Conversation Starters

Conversation Starters

Originally published with September 15, 2011

I talk too much. Or so I’ve been told after I’ve talked for awhile and interrupted someone else during a “conversation” that turned into an exploding hydrant of my ideas, my anecdotes, my, my, my. It’s a bad habit. I’m from a family of talking too muchers . . . in fact, I am the youngest of five children in a family of talking too muchers. So growing up, if I didn’t let everyone know what I thought when I thought it, I would have never been able to say anything.

The trouble is, the more you talk, the less you learn. When you engage in a real, substantive conversation you grow. A conversation is where you vet out ideas, ask questions, and—most importantly—listen. When you ask questions and admit that you don’t know everything, you often are able to learn something about the topic and yourself.

Lately, I’ve found that email – while it is impersonal—has certain qualities that allow me to have meaningful conversations: There is no exploding hydrant because (1) I have to stop and think before I write, and (2) I cannot talk at the same time the other person is trying to get their two cents in. So, I’ve decided to publish a series of email conversations, and I invite you to join the conversation through the comments.
Below is the first conversation. The conversation is between me and Robin Grearson, and it will continue on Thursdays with little interruption until . . . .

Robin is an essayist, curator, art enthusiast, collaborator, and so on and so on, who lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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I recently completed a collaborative art project with my sister, Kelly, where we created hundreds of 6″ x 6″ paintings. We started the project when we were both living in separate states. So a lot of our process was done online through emails and blog posts.

One of us would start a piece and then send it to the other for a critique or to finish. (We would send the pieces either physically or we would share them on our blog.) At one point I became frustrated with a few pieces that I created, so I cut them up and sent them to Kelly to figure out. Our individual styles are very different: Kelly leans toward abstract work, and I lean toward representational work. In the end, the project challenged us to solve artistic problems and to critically analyze our own thoughts on art (the process and the end product).

Since then, I keep coming across the questions of, if there are universal truths based on all of us living a life that has great ups and downs, can online social networks enable us to collaborate in a way to avoid our individual prejudices and create works of universal beauty? Is beauty important in fine arts?

It’s interesting to me that you cut up some of your paintings and sent them to your sister, who works more abstractly. Did she rearrange them or use them to inspire her own work somehow? Or did she offer you some constructive criticism about what wasn’t working about them?

Where beauty is concerned, one role of art is to reflect the ideals of the culture in which it is made. In our culture, the oversaturation of images in film and on TV and now online has been pushing us toward a certain consensus about what is beautiful. However, to me, that consensus is sort of like parallel lines extending toward the horizon–our ideas of beauty might appear to converge, but they really don’t. The standard of beauty put forward in popular culture is not something we all accept, even though we internalize it and react to it in our own ways. For instance, an artist I know who calls himself Quel Beast ( makes art specifically as a rebuttal of our cultural norms of beauty. But by defying the norms, he is in a sense also acknowledging their relevance. Beauty and anti-beauty then become a duality. He might disagree with me.

As for an artist being able to create a work of universal beauty, I don’t think that’s possible, if universal means near-unanimous agreement that a particular work is beautiful. Beauty is subjective among individuals, and standards are also linked to cultural values.

However, I do feel it’s possible in art to create excellence; each discipline has its own masters, and technical excellence contributes to what I find beautiful in a lot of artwork. But even to consider excellence as a standard or measure requires a viewer who has an ability to appreciate that art. I don’t think an art object exists as objectively beautiful, separate from the system in which it is created, which includes the observer, the observer’s preparation to appreciate the art, and even the time in which it is made. So if art is an interaction and communication, then it would be exactly from our own biases that we are meant to express our unique voice.

I am not saying we should not work toward trying to see past blind spots when we feel limited, though. Here is an illustration of what I mean: I consider myself a text-based (or, text-biased?) person who only recently began to see art in a meaningful way. I would walk down a street with a friend, and I could tell you everything in the store windows that was on sale–I had read all the signs. My friend might marvel at the architecture and comment on the colors or remark on what people were wearing. Our attentions went naturally to different aspects of the visual field and we saw very different worlds.

When I gradually became aware of how much information I filtered out unconsciously, I realized I was missing out on a lot of my own reality, and so I started to try to “see” art, by intentionally directing my attention differently. At first I was (and I am still) mesmerized by cut-paper art. A couple of years ago I was introduced to this form through the cut-paper works of artist Nathan Pickett (, who is also a talented painter. His stencil-based mixed-media artwork resonated with me right away. I enjoyed his compositions and found them visually engaging, but I also felt a sense of reverence for the intensity of concentration required by such an intricate practice. I had a strong emotional response, and so in that way he achieved a successful communication with a viewer, or, with me as a viewer.

A few months later, I was viewing works by a painter who has developed a practice in abstract painting, I felt at the time that I was not able to experience that work as the artist may have intended. As a non-painter, I felt that her work was less accessible to me. Though I enjoyed the color choices and certain shapes or forms within the work, I had a sense that her paintings were communicating most directly to an audience with a more specialized knowledge of the context of her work than I possessed. The other day I came across a relevant quote from a book called “Cultivating Demand for the Arts.”

Consider any powerful, transformative moment you’ve had with an act or artifact of creative expression. The moment required at least two lifetimes to form its value–your life to that moment and the artist’s. There was a resonance between your experiences or emotions and the expressive voice. The moment required them both. The value was co-constructed.

So my answer to the question you posed about universal beauty is, I do not think there will be or should be a striving for universal beauty. Our multiple ideas converging on a single point would reflect some sameness within us, some sense that it is culturally valuable for us all to appreciate the same things. And I think that would be dull.

You mentioned elsewhere that you’ve recently been reading a collection of essays called Beauty. As someone who paints figuratively, what is the role of beauty in fine art? Did you cut up your paintings because they were not meeting your standards on a technical basis, or they did not live up to your aesthetic wishes?

I’m interested also in how you feel the ups and downs of life pertain to art and art practice. Can you expand on that?

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