpretive whole, and the labels must explain, implicitly or explicitly, why the object in the case is a part of the story the museum is telling. In other terms, the importance of a central story to history exhibits necessitates more abstract interpretation of its artifacts.
Another unique feature of history museums is their focus on humanity. Seemingly mundane objects can be very important to these museums because they signify parts of the human experience. In these cases, labels that just address what the visitor can see would do the objects a disservice. People using those objects everyday imbues them with significance, and that is not evident on first glance.
Kris Wetterlund’s suggestions in If You Can’t See It, Don’t Say It are generally useful but should be implemented with caution in history museums.
A Focus on the Concrete
I thought the article, “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A new Approach to Interpretive Writing” by Kris Wetterlund, contained interesting insights that could be applied to many situations. It focused on how to write engaging art exhibit labels, but also gave advice for writing in general. What I appreciated most was that the article spoke in the same tone that they were encouraging others to write in. I’ve read multiple articles promoting, for example, more accessible resources for under-educated populations, which were written in a niche, academic words, so it didn’t seem like the authors really believed in what they were writing. With this article, I believed it.
One of my favorite pieces of advice was to write concrete rather than abstract ideas. It gave a useful suggestion for checking that it’s concrete by asking, “Why?” after writing something. It providing a great example using a label that first says, “Objects in the painting switch in and out of perspective.” After asking, “Why?” a better label would say, “He wasn’t interested in how things looked, instead he tried to record the act of looking.” I was actually surprised by how much more I understood the artist and art based on the second label. I also liked the advice to “write the way you talk.” It reminded me of a method I use to help people figure out how to write something down clearly, by just asking, “What you are really trying to say or get across?” Usually people are suddenly able to summarize it in one sentence! However, I disagreed with the advice that numbers and statistics turn people away because they’re too impersonal. I think a combination works best. While hearings emotional appeals like, “New mother murdered!” make you feel something, numbers can help really help demonstrate a systemic tragedy rather than a personal misfortunes. I agree that they shouldn’t necessary be the main focus, but if there’s already a picture depicting the event, especially if it’s graphic, then it’s already emotionally grabbing enough and then the caption can be more filled with statistics. Overall, however, I’m happy to say that this article will make me think differently about labels in art museums. There’s always more going on behind the scenes than you think!
Who Are Museums For?: The Accessibility of Museum Labels
While museums may have once been private collections of the very wealthy, never meant to be seen by the working class or peoples of various identities, museums today are widely public. Though sometimes geared toward certain communities or demographics, museums are meant to be accessible to everyone, sometimes even forgoing a cost of admission. So why then are some museums so gosh darn boring? And how is it that a place that supposedly welcomes all people can, upon visiting, still feel exclusive?
After reading Krist Wetterlund’s guide “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing” I think one of the main culprits are the museum labels, or the captions that accompany objects and paintings. Going to art museums, for example, can sometimes feel like being a kid in school and hanging out with one of the older kids, who tries to make you feel dumb by talking about things you haven’t even learned yet. Museums should give everyone an equal footing to learn about what they’re displaying, whether that’s how to interpret a painting, understanding the historical context behind an object, or questioning what deserves to be in a museum at all. I appreciate Wetterlund’s guide, which recommends labels that are simple, active instead of passive, and that focus on the information that people are really curious to learn about. She gives an example with a Cezanne painting. Bad label: “Paul Cezanne was influential in the development of the Cubist movement.” Good label: “He wasn’t interested in how things looked, instead he tried to record the act of looking.”
Labels are there to help the visitor interpret what they’re seeing. They should tell a story that helps us connect to the museum and remember what we’ve learned, rather than deliver a lecture that goes above our heads and alienates us from “high art” or “classical antiquity.” If museums are truly for everybody, then labels should be for everybody, too.
The Art of Failure: The Importance of Risk and Experimentation, NEA Arts, No. 4, 2014
(Read it yourself here.)
Every Person Fails in their Own Way
When I read articles like the ones contained in this 2014 issue of NEA Arts, “The Art of Failure”, my first reaction is always to consider how the lessons within apply to my own life. That’s natural, I feel—I’m only twenty-one years old, still trying to figure out my future. And as helpful as that can be, for this issue it’s almost a useless exercise. Each of these articles—written by artists who are outstanding in their field—is really the story of one person learning about failure by experiencing their own specific failures. Each story then boils down to two general lessons: you have to ignore the fear of failure to take risks, and you have to work hard. And who am I to say that isn’t the recipe? But I think that the truly crucial lesson that none of them —Toni Morrison, Geoff Nuttall, Perry Chen, Carlos Murrillo, Sarah Kaufman, Gene Luan Yang, or Janai Brugger—come out and say is that you have to keep saying “yes”: “yes, I want to try this”, or “yes, this is what I want from my life”, or even, “yes, this is possible”. Each made the decision to stick with it, every time they felt knocked down or unsuccessful.
In my experience, adults like to give people my age (not adults, no matter what the law says) articles like this to read, to inspire us or to teach us. In particular for me, this issue didn’t change my life. They’re very good articles, and I think that they have valuable lessons inside; but I think they are lessons you have to learn yourself. The only way to learn to take risks and overcome a fear of failure is to do whatever it is that could fail—like Toni Morrison or Geoff Nuttall, or any successful artist. You can’t learn these lessons from a magazine; you have to keep just saying yes to what you want in your own life.
The Best Advice
I feel like, as someone who is reaching the end of her college career (potentially the end of my academic career as well), the horror of failing without a structured schedule year after year is terrifying. There are a lot more loose ends that need to be taken care of now that were never a problem previously. Reading about all of these famous people, who started off as regular people practicing a craft, who have failed on their way to stardom was inspiring in the sense that it is something that needs to said and heard.
A lot of people only see the end result, but as Kickstarter co-founder Perry Chen suggested “it’s also about the practice and the journey to get there” (Chen 9). I think a lot of people in my position, who fear the unknown of what the future holds only see shallow success stories. When you are struggling to figure life out no one tell about the uphill battles you will have to face are how truly difficult it is to make it anywhere. However, soprano singer Janai Brugger said what I found most inspiring in the The Art of Failure. She said, “the best advice I received as a young singer is that you have to follow your own path and not try to be on anybody else’s ” (Brugger 21). That is something I have to frequently tell myself, because it is difficult not to compare myself to people my own age that I view as already ahead of me. Still, there is no reason to compare yourself to anyone else, because everyone has a different path they are supposed to take, some take longer than others, but eventually we all get to where we need to be.
What is Success?
Reading several artist’s statements on the importance of failure in the creative process got me thinking: if failure is useful to our future success, is it really failure? And moreover, how do we know when we have really succeeded?
It seems that writers, actors, scientists, and other scions of our society contend that failure is not an endpoint, but rather a stepping stone; a prototype. Not an entity in itself, but just a part of the creative process, like the rejection of an unsupported hypothesis in the scientific process. But what then, is success? In the scientific process, there is no endpoint, no finished product, only an incremental climb up a ladder of truth, which gets us closer and closer to the answer of an unknown question. So can there be success in anything else? Sure, we may have success in the sense that we are financially secure, publicly lauded, and approved of by society, but outside the parameters of the social system, is success a reality? Is it not too just a stepping stone to further and further success, being indistinct from failure except for the response of outsiders? Does a person deemed successful halt their work, and simply bask in their achievement the rest of their life? Can such a thing be called success? I do not presume to know the answers to these questions, but perhaps questions are better; they prolong the process of inquiry and sharpen our wits, and they keep us trying. And isn’t that what learning from failure is about anyway?
A Means to Grow
The Art of Failure discusses the hidden nuances associated with a lack of success. Failure is typically seen as the worst-case scenario of an endeavor. The writers discuss failure and the positives that come with it, as well as what conventional wisdom has typically taught people overt time
Toni Morrison directly compares the presence of failure between science and art.. In science, failure has it’s inherent benefits in regards to finding a solution. This concept is best exemplified by Thomas Edison who after failing 10,000 times to create a lightbulb stated “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
However, Morrison believes that failure in art is far more stigmatized. A failed artist often discarded and stigmatized. Rather than failure being seen an infinite dark hole, it should be seen as a step closer to success. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized educator, shares a similar view. He suggests that “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with any anything original”. These sentiments from Edison, Robinson and Morrison suggest that the fear of failure is strong enough to deter confidence in one’s own creativity.
As president of Baltimore BBYO, a teen-led youth group, I worked my adviser, Mitch Liebeskind, who had a love for risk-taking and an appreciation for failure as a means to grow. I can recall several occasions where I performed inadequately, in either public speaking or event planning, and felt immediately downcast about the outcome. Mitch’s response was often to look at what went wrong, why it went wrong and quickly move on to the next task. A melancholy response to failure would not change what happened, much less improve future events. Mitch insisted on learning from mistakes, seeing the positive in a situation, no matter how small, and moving forward. Although it has been years since Mitch and I worked on a project together, these three simple concepts are still a part of my leadership today.
Not one to set small goals, but happy to learn from mistakes Mitch encouraged me to aim big, and fail bigger. “Fail fantastic” was a phrase commonly heard during brainstorming sessions. Naturally, Mitch never encouraged me to perform poorly, but he insisted that I was to fail “It better be a good show”. He did insist that I step far out of my comfort zone as in order to mature and grow, personally and professionally.
Melissa (my co-president), Mitch, and Me
An Unlikely Motivator: Facing Failure
The NEA Grant Foundations magazine issue No.4 titled The Art of Failure is a compilation of articles dealing from famous artists responding to their take on facing failure.
It begins with Toni Morrison a prominent African-American author who worked for the NEA for a time. Toni Morrison sees the creative process as a procedure, it is all information and if something doesn’t work or gives the wrong impression it can be corrected because half the process is editing. I found this intriguing as an artist; art is something I have always personally felt was free flowing and tangible, and the end product ends up being orderly and formed. The chaos of the process creates a loose model of what the final product is to be, because criticism, editing and feedback are really what end up polishing and fully forming the ‘end’ product. As Tony Morrison points out there are revisions she wanted to pursue years after her books were published. I agree with this because in the end art is not something that has a final product that cannot in some way be improved, the fun and challenge of art is finding a good stopping point where you aren’t overdoing it or leaving something ‘half-baked’. Perry Chen’s approach of putting out work, getting the feedback and developing gradual confidence is appealing to me as he works in fields closely related to my own. I found it interesting and problematic when he mentions just “pushing the button” and putting your work out there. It immediately subjects your work to feedback which is good, but at the same time if it is left there in that state it is essentially not a failure but useless unless it immediately clicks into what it is supposed to do/impact. So if that risk is taken it is important to respond to that feedback.
If someone was to produce work that got no negative feedback constantly they would not grow as an artist, or as a person. Failure is inspiration in itself; sometimes failure realigns the track when someone feels derailed in concept or execution. Sometimes failure is necessary for motivating people to pursue a task or project, acting as fuel for a stubborn drive to get an idea in the world. I work primarily with media arts, which ostensibly looks incredibly orderly and deliberate. In reality it is a mass of constantly changing variables that all rely on feedback, failure and praise. Praise is a nice immediate feeling but when you are receiving a lot of it half way through your work process there is only so much it can do to help compared to someone letting you know what looks better, what could be changed. It is more valuable towards the end of the work process where it is expected and strived for.
~O. Cade Simon
A Part of Life
This week I read the NEA Arts articles about failure. It explores the concept of failure versus success in the artistic world. My favorite article was an interview with Nobel Prize winning author, Toni Morrison. She encourages writers to understand themselves and let go of something when it is just not working. Morrison, along with the rest of the artists interviewed, perceives failure as a learning tool instead of an issue.
Failure, whether personal or institutional, is a part of life. This positive outlook does not make the pain of failure fade from existence, but it does lessen the blow. What many tend to forget is that failure—something unsuccessful— is often the more common result. These unsuccessful attempts are just learning experiences that provide information for future tries. They show what does not work so that we can try another way that could succeed. Perseverance and allowing oneself to fail will bring the greatest rewards.