I love spending time looking at art in museums or galleries. It’s like a big buffet and you can consume more of what you like, and sample some of the other offerings. And just like a good meal, I am satiated, tired, and happy at the end of the indulgence. Mentally and emotionally, that is.
I was with a friend recently at the DeYoung museum who commented on the excessive ornateness of the frames on the art, which distracted and detracted from the beauty of the painting itself. And it struck me, literally and figuratively, how much framing matters.
We exhort ourselves to never judge people by their looks, or a book by it’s cover, but at the end of the day, we succumb to framing. Advertisers have been exploiting our shallow judgment heuristics for years.
So, when given a choice to frame something like a great work of art in good light, why do we choose bad framing? One can understand the opposite, where framing can be used to improve a poor impression, but adverse framing is harder to reconcile.
Really good art should have no frame, just like a truly beautiful woman needs no make up. And closer to my own field, a truly original idea does not need to be dressed up in an excessive number of mathematical equations. And yet, so many beautiful women overdo their face packs, and research papers are written in trappings that obfuscate and confuse, rather than make us more knowledgeable. Why?
At some level we are all insecure, because we do not really know that we are already worth a lot just as we are. So we err by overdoing our framing. We end up not enhancing but cluttering. Like a house with too much furniture or art on the walls that feels less like home and hard to live in, we become uncomfortable in our trappings, and deny the pureness of our own skin and being. This only makes us more insecure and perpetuates the excess framing cycle.
Or, we play the frame game. Signaling becomes the goal of framing. Form over substance. It is why we need to wear an expensive business suit to meet a client, to show we are serious and the client is important. That in itself is not a bad thing, but the client really begins to believe we are more qualified than someone who could not afford the same expensive suit. The converse is worse. When we do not wear the expensive suit even when we are better qualified, that we are downgraded, to everyone’s detriment. Framing to signal is deep-rooted in nature. Birds with better plumes attract better mates. It’s a time-tested outcome of Darwinian evolution. It’s when we try to do more than nature prescribes that we make a mess of things. And when we do it collectively, kowtowing to the exaggerated norms of society, we make things even worse!
We are a strange collection of paradoxes. When we are supposed to be more creative, as in the art realm, we end up conforming more. Art is heavily framed because that’s the way it’s done. No ifs or buts. Casual Fridays exist, but not casual Wednesdays, which I think would be much nicer! But the former has a frame of precursing the weekend.
So it’s acceptable.
Yes, I know I am exaggerating a bit. Frames can be utilitarian. They protect art. Our clothes are frames, to protect our sensibilities. This is what nature intended. But we are cursed to be fooled by frames, and also to indulge in bad framing. Maybe that’s also what nature intended?!