Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Joshua Rothman
September 4, 2011

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Be an artist: hire a welder Picture an artist at work, and you probably imagine someone in a studio, surrounded by materials like paint, stone, or clay. She’s elegantly disheveled, paint-splattered, dust-covered - someone, in short, who gets her hands dirty.

For many contemporary artists, however, this vision bears little relation to reality. In “The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship,” Michael Petry, a distinguished artist and the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, London, reveals how today’s artists rely upon a varied cast of craftspeople to realize their artworks. A typical sculptor, Petry writes, has realized that “I don’t have to know how to pour bronze to make a work in bronze.” Instead, she can hire an experienced metalworker.

This practice is controversial; in an Ideas story on this trend in 2008, some artists were clearly unhappy that their contemporaries were signing works that they may or may not have even touched in person. But, Petry argues, you shouldn’t dismiss such creations just because workers besides the “artist” are involved. Throughout history, artists have depended on craftspeople, and it’s important, he believes, not to take the idea of the “artist’s touch” too literally. What really counts, he argues, is the artist’s original vision. Creating without making can even provide a kind of freedom: Dale Chihuly, whose glass sculptures were recently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, stopped blowing his own glass in the late 1970s, after he was blinded in one eye in a car accident. “Once I stepped back,” he has said, “I liked the view.”

In an interview with American Craft magazine editor Julie Hanus, Petry explains that there are two big factors behind the teaming-up of artists and artisans. First, artists “are interested in objects again”; often, they work by imagining an object that perfectly communicates some idea or feeling (think of Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God,” a diamond-encrusted skull, or Jochem Hendricks’s “6,128,374 Grains of Sand”). Second, Petry says, “the museological space, for better or worse, is also very interested in spectacle, which requires bigger kinds of works, which are almost never made by one person.”

You may or may not enjoy big-budget, conceptually motivated art - but, ultimately, Petry tells American Craft, it’s a good thing that “the imagination of artists is expanding.” What we need now is “honesty in labeling” in museum catalogs and galleries. Artists and artisans should be proud, not shy, about the collaboration that makes big art possible.

Broken blossoms Qi Wei, a photographer based in Singapore, photographs “exploded flowers” - flowers that have been carefully disassembled and then photographed in a way that honors their radial symmetry. This one is a rose.

Disassembling the flowers, he writes, “lays bare the various shapes and textures of the flowers, and what is interesting to me is how much more expanded some flowers can get when they are disassembled - the relative surface area to size of a rose is so much greater compared to a larger flower like the sunflower.”

Cloudy, with a 35% chance of burglaries One of the most frustrating aspects of police work is that, for the most part, crime must be fought after the fact. If only the police could predict crimes and stop them preemptively! In fact, this science-fictional scenario is more plausible than you might think: Police in Santa Cruz, Calif., are trying out software that uses yesterday’s crimes to predict where tomorrow’s will be.

In the online magazine Singularity Hub, Peter Murray explains that the team behind the software - two mathematicians, an anthropologist, and a criminologist - has drawn on a model used to predict earthquake aftershocks. After some tweaking, it now predicts burglaries. This works because crimes, like earthquakes, occur in sequence: One burglary portends another nearby. By crunching the numbers, police can surf the wave of incoming burglary data, generating a rough map of the areas most likely to be burglarized next.

Even without computer models, we have a sense of which neighborhoods are dangerous. But we develop that sense in a general way, over long periods. The new software lets police respond to specific criminals in real time. As the map is updated, patrols are shifted; the software, Murray writes, is “recalibrated every day when burglaries from the previous day are added to the dataset.” The new strategy has resulted in arrests (there were five in July), but its real goal is deterrence: Compared to July 2010, burglaries are down 27 percent.

George Mohler, one of the mathematicians behind the software, says the team is now moving onto other crimes, and attempting to model the violence created by the three major gangs in Los Angeles. “Because gang violence begets more gang violence,” Murray writes, “it is amenable to the same type of chain reaction-dependent analysis.”

Joshua Rothman is a doctoral candidate in the Harvard English department and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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