Magic Motivation Bullets

Earlier this week I was thinking: I need a big dose of motivation! When I’m in good shape for research and writing, I can get a ton of work done; but when I’m exhausted, feeling resentful and unsupported, getting my butt in my office chair at 10pm after a long day can be a real bitch.

Sooo, along comes this handy little post on Lifehacker (reposted from Pick the Brain, a website I’ve never visited…) with three basic questions about motivation.

  1. Why do I want to achieve this? – (Write down 5 reasons why you HAVE to get it done.)
  2. How will I feel when I have overcome every obstacle and achieved the goal? (Get in touch with how amazing it will feel.)
  3. What will it cost me in 10 years time if I give up? (Really feel the pain associated with how your life will suffer in the future.)

I’m not going to spell out in this public space why I want to complete this degree. My goals used to be too closely linked with my self-image, which meant my struggles felt like deeply personal symptoms of failure on a very basic level—never a good place to be. And as a result, that meant feedback, no matter how well expressed or kindly given, felt like biting criticisms.

I will say that the process of visualizing the emotional result of achieving my goal (and, conversely, the emotional result of how I’ll feel if I don’t complete this goal) are strong motivators for me. I’ve always been a strong feeler, maybe even too much of a feeler and not enough of a thinker. Now, however, I am beginning to feel not just the desire to be in the spotlight, but also the confidence to handle it reasonably well.

I wish I could identify incentives that await me after I finish my thesis; this would make it easier for me to stay motivated on such a large project. There are few jobs in my field and few post-docs for which I’m eligible. Blurgh.

N.B. I heard the idea of motivation bullets from the authors of Freakonomics, who write about incentives as magic bullets to get people do do things. Leave it to the Americans to use gun metaphors!!


Before Reading Academic Writing Advice

Before learning about the importance of crafting strong paragraphs, and before doing reverse outlines to reflect on the organization of my argument, I had to learn two important lessons about being an academic writer. There are so many technical aspects to crafting a well-written text, but all the technique in the world can’t make up for trying to write about ideas that are too big or impossible to prove.

I needed to learn what kinds of things I could say about my project before I could actually write anything meaningful. What kinds of claims have been made about these objects? What kinds of discourses are they a part of? With which part of that discourse am I willing to engage? That my project touches on well-known and heavily published material only puts more pressure on these issues.

I also had to figure out what I actually wanted to say before writing too much. There is nothing worse than getting lost inside 40 pages of a text having persuaded myself that there is something important mixed in with those ramblings. All the tips and advice about academic writing were useless to me until I figured out what I actually wanted to say.

I’m also choosing to write with a confident voice, even though another voice in the back of my head asks, “what if you are missing something really big?!” I have to just focus on my work and let go of my low-confidence-crutch as I try to figure out what is an arguable claim.

These are the hard lessons for me, and I feel like I was on my own for much of this struggle. I may be wrong about being alone, but, well, feelings aren’t really right or wrong. In reality, if I had been able to identify and articulate these as the challenges I was facing, I could have asked for more direct help from those around me who would certainly have delivered it. But because I couldn’t see that my problem was that I was asking questions that focused on issues that were either too big to prove or not the most important and relevant aspects of the project, I couldn’t explain where  my energy was being wasted.


Homework, housework, work, work, work

I recently saw a link to this article about how students often feel pulled between their homework and housework. My first thought was, “of course I feel I am being pushed or pulled in these two directions. I’m a mom, and the housework feels unending—especially the laundry!”

My homework also feels limitless, but it’s just mine. No one else has to eat dinner prepared in my messy bibliography, let alone to find a clean outfit in my stack of library books. My dissertation homework is mine alone, which is what makes it so fun but also impossible to prioritize.

Add to this the fact that my spouse’s work is connected to a whole community of people who all have a stake in his success. There’s nothing like having a spouse who’s in the middle of a big community development project to make my dissertation work feel incredibly selfish and irrelevant!

Sure, lists of tips for navigating this balancing act are helpful. But understanding and changing the triggers for this conflict would be more helpful for me. I think there is something in there about being raised with a certain mindset about women and moms who do most of the cleaning and organizing of the home. Plus, there’s something about how I am motivated by my emotions; how I feel is too often what causes me to make certain decisions. I want to feel useful, productive, and connected. But I also want to feel like I’ve accomplished something significant.

In the meantime, it’s back to the dissertation so I can FINISH and graduate, get a decent job, and earn enough money to hire someone to do the cleaning chores for me!

Art History March Madness! Renaissance Bracket

Another set of March Madness brackets, this time devoted to the greatest hits of Western art history! Too bad I totally missed it this year! And congrats to the winner Bernini. Check out the final bracket of competitors and winners:!/c1f1e97137235

Percival Henry

I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and with this blog, I finally can. We’re going to decide history’s greatest Western artist since 1400, using the time-tested structure of the NCAA basketball tournament brackets. The field will consist of 64 artists, broken into four historical eras: Renaissance (1400 and 1500s),  Baroque (1600 and 1700s), 19th Century and Modern. Seedings are determined by me.  I’d love to get enough people to vote on the “games” to determine the results, but we’ll see. I’ll publish the seedings, with an iconic work by each artist, this week, then we’ll start the match ups next week.

Today, we’ll start with the Renaissance bracket:

1, Michelangelo (1475-1564)


2, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)


3, Raphael  (1483 – 1520)


No surprises in the first three seeds; the only debate is probably the order. I went with Michelangelo because of his versatility and longevity. If this contest was…

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Approaching Deadlines and the Beyond

More than three people have forwarded the same job opportunity at a divinity school to me. Each time I’ve had to assess my qualifications for the job. And each time I come up short.

What publications do I have? What record of performance and productivity can I show? Can I claim “a broad and deep knowledge of the key textual sources of the Byzantine theological traditions”? I suppose I have some expertise in “the study of Byzantine visual and material culture(s) and aesthetics.” And I’ve tried attending to the “interactions and influences between Byzantine thought and culture and other religious traditions, language groups and geographical regions, historically and/or into the present.” But I know I can—and should—do more with this. My list of research projects is short but targets rather difficult topics. (Do I really think I can learn Georgian?) Certainly I have many ideas for interdisciplinary study. I outlined these in a letter to my alma matter and have more ideas in my notes.

I was reflecting on this job earlier today as I biked down to campus this afternoon. I couldn’t help but feel some of the beauty of this not-too-hot summer day is dimmed by my anxieties about finishing my thesis and fining meaningful employment.

Only when I feel truly free can I be truly productive as a writer. All other times I am anxiously fussing over files, paperwork, bills, and schedules. What would it be like to live without anxiety? How do people unburden themselves of these worries?

Can I actually meet these deadlines? Two chapters and a conference proposal? Will I make the sacrifices? What will happen to the other pieces of life that are left undone?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt and Byzantine Art

I first learned about Lanigan-Schmidt’s work from a NYTimes review of the exhibition “Tender Love Among the Junk” at MoMA PS1 (18 November 2012–7 April 2013). In his art he uses every kind of unconventional art material to create images of beauty, religiosity, and storytelling. One could say his use of materials is a kind of act of redemption that helps us see colourful and reflected items of trash for their aesthetically complex potential. I think it’s great that we can compare his colourful and decorative work to Byzantine art, despite the contradictory sensibilities regarding the use of materials. (Byzantine artists almost never use cheap or inexpensive materials.) Why he chose to explore Byzantine art’s visual tradition of icons and icon screens remains a mystery to me. This is not iconography or decorative traditions from his youth in Elizabeth, NJ.

He is not the first contemporary artist I’ve encountered who uses the iconographical and decorative culture of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches for new purposes. His art that takes viewers to the collision between sacred and profane (although I’m not really sure how the artist defines these concepts), where chalices, altars, and crowns are cleaved from their original context and installed into art galleries—the churches of our so-called modern culture. Andres Seranno’s famous photograph of the crucifix immersed into urine has defined this genre of appropriation and critique using religious symbolism for cultural commentary. These artists use the weight and sometimes even some of the semantic value of inherited cultural symbols to express their own views on “the church” or to tell personal narratives.

The reviewer puts his work into historical context by suggesting his work is a kind of decorative or flamboyant response to the sobriety of Minimalism of the 1970s. He is also categorized as another gay artist; his exuberant style and pornographic content of some works is a form of camp, the epitome of a gay aesthetic if the 70s and 80s.  Third, his professed religious convictions and technique distinguish him from the hegemonic art world which lead to another comparison to the outsider artist James Hampton whose own use of discarded silver and gold foil is most memorably seen in his work, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum). And, finally, he is placed in the 70s New York art world and the Pattern and Decoration Movement with art dealer Holly Solomon.

To my mind, Lanigan-Schmidt’s genuine faith in institutional religion places his work in an entirely separate path of artists who allow themselves to understand their personal experiences and relationships are shaped by religious communities.  His own life includes conflict around his  sexuality which means it is no surprise that he, like so many others, seeks to redeem his relationship with the church that censured him. Is this is perhaps one of the main reasons why his work hasn’t become more widely known by a broader public? You don’t need me to say that religious conviction has not been in vogue in the art world for the past century and a half. While the critics and academics who attempt to put his work into words have successfully analyzed the cultural context for his personal narrative as a gay man in New York City, I’d like to see a deep analysis of his religious convictions and influences. Perhaps his work presents an opportunity for us to see that religious / Christian art comes from many different kinds of artists?

1. Mysterium Tremendum, late 1980s

Overwhelming mystery or numinous. This work tells the story of a young altar boy who was abused by older teenagers, who fell in love with another boy, who turned his intense emotional pain into self-cutting, and who found art as a way to redeem his story. He uses dozens of baking pans decorated with pictures and handwritten notes and an audio track with these stories chanted. The connection to chants used to celebrate Mass dovetails nicely with the artist’s overall intentions to transform ordinary materials into spiritually rich and beautiful images. Another connection to chant which is also used extensively for the Psalms puts his storytelling—his laments and cries for help—into the very long tradition of the Psalmist’s prayers for aid.

2. Iconostasis, 1977–78

This work recreates a free-standing wall of icons of the Virgin and Child and other saints similar to what was used in Byzantine and Orthodox churches to separate the space around the altar from the nave. This work very strongly demonstrates his use of Catholic or Orthodox iconography, obviously, and leaves me wondering what is he trying to conceal? or reveal?

Here’s a YouTube video of the artist being interviewed for the show at PS1:

Another video of the artist interviewed by MoMA:

Occhiogrosso, Peter.Once a Catholic: prominent Catholics and ex-Catholics reveal the influence of the church on their lives and work. Ballantine Books, 1989ISBN 978-0-345-35670-3

I especially like proportions in medieval art: big head, little arms.






























Leslie is a U3 chemistry student minoring in art history. In her procrastination time, she feeds her meme addiction through her blog Confessions of a Bad Chemist (, and most recently by writing art history memes for CanvasWeb!

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