Today we move from the performing arts to the visual. Nick Capasso is the Director of the Fitchburg Art Museum. A longtime curator of contemporary art collections in Massachusetts, Nick also has a special fondness for public art. He and I enjoyed a spirited dialogue about memorable imagery.
Brent: Trained-memory techniques call for linking two unrelated things (dialogue to physical space, numbers to credit cards, names to faces, etc.) in outrageous, over-the-top ways. Who are your favorite artists who have done this in their work and jarred our senses?
Nick: I admire the Surrealists, all of them. One of their very favorite techniques was "the arational juxtaposition of objects and images," which basically means putting things together that usually do not go together. The Surrealists particularly admired the late 19th-century French Symbolist poet, Isidore Ducasse, who described something being "as beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table."
Brent: What a fantastic combination: visual, tactile, auditory—and even olfactory with the whiff from the dissection table.
Nick: The underlying aesthetic and psychological idea is that the subconscious mind is stimulated by the strange frictions of the juxtapositions.
Brent: Which is what makes memory techniques so effective. We need to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary in our mind’s eye in order to retain it.
Nick: These things could also be funny—Dali's “Lobsterphone,” a plastic crustacean placed on the hook of a dial phone—or kinda gross, like Meret Oppenheim's “Fur-Covered Tea Cup.” And just imagine actually using either implement!
Brent: Visceral is good! If an image is powerful enough to make you laugh or recoil, you’re more likely to remember it. But these artists are considered geniuses. Tell us how non-artists can benefit cognitively, socially, or emotionally by learning about art.
Nick: OK, I'll get personal here. I am a non-artist. In fact, I tell people that if I had the talent to be an artist, I wouldn't have to be a museum director. In my youth, I took art classes, and later scads of art history classes. Not only did I wring a career from this seemingly arcane knowledge, I also learned to read the visual world.
Brent: That seems paradoxical, since experiencing the world already seems like a very visual process.
Nick: Most of us, without any art training, are visually illiterate. In school, we are extensively trained to manipulate and understand text and numbers, but never images or objects. But we live in a world flooded with images and objects, all full of meaning which most of us are utterly unable to decode, or simply read.
Brent: That actually ties into the reason why memorizing names and faces can be so challenging. We don't intuitively think to study the face and link something distinctive about it to the name.
Nick: Exactly. It’s what makes propaganda so potent, and why advertising works every time. We have no critical filters.
Brent: What methods did you use to memorize factual material for your art history classes?
Nick: GAAAK. I must admit that I used the crudest of mnemonic tools—I hand-wrote lists of data over and over and over and over until my hand and head ached. Dates were especially difficult. But it worked.
Brent: Not surprising. Repetition and muscle memory seem to be the watchwords of memorization for the performing artists I’ve spoken with. Writing by hand is a way to physically engage with the material, as is speaking it aloud.
Nick: I did well on the tests, got advanced degrees, and while I no longer remember the entirety of these minutiae, my brain is now permanently hard-wired with a general and reliable chronological architecture of the history of Western Art.
Brent: Thank you so much, Nick. You are a mesmerizing interpreter of art history.
Nick: Glad this is what you were after. This was fun!