Anxious Objects

According to Suzi Gablik (author of the excellent book Has Modernism Failed?), the term “anxious object” was first used by art critic Harold Rosenberg to describe modern art that forces us to question whether or not the work is genuinely intended to be art.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

The earliest example of  the anxious object is a 1917 piece by Marcel Duchamp called Fountain, which is nothing more than a signed porcelain urinal. Today the work is considered by art historians to be a landmark of the avant-garde. At the time of its exhibiting, however, the piece left audiences feeling bewildered and disturbed.

This is typically the reaction we have in the presence of anxious objects, because the uncertainty we experience demands some limit to the artist’s credibility. Duchamp himself later admitted that placing a urinal in an art gallery was something of a joke. If something is not instantly recognizable as art, then how do we reconcile the creator’s intent as anything but subversive?

Duchamp t-shirt with urinal on the frontInterestingly, the cultural estrangement sought by Duchamp resulted in an unexpected outcome: a new dialogue on how we interpret aesthetic beauty. Some critics, in fact, have favorably compared Fountain to the sculptures of Brancusi and Moore. When it comes to anxious objects, we miss the point while simultaneously (and often tragically) reinforcing it.

This comes to mind because of two stories appearing last week about Twitter, one of them involving the always provocative Kanye West. Mr. West, already known for controversial boasts proclaiming his power and intellect, declared himself “the greatest living rock star on the planet” after his set at Glastonbury. The response on Twitter was swift and judgmental, not unlike the vitriol observed when it was leaked that Mr. West had “discovered” a rising new talent named Paul McCartney.

Kanye West on stage at Glastonbury, boasting that his is the greatest living rock star on the planet

What is the social motivation that arouses people into action and gives direction to behavior? While the kudzu-like expansion of Kanye West’s limitless ego may provide wonderful fodder for the TMZ generation, the rationale dictating his behavior is not as easily explained. Our metric for evaluating social motive is often distilled to bizarre justifications. While employing such labels as narcissisticdelusional and outrageous, we openly wonder if Mr. West has a personality disorder and pick apart the structure of his upbringing to explain the inexplicable.

The opinion here is that Kanye West, and his accomplishment as an artist, is simply a manifestation of the persona he intentionally cultivates. In today’s Buzzfeed fueled media landscape, the public life he chooses to expose takes the form of an anxious object. The same motivations that drive all elements of fantasy—magnificent achievements, sexual striving, recognition of power by others—are fundamental to the uneasiness we feel as his story unfolds. The ambiguous and unstructured nature of his outbursts contributes to a growing suspicion that deliberate, cultural resistance is what the calculated art of Kanye West represents.

Subversive tendencies run both ways; if one can maximize higher meaning from something that is not actually a work of art, then it must be possible to reduce artistry from the intention to create. This appears to be the case with a series of Twitter posts reportedly tweeted by the CEO of Frito Lay this week.

According to a story on Medium, the CEO meant to type his tweets into the Google search bar of his browser. Apparently, he didn’t realize that he was actually releasing his search queries in a public forum. The result was an amusing (yet unconfirmed) snapshot into the mind of one of the food industry’s top executives.

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What is a Frito?

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: How to be a chips company CEO

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What's the lowest you can pay a potato farmer

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: buy chips on iPhone

It’s possible that the story isn’t true (and it’s difficult to confirm, given that the tweets have either been deleted from the Frito Lay Twitter account or never existed in the first place). If true, however, it can be viewed as a brilliantly self-referential example of an anxious object. Although the tweets are uncomfortably close to being a parody, our archetype of the technophobic, egocentric business leader permeates the suspicion that this story just might be authentic. It might even be good marketing for the Frito Lay brand, given the otherwise stale environment of corporate social media.

All forms of art have the same inherent challenge: determining how much effort is required on the part of the artist to be taken seriously, and to what degree we as an audience are rewarded for pursuing the journey. A culture’s durability often rests upon the interpretive balance between the two, and blurring the lines has never been easier or more immediate.

Artists throughout history have played our tendencies as a social agent, thus promoting their conceptual output in order to suit the demands of the era in which we live. The caricature of celebrity is a textbook example of the indistinguishable demarcation between creator and concept. “We have always had the historical choice of either lying through or living through our contradictions,” said sculptor Carl Andre. “My ideal sculpture is a road.”

Update: according to Boing Boing, the Frito Lay CEO tweets have been generally confirmed to be satire. When the above post was written, the word “satire” did not appear on either of the two articles reporting the story. One might argue that shrouding the line between satire and reality is, in execution, an anxious object depicting another anxious object. Modern art goes meta.

Most Will Get This Wrong

Rubik's CubeReaders of a certain age will recall a period in the early 1980’s when Rubik’s Cube was all the rage (back when people still said things like “all the rage”). For a brief time, it was nearly impossible to go anywhere or do anything without being confronted with some reference to the puzzle or the Hungarian professor who invented it. The item has sold 350 million units to date and is easily the world’s top-selling toy of its kind.

LinkedIn is the largest professional social network on the Internet, currently reporting more than 260 million users worldwide since its launch in 2003. The first tentative steps into the world of business-oriented social media came with a set of expectations for participation, not unlike those dictating one’s professional conduct at an in-person business function. For those who wished to expand their circle of contacts beyond conventional networking channels, the platform was a godsend.

"solve if you are a genius" puzzle, with the answer being an upraised middle fingerToday, these two seemingly disparate streams have converged. As the lines between business and social networking have become increasingly blurred, the typical LinkedIn user can expect to see at least one puzzle of some sort in their daily feed. On Monday, it’s a mathematical equation with the headline “Solve This If U R a Genius” affixed to the top. On Wednesday it might be a word search puzzle, inviting us to join the 2,703 commenters who previously discovered the inspirational message hidden within. Some puzzles attempt to pry into the psychological makeup of the user, operating as a sort of abridged version of the Myers-Brigg indicator. Other puzzles attempt to predict what sort of career we should pursue based on our first name.

Although seemingly innocuous fun, the choice to participate in a puzzle on someone’s LinkedIn feed does raise hypothetical questions. Are we naturally conditioned to think better or worse of a co-worker who didn’t know that 7+7/7+7×7-7=50 (or is it 14)? If a prospective employer researches a candidate’s background on LinkedIn, do her chances of landing the job decrease or increase because she located the word “universe” in a word search puzzle? Have our professional standards relaxed to the point where I could bring a Rubik’s Cube to a job interview?*

cartoon with caption "I would have hired you if you didn't post math problems on LinkedIn"LinkedIn is now such an accepted component of doing business that we are constantly besieged with articles telling us what behaviors to avoid when using the product. Anything can be considered LinkedIn taboo, from failing to include a profile picture to having not enough (or too many) personal recommendations. Still, there is little in the way of journalistic guidance when it comes to online puzzles. We want to believe (and the research seems to indicate) that a fun working environment is a more productive one. Most of us recognize that there’s a time and place for frivolity, however, and a time and place to be serious and get things done.

LinkedIn has experienced its share of backlash in recent years. Some users have cited the platform’s increasing failure to properly qualify prospective connections, a by-product of the “broad and shallow” recruiting model often employed by mass networking agencies. Others have accused LinkedIn advertisers of flooding inboxes with spam messages, saying the platform offers too little value for the cognitive investment. Kendra Eash of the New Yorker recently published a column of honest LinkedIn recommendations which, like all satire, hits just close enough to home to be brilliant:

“How can I sum up Judy in just one paragraph? I can’t, because she will probably rewrite it. A brilliant micromanager and leader of team anxiety, she never met a project she didn’t want to take over. Judy has inspired thousands of eye rolls during her time here, and anybody that’s going to work with her deserves to be warned in advance.”

LinkedIn is an easy target because we expect better from a professional networking website. The inclusion of puzzles on our feeds increasingly risks distancing us from our purpose for being there, disguising digital pablum as meaningful engagement. That said, the viral attraction of puzzles might have business value as a mechanism for screening talent. Already, headhunters have begun posting arithmetic problems (“If you can solve this, I might be interested in hiring you”) as a way to thin the field of prospective job candidates.

This is where things get uncomfortable: the realization that important, real-world decisions might be made on the basis of someone’s performance on a simple (almost stupid), diversionary task. It’s akin to hiring a finance manager because they can beat your top salesperson at Monopoly. How long before such tactics of dubious intention are widely repurposed by principled organizations, and what effect might this have on the future of business interaction?

*Personal caveat: I solved Rubik’s Cube when I was in sixth grade, but for some reason my clients and employers haven’t been impressed by this achievement.