The Love of Less
Between 1530 and 1532, Jan Gossaert (also known as Mabuse) painted a sober, half-length portrait of an elaborately dressed man. The sitter, his identity long forgotten, was later identified by art historians as Francesco de los Cobos y Molina, secretary and chief financial advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500 – 58), whose kingdom extended across Europe and overseas into Spanish America. De los Cobos is shown tightly framed against an unrevealing backdrop of drapery and bare wall. And he has been described in publicity material produced by the J Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles, where the painting is currently on view, as “looking warily out at the viewer”. So on several levels, it’s an image with a strong sense of reticence and a somewhat secretive air.
But within this atmosphere of constraint three areas of visual complexity ask to be noticed, and unraveled. First, at top right, in the painting’s background, just above the sitter’s left shoulder, is a large yet compact knot of gathered fabric where the drapery has been pulled back to reveal, as noted, nothing but a bare portion of wall and a hint, perhaps, of door or window jamb. (In Hans Holbein the Younger’s almost contemporaneous painting, The Ambassadors of 1533 now housed in London’s National Gallery, the set-up is somewhat similar. In this double portrait of powerful men created for the court of Henry VIII of England, Holbein’s full-length figures are also placed against a ground of green drapery. But here the drapery is somewhat disarranged to reveal not only a minuscule portion of wall to the far left but also a glimpse of otherwise well-hidden crucifix, one of several overtly religious elements intervening into what would otherwise be a homage to worldly knowledge and power.)
Second (returning to the Gossaert), lower down and left of centre, a layering of emblems and symbols, part of the sitter’s clothing, draws the eye: a red cross emblazoned on his doublet, and a pendant, a bejeweled scallop shell, overlaying it. Both of these, we learn, were emblems of the chivalric Order of Santiago, Saint James the Greater, which aided scholars in the identification of the portrait.
Thirdly, and finally, at bottom left, there is the complicated node of the sitter’s hands. To my eyes, it is a fleshy analogue to that ‘clutch’ of fabric, already described, behind him. Forming the most active portion of this otherwise near static image, these hands at once gesture towards the viewer’s space or world, and seem to both grasp and proffer what appears to be a well-used, folded, leather-bound object.
Vade Mecum and the Aesthetics of Less
This object is a vade mecum, structurally similar to the early fifteenth-century example shown here in its unfolded state. Literally meaning “go with me”, these were in effect early modern forms of mobile information technology containing summaries of the important facts and details — associated with certain professions or topics of expertise, for instance. They were portable checklists that could be quickly and easily consulted, so that an appropriate, rapid response could be made, a possibility that was greatly assisted by the vade mecum’s aesthetics, notably its pared down graphics and layout. For as is immediately apparent in the example pictured here, we see what we might, today, call a concept map where not only the nature but also the format of the information being communicated are crucial. What’s given is a web-like flow of data that presents itself as comprehensive and cohesive (thus memorable — the brain responds to strong patterns or ‘Gestalts’) but not necessarily as complete. For visually, the many blank spaces leave room for further, perhaps even divergent, detailing should this become appropriate. As such, the vade mecum functions both as a retainer of existing knowledge and, being at once structurally taut and open-ended, as a potential springboard for further thought. Or, changing metaphors, a kind of temporal hinge between past, present, and possible future ways in which knowledge might unfold. Which brings me to my next point about the relationship between the containing/enabling aesthetics of the vade mecum and of the summary more generally, and of the summary’s power to motivate.
Properly speaking, motivation is a force that needs to be regenerated on an ongoing basis. But there are specific times and places — as well as objects (the vade mecum for instance) — that stand out as being particularly culturally empowered to do this. Take, for instance, the usual start-up rituals that recur within the public domain each New Year, on television and in the press: the publication of reviews and surveys of the previous twelve months (top-tens, best and worst, over- and under-rated, and most promising), of predictions, and resolutions.
One such appeared in the January 2010 issue of Prospect magazine: Jonathan Ford’s two-page, caricatured (by Brain Gable), survey-cum-listing ‘Public intellectuals and the financial crisis’. Of particular interest here was not only that it attempted to compress and evaluate a particular time period. It also, of course, attempted to survey a situation of ongoing, global crisis and present a variety of possible, productive responses to it: “The financial crisis has destroyed both wealth and received wisdom” — Fords’ opening lines. “The idea that prices are always right and markets self-correct is fatally challenged,” he continued. “Even Alan Greenspan [Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the USA from 1987 – 2006] admits the ‘whole’ intellectual edifice’ of the efficient market hypothesis collapsed in the summer of 2008. The financial establishment is in a state of deep confusion… But this is not a bad thing, for it has opened up new ways of thinking about markets, institutions and the all-important cause of financial reform.”
And of course this position, that a state of collapse or ruin can be a generator of important new perspectives, is a powerful one. In fact, this is often precisely how the most remarkable developments in learning take place — not by continuing to build neat edifices on already existing foundations, brick upon customized brick, but by grappling with the realization that certain knowledge-contexts or circumstances have changed, once-familiar intellectual landmarks have disappeared, and bearings have (temporarily) been lost. What is valuable about Ford’s survey is that it has quite a lot of reveal about the particular kinds of intellectual work that are involved in transforming such initially de-motivating situations, in which it is not clear what to think or do next, into ones that are highly energizing and motivational.
In the Prospect project, crisis was activated by seeking out and listening to what were considered to be the “unfamiliar voices” that had come to prominence within it, and assessing who had been the most influential. And, here, as Ford put it, “Our criteria were simple. Anyone who had made an impact on policy with their ideas, or who had changed the ‘public conversation’ was a candidate.”
When Less is More
The word ‘summary’ when used as an adjective applies to decisions or actions that have been performed speedily and without formality. It is frequently taken to suggest a lack of care or rigour that is often (and often accurately) also associated with what’s commonly called our sound-bite and snap shot culture. But the best summaries, though short and quick to read, are not necessarily quick to compile. Perhaps it was to underline this fact that, in the report section of ‘Public intellectuals and the financial crisis’, Ford set out the practical procedures that had been involved in the summary’s creation: “Prospect assembled a panel of experts to draw up a list… and then to decide on the most important… The panel sifted hundreds of names, with an unavoidable bias towards Britain and the US, but felt that the most important contributions had been in financial reform — those trying to work out what to do next… We considered… and gradually whittled the names down to a shortlist…” In a separate section, he also named those who’d been involved.
Once choices had been made, four different approaches to summarization were used to publish the results. At the top right of Ford’s double-page spread was a top-three section with one-sentence biography-cum-summaries of the individuals and achievements deemed to be the most important. Below, even shorter and pithier biographies of the remaining top twenty-five were listed alphabetically in three columns. To the left, Ford contextualized and elaborated on the accomplishments of the top three in the form of a one-page report, paying particular attention to the “clear winner,” American economist, agitator and blogger, Simon Johnson. And finally, but most visually arresting — though never overly referenced in the article itself — there were Gable’s caricatures of selected individuals, ten altogether, including the top three: Johnson, Avinash Persaud, and Adair Turner.
So, both the selection and the documentation processes were collaborative and carefully considered, with the visual and aesthetic dimensions of the summary also playing a crucial role. Particularly the drawings, not only because they punctuated and helped choreograph the layout, making a fraught topic visually appealing, but also because they compressed a good deal of extra-textual information about the individuals portrayed (both factual and emotive), increasing the richness of what was being conveyed overall. Take Gable’s picture of Johnson, for instance. Described in Ford’s text as “leading the argument against overmighty banking”, Gable portrays him, crumple-suited, facing us in the classic victory pose of the mountaineer who has reached the summit of some mountain — but his expression is sardonic since there is no mountain, only a pile of beige rubble at his feet, the remains of a collapsed financial district, with a discarded ‘citygroup’ sign propped against its base. As with the article overall, then, here too is a lesson in the fine art of insightful brevity. (For a strong sense of the very active and revisionary decision-making involved in Gable’s image-making see the short video of Gable at work on the website of the Toronto newspaper for which Gable regularly works, the Globe and Mail.)
Most in the top-twentyfive list, of course, including the top three, were financiers or financial analysts of one kind of another. What was valued here was not only their proven willingness to face hard facts, and the quality of their intellectual or strategic interventions, but also their willingness to be proactive in standing up and speaking out. Also noted in this respect was the power of a particular form of contemporary communication, the specialist blog, in which expertise is generally combined with a strong sense of personal perspective and passion. Johnson’s “must-read” blog was mentioned. So was that of “legendarily gloomy, normally correct financial analyst” Nouriel Roubini, a commentator “whose blogs alone can move markets.” Significantly, though, a representative from the arts — just one — was also included in the list of most influential: “Lucy Prebble: 28-year-old British author of Enron, the best play yet on irrational exuberance.”
Prebble’s Enron, produced by Rupert Goold, is a highly stylized, piece. Remarkably, it is a musical, in which song, dance, symbol and the strategies of caricature are used to distil key histories and highlight key drivers related to the financial crisis (greed and vanity — but chillingly also desire to continuously innovate).
Thus, its success is also that of shifting the language in which the Enron and other financial crises are more generally understood. In fact, in terms of its structure and aesthetics — yes, there is a clear, overall narrative, but it is broken down into a list-like sequence of key elements — it partakes the type of layout, logic, and sense of appeal that also characterizes Ford’s Prospect article. As one of Enron’s reviewers, Michael Billington in the Guardian, put it: “It could all be dry as dust. But the pulse and vigour of play and production stem from their ability to make complex financial ideas manifest. Everything is made visually apprehensible. Thus the complicity of market analysts in Enron’s over-evaluation is captured by turning them into a close-harmony troupe. The Lehman Brothers become Siamese twins locked into a single suit. Best of all is the scene where Fastow explains his system for funneling Enron’s debts into shadow companies. Even financial innocents can follow this as Fastow shows boxes encasing ever smaller boxes lit by a flickering red light symbolizing the basic investment. This is capitalism exposed as con-trick and illusion.” Importantly, what this strong sense of the aesthetic and symbolic also did (and this is feature of the arts more generally) was assign an important role to the power of emotion and sensation. In this case, far from distract or produce relief from the pertinent issues, the play’s emotive power isolated and highlighted them, making them unavoidable. It also injected a damning narrative with motivational energy that could be taken up and directed towards change.
Which brings me back to the broader question, raised earlier, about the nature of learning. Specifically, now, about the impact on any learning venture of emotion, particularly Higher Education consultant Phil Race identifies as the greatest motivator: what he calls ‘wanting to’. Writing about his ‘Wanting, Doing, Feedback, Digesting’ model of learning (with digesting and also feedback having strong affinities with the kinds of activities related to surveying, summarizing and reviewing), he explained that “The best way I’ve so far found to describe [it] is as ‘ripples on the pond’, with each of the four processes in dynamic interaction with the rest. Probably the best way of thinking about the driving force of the ripples,” he continues, “is with ‘wanting’ at the centre of things, providing the energy for the ripples to spread.“ Note here too, that part of the challenge for Race in coming up with this model was, again, the challenge of creating a vivid and easy to understand summary of a complex process.
And so, to end. If the first essay in this series on the topic of starting [Starting (1) – Studio] was about creating a physical working space, this one is about creating its equivalent particularly in the realm of feeling and attitude, an effort in which the energies of the visual, the dramatic, and the aesthetic as manifested, particularly, in processes of nuanced summarization are crucial.