While looking at art in art galleries, I also look at people looking at art. Artists, of course, tend to look at art for different reasons than ordinary folks and are, therefore, more difficult to study. Among ordinary folks, a wide range of discernible reaction and readable body language is apparent. Some reactions seem to be almost totally based on what people have been told or learned. I call these “programmed reactions.” Other more direct and “pure” reactions range from awe to disgust. Thankfully, they often include joy. Some viewers have a visceral reaction that may even be accompanied by a temporary or prolonged state of trance. Jaws drop, bodies go limp and people are seen to sit or stand, not quite knowing what’s happening.
The active ingredients of this sort of trance are feelings of confusion.
The much discussed and debated 20th century psychoanalyst and clinical hypnotist Milton H. Erickson had quite a bit to say about confusion. A consummate joker, even in his own practice, he used confusion and its incumbent trance to quickly open a window into his clients’ psychotic or neurotic state.
A typical Erickson trick was the “confused handshake” — known among our friendly shrinks as “handshake induction.” On meeting someone for the first time Erickson would reach out a hand only to grasp on to the other person’s wrist. Then he would withdraw his hand in a sort of sensitive and sneaky way, trailing a finger or thumb lightly over the recipient’s palm or finger tips. Surprised and disoriented by this unconventional touch, most recipients were at least temporarily set off in a state of trance.
Fact is, a state of trance (and thus psychological control) is readily effected by this sort of confusion.
I thoroughly recommend the hobby of watching people in galleries. In those arts where standards of craftsmanship and creative competence might be expected, a work of art with little or no craftsmanship or apparent competence has a good chance to beguile. Thus, a piece exhibited in a prestigious museum reaches out to the viewer like a handshake ready to be grasped and greeted — then rewards the viewer with something other than expected. Even uninterested viewers can be delivered a life-enhancing (or mind-bending) transportation that brings on a sense of awe.
PS: “Use of the confusion technique has many times effected exceedingly rapid hypnotic inductions under conditions such as acute pain and even in hostile, aggressive and resistant persons.” (Milton H. Erickson)
Esoterica: Just as evangelicals, politicians, salespersons and psychiatrists can use baffling thoughts, images and ideas to accomplish their objectives, artists can employ similar means to attract and hold attention. Confusion is created by ambiguity, complexity, pattern interruption, insult, ignorance, contradiction, poor taste, shock, beguiling illusion, surprise, incompleteness and the propagation of riddle and mystery — all ploys that are familiar and readily available to visual artists.
Museum-goers mimic exhibited work
by Patricia Sharp, Millbridge, ME, USA
I attended a Picasso exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art years ago. I was fascinated to observe that, as we progressed from room to room from the early serene works to the abstract, people’s movements reflected the content of the work. They became louder and jerkier progressively as the work evolved kinetically in a time line. It was a real eye opener for me. Thanks for the reminder. I am doing the Brooklyn Art Library’s sketchbook project; have chosen Uncharted Waters as my topic to utilize the Energy of Water series I have been working on. At first glance, Waters was the key word for me. Now Uncharted has gained prominence in importance — much edgier!
by Beverly Galante, Austin, TX, USA
I was at a fashion art show in Holland and caught a little girl looking at one of the mannequins. It was so not a programmed reaction; I just had to paint the scene. A lot of people are actually “confused” at my painting. I find that extremely fascinating in itself.
A cheerleader of art
by Patricia Coyle, Franklin, NY, USA
I, too, love to watch people in galleries and museums. Once, we went to see a wonderful show of Egon Schiele’s work and I was in tears looking at some of the paintings. I observed the crowd, some glancing at the artwork, then walking away as if they have the same paintings in their own houses. (“Oh, we have seen these before” or “My child could do that.”) I want to scream at the top of my lungs and shout, “This may be the best art you’ll ever see in your life. You should re-consider that half glance!” Yes, I am a cheerleader of art. In college, one of my professors said she didn’t know what the university would do without my enthusiasm.
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Falling in love with confusion
by Allan Neal, London, UK
One tends at first to fall deeper in love with the person who confuses you most. Persons who lay down a trail of confusion, do not, however, make the best long-term connections. Much modern art, like many of our confused, modern persons are in reality moving targets and difficult to pin down. Thus they can be endlessly talked about and even modified to some degree by the pundits, critics and the psychiatrists. Simpler, more wholesome things and people leave less to discuss and serve very well indeed.
by Melodie Herbert, White Rock, BC, Canada
I take some exception to the confusion-inducing handshake of the psychoanalyst Milton H. Erickson that you described. Many women of my generation would interpret a handshake with a male, where he runs a finger down the palm of the woman’s hand at the end, as a sexual invitation. Many would be extremely alarmed, and possibly frightened, if this occurred on the first meeting with a health professional they were seeing for the purpose of getting help for psychological, emotional or mental health problems! I believe it would be very inappropriate, in current times, when professional boundaries are expected to be maintained. It could destroy trust on the part of the patient. It could also result in a lawsuit. I am personally unable to comment as to whether a male might interpret this is in the same way, but I suspect it would be. So, although creating confusion in art may be interesting, creating confusion through touch in a health care encounter would be subject to censure. No wonder this man was controversial.
I am a former nurse, and currently a physician and have worked continuously in health care since 1975.
(RG note) Thanks, Melodie. A well-known psychiatrist greeted me thus in a social situation, looked at me with a whimsical, devilish smile, as if to say, “There, I got you — you fakir.” Indeed, he got me as I stood there for a few confused seconds until I realized he was just giving me some of my own. Recognizing similar qualities in each other, we have since become quite good friends.
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What it takes to get a look-see
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
Like corvids, people tend to react to contrast. It’s common knowledge that magpies are attracted to shiny objects, but my experience tells me that it would react the same if a rabbit dropping were put out in a room full of silver and crystal. It’s the contrast that attracts its attention. Hang a piece of crap among great art and it will reduce the whole exhibition to shambles, because that’s all that people will talk about.
I’ve sketched people in museums in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) in London (UK, not Ontario), in Owen Sound (yep, Canada) and in Sweden, Germany and Netherlands. In Nantes I watched a bunch of kids sort of flake out in front of a huge oil depicting a bunch of people washed ashore in a jumble of dead limbs and grotesque faces. They exuded fascination more than shock, awe or trance. The adults accompanying them were busy leafing through the museum guide.
In the Musée d’Orsay (Paris, France) I watched a loud American couple in one of the 19th century galleries standing awe-struck in front of a scene of prehistoric men coming back from the hunt. I remember one painted foot being about the size of the man’s upper body. At last they moved on to the enxt oil, tucked away in the corner: Courbet’s The Origin of the World, a smallish oil showing the uncovered middle parts of a reclining woman with a lush spray of black pubes. Actually, I had been waiting for this. It took them a second to take in the image and then the woman dragged her husband away. It was all over in two seconds tops. A few years earlier, in the Gothenburg Museum of Art (Sweden, not New England), I watched another American couple (loud, obvious) come up to a really fine painting of a fox lying in the underbrush with songbirds flitting among the leaves. The woman grunted and pointed at the fox’s anal patch, clearly visible as the animal’s tail was lifted. “Oh, I don’t like that at all,” she said and moved on to the next painting.
No trance, no confusion that I could see, shock I could only imagine.
Most visitors to galleries tend to close off when they come upon something unexpected. Laughter is a way of putting a barrier between yourself and what you are looking at. Disgust, anger, boredom, but also profound interest — people trying to understand what they see, trying to look through the artist’s eyes. Many make up their own stories. It’s all there, flowing around you, and it’s great! I’ve been favourably surprised at what visitors to one of my shows may come up with. Some have weird thoughts; others relate personal experiences that sometimes sound better than my own.
We are all conditioned by outside factors when we enter an exhibition. For me as an artist there may be great anticipation that could be doused dead flat, or I could leave feeling inspired to go home and try harder. For the general public the context is indeed what they have been told or have learned. Big exhibitions, marketed like blockbuster movies on TV with voice-overs recommending the artist on show as “Finland’s Rembrandt” or “The Monet of Massachusetts” and such irritating rubbish, appears to work: a few seconds on TV gets you thousands of visitors the following day. I may not like it, but it puts people in a different kind of trance: they feel compelled to go for a look-see. In the end, that’s what counts.
The wisdom of the smile
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
Back in the late ’70s, I had numerous hand-pulled lithographs from my feminist period in a Print Making Exhibit at SECCA. I was always curious as to how viewers received my thought provoking works of that period. At the opening, an old genteel woman approached my litho Revelations slowly. She stood in front for more than the usual period of quick perfunctory looking. As her eyes wandered over the litho, slowly she stepped back and her hand came to her mouth as if to gasp. Watching her subconsciously affected me and actually spurred me to move on in my themes. Although I have always delved into psychological realism, it was to make the viewer aware but not to invoke pain. It took a decade to work out my womanhood, single parenting and motherhood of 2 adolescent boys. Then came an exhibit of environment-oriented art and I came away feeling that the viewer felt bludgeoned by my surreal oil paintings. Once again I withdrew and tried to figure out how to make a statement about the endangered with a deceptive humor. Funny thing happened to me. I enjoyed hearing laughter as people viewed these preposterous animals in master paintings compositions. Basically I am a happy person extroverted with friends who makes art for the joy of it and giving it to the public to also enjoy. Yes, quite often there may be a subconscious statement behind the eloquent presentation. In that manner, I have not given up altogether my conscience concerning the issues I find immediately important and yet I have brought a smile to your face, or at least a grin.
Hypnosis and left-right brain shift
by Dr. Peter Berndt, The Woodlands, TX, USA
Medical hypnosis is a vast field. Having worked with this technique for over thirty years I have had the privilege of working with many patients who have been some of my best teachers. In addition to uses in the field of psychiatry and general medicine I have found it beneficial in non-medical application such athletics and the arts. Two such recent examples are the work I did with a young painter and a musician/composer. The composer had been working on a commission for some time and needed to have finished by a deadline.
The time pressure set up the environment in which a creative block had occurred which made the composition come to a dead stop. Despite his best efforts he was unable to overcome the blockage, demonstrating the law of reversed effect which says that “the harder you try, the less you can.” The increasing anxiety and frustration cemented the situation in place and the creative block became complete for him.
I saw him at that point on referral from his therapist. We went through the basic hypnosis training, with him making entry into the hypnotic state easier and easier. There is a great deal of misunderstanding of what hypnosis really is, which is neither sleep nor regular consciousness, but rather a state of relaxed but focused mental concentration. I should tell you that everyone who is properly motivated can get into hypnosis easily since it is the stage that we all go through in the process of falling asleep at night when we pass from consciousness to sleep. We all know what happens if we do not go through this stage of relaxation: we stay awake. What that means is that everyone does hypnosis at least once daily, whether we know it or not. Both the painter and the composer were what is called “good hypnotic subjects.” What is meant by that is they were able to get into hypnosis easily. The composer used the calm mental focus of the hypnotic state for the purpose of trying out different scenarios for his composition. He developed an image of the creative block which was the picture of several huge rocks in the middle of a stream. He visualized himself moving these rocks around and eventually out of the way. The hypnosis reduced his anxiety and that reduced his sense of helplessness. Previewing different ways to finish his composition offered more choices that had not occurred to him in everyday conscious awareness. This is where hypnosis allows access to those parts of the mind which we usually have no access to and therefore do not know are there. Since then the composition has had its first public performance. The painter, well known regionally and aspiring to enter the national stage, had a slightly different problem. He had been raised by a father who had told him in different ways that no matter what he did it was not good enough. This artist had to function and produce with a severe critic always at his back. Again, as with the composer, he had a crippling background anxiety and self-doubt that made creating new work difficult, and the paintings that might have just flowed were an ordeal. In hypnosis, he was not only able to lessen the chronic anxiety state, he also expanded the use of the hypnotic calm to preview paintings in their completed state. At one point he visualized himself walking through a gallery where he saw his paintings on the walls, which was very gratifying and which boosted his self-esteem significantly. Another time he visualized working on a work-in-progress and also, like the composer, trying out different ways of handling various passages in the painting. He recognized this last strategy as being very useful and it helped him realize the final state more quickly than in the past. The reduction of anxiety, an accomplishment in both men, and the rehearsal of different outcomes while in the hypnotic state seemed to be what conferred the benefit of this approach to resolving complete or partial creative blocks. In addition there is a likelihood (one that I believe firmly) that the hypnotic state represents a successful shift from left to right brain thinking.
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
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