Conjunction of Art, Science Intrigues Researchers by Blue Greenberg, Herald-Sun

Conjunction of art, science intrigues researchers
By Blue Greenberg, Columnist
Herald-Sun Dec 20, 2014

Behavioral scientists at Duke University and artists have joined forces to learn more about what makes us tick. This discussion between art and science began at Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight in 2012. The scientists set forth specific research ideas and asked the artists to respond to them through their art. On the center’s website we read that controlled experiments allow behavioral researchers to measure and reflect on our lives and to test whether their intuitions about the world are true and figure out why they may be wrong. The text continues that while art and science are very different a discussion between the two would be very useful.

Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, is the director of the Hindsight Center. As part of the research into the behavior of human beings, Ariely added an art component, titled the “Artistically Irrational Exhibition Series.” The center gathers up a group of artists, identified by their response to an on-line call and, with the help of art curator Catherine Howard, a number are selected to take part in the research.

Each project begins with a discussion of the particular undertaking and continues with the artists’ reflections on the topic. In this way the artists offer the scientists new lenses for their research which provides the feedback loop between them and the artists. All of this conversation results in an exhibition of paintings and sculpture that sit on the walls and floors of the lab/office of the Duke University Center for Advanced Hindsight. The center, like many that are part of the Duke system, has offices off campus and this one invites visitors to visit and see the artistic responses to the research.

“Market Mixers,” is a part of the Exhibition series. With 12 artists on board the discussion focused on the lives of everyday people and how they are caught in a constant tangle of efficient markets versus human markets, and how, ultimately, social capital cannot be built with cash. According to their website, examples used in the discussion were a “date can feel like prostitution with the introduction of money or a gift can seem offensive when accompanied by mention of its dollar value.”

Among the artists are painters, printmakers and a sculptor. An example of a response is in Marisa Dipaola’s “Valuing Van Gogh.” In the wall text she muses about Van Gogh, whose work was worthless during his lifetime and is valued at millions today. She continues how she gave her parents her own original paintings on special occasions reasoning they were certainly worth more than some “tacky” gift from a discount store. Further into her musings she begins to attach a monetary value to the paint, the postage and her time and, in the end, decides the window of time she had to carve out of her schedule to create the work was the “rarest of gifts” and her peace of mind was “indeed priceless.”

Gabriella Boros attacked the problem by seeing it through the use of black and white woodblock prints which look very much like the German expressionist images popular between the two world wars. In her triptych about the “Gift Horse,” the first panel shows a woman shoving food down the mouth of her male escort while showily paying the bill; the horse watches from the sidelines. The central image, which is the largest, portrays a woman whose arms are overflowing with a huge basket of flowers while the children seem bewildered at the gift of another ball and the horse looks on with mouth open and teeth showing; an obvious reference to “looking the gift horse in the mouth.” In the last panel there is a business scene where the men are dressed in suits and two are making a deal by shaking hands. (She points out this is the 1950s when deals were made by the shake of hands while today contracts fill hundreds of pages). The surrounding men are waving contracts and the horse moves away, ignored and unnecessary in this world.

Using the medium of stitchery in their “Result, Happiness/ Result, Misery,” Tanya Hart and Victoria Holmes quote from David Copperfield to riff on the “Market Mixers.” Mr. Micawber tells the young Copperfield if his income is 20 pounds and he spends “nineteen six,” the result is happiness, but if his income is 20 pounds and he spends “twenty ought six,” the result is misery. The artists created two samplers, decorated alike with straight lines like an accounting page; “Happiness” has flowers and trees all carefully worked in an ordered and rational cross-stitch. “Misery,” is decorated with freehand embroidery and the apple tree branches and spiky weeds break through and take over the page. In their explanation the artists conclude that family happiness and finances only co-exist when the finances are kept in check, otherwise they will strangle the family.

Other ideas include Suran Song’s use of the Buddhist idea of Seva, an ancient Indian word meaning “service,” and that service could be work without any expectation of payment and Michelle Gonzales-Green’s exposition on the Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” Gonzales-Green’s wire sculpture takes the shape of two figures entwined while acrylic forms of coins and deposit slots fall around them and writes that this image reminds us that in order to sustain ourselves we need reciprocal relationships whether we want to or not.

I do not know whether the art offered the researchers anything new but, as a spectator, I came away with many questions and a new understanding about introducing money into a social situation and how that changes everything.

Editor’s note — “Market Mixers: When Social & Market Norms Collide” runs through Dec. 31 at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, 2024 W. Main St., Erwin Mill, Bay C.