Ever wonder how much a mask hides in terms of your possible facial expressions? The answer is a lot: almost 75% of the variety of ways in which you might emote. For instance, the area around the eyes is great for picking up surprise and fear, but without the nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin, the possible presence of contempt and disgust won’t get revealed at all.
Emotions can be as contagious as Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean the facial expressions are easy to capture when art devotees around the world use their imaginations in wonderful ways to recreate famous works of art at home. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles have gotten into the act, encouraging art lovers to re-stage famous art works. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/museum-asking-people-remake-famous-artworks-with-household-items-180974546/ But no entity has surpassed a Facebook group, started in Russia, that boasts over half a million art re-enactors. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/25/world/europe/russia-Facebook-art-parodies.html If you’re a painter or photographer who does portrait work – or somebody who likes to pose for selfies and are interested in what your expressions reveal about your mood that day or your personality, over time – listen in. Here’s an opportunity to sharpen your skills or pose. For my book Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others, I surveyed participants on what they viewed as the signature, characteristic emotions of 173 celebrities. On average, they were right only about 35% of the time – meaning there’s no shame in failing to detect emotions well. Join the crowd. We’re all more likely to be Watson rather than Sherlock Holmes!
In terms of life imitating art, just how good are the re-enactors at capturing correct facial expressions? In truth pretty good, but not great. Above on the left side is “Salome” with the head of John the Baptist by the 17th-century Bolognese painter Guido Reni. On the right is that same painting’s recent staging by Aglaya Nikonorova and her husband, Alexander. What’s faithful to the original, in terms of the couple’s facial expressions? Both women have wide open eyes (anger, fear and surprise), pursed lips (anger) and a smirk on the left side of their mouths (contempt). So far, so good. But the original Salome also has a pouty, raised chin (indicating anger, sadness and disgust), whereas the imitation includes a raised left eyebrow, indicating an extra dose of fear and surprise. That difference is trifling, however, compared to John the Baptist’s head. In the original, the eyes are sunken in grief with a pool of wrinkles above them, and the eyebrows are raised, pushed out and pinched together above the nose. In the re-enactment John the Baptist appears to be taking a nap, with his face relaxed. Further reinforcing the difference, in the original John’s lips are slightly apart and pulled down, triggering the viewer to feel the horror of getting beheaded, and perhaps inducing a contagious tremble. In contrast, in the re-enactment John’s lips appear just as peaceful as his eyes. In short, it’s a matter of being close – but no cigar.
In simple terms, these are important take-aways about where and how people express their emotions on their faces whenever contemplating a portrait or selfie:
The upper face is the place for surprise and fear. When the eyes go wide and the eyebrows lift, we’re increasing our field of vision.
The area around the mouth reveals the like/dislike reactions best. Look for anger (tightening), disgust (contortions) or sadness (wincing especially).
The chin area never reveals any happiness. It’s best for wide-mouth surprise and fear, or a jutting chin for anger.
More re-enactments will be included in my virtual talk, sponsored by the Duluth Art Institute on Thursday, May 28that 3 p.m. The heart of the presentation, however, will be highlights from my recent art book First Blush: People’s Intuitive Reactions to Famous Art. It’s the biggest study ever done involving eye-tracking and art – plus facial coding of participants’ responses, in order to also know how they feel about what they’re specifically seeing. The event is free but you must register. Please go to https://www.duluthartinstitute.org/event-3843385/Registration
Next up in my series on the celebrities I analyzed for Famous Faces Decoded is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, born on this day in 1984. Which two emotions most distinguish Zuckerberg from the 173 celebrities I facially coded for my book?
The people I surveyed said happiness and joy. The truth is, yes, joy distinguishes Zuckerberg – as shown here. With a true, joyful smile, the muscle around the eye tightens, creating a sparkle that can’t be readily faked. Think of joy as the equivalent of drinking champagne, which Zuckerberg can afford many cases of at this point in his career! In contrast, what is Zuckerberg’s second most characteristic emotion? It’s anger; should you doubt me, check out his appearances before Congress in April of 2018. As to Zuckerberg’s least characteristic emotion, it’s fear.
First, the overwhelming statistic: an American died from Covid-19 every 42 seconds in April. Now for the underwhelming statistic: over the course of three weeks of daily coronavirus press briefings in April, only four minutes of Donald Trump’s 13 hours of remarks directly acknowledged the pandemic’s victims. In other words, verbal mourning only took up about 0.05% of Trump’s time and even less of his emotional energy.Note his smirking smile as he uses the daily briefing to preen and joust with reporters.
Contrast that lack of empathy with this photo of George W. Bush offering somebody a consoling hug after 9/11 and of Barack Obama openly weeping after the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Reliable signs of sadness are that a wince creases our cheeks and our inner eyebrows rise, creating a puddle of wrinkles across our foreheads. The difference between Trump fervently wanting America “open for business again” while being so un-open to the sufferings of anybody other than himself couldn’t be greater. We’re enduring a marathon of unknown length with a leader who, in terms of compassion, has barely crossed the starting line.
For the next year, I’ll be highlighting the celebrities I covered in my book Famous Faces Decoded. First up is film star Audrey Hepburn, born on this day in 1929 and perhaps most famous for starring in the movies Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Which two emotions most characterize Hepburn? The people I surveyed for my book thought the answers were happiness and joy. How accurate were they? Happiness, yes plenty of low-grade smiles. Joy? No, Hepburn’s second signature emotion is instead fear. People’s accuracy for assessing this movie star’s emotional DNA was 50% correct. Note her raised eyebrows and widened eyes, both signs of her characteristic fear.
U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is known as The Grim Reaper. The guy made headlines recently for suggesting that states hit hard by Covid-19 declare bankruptcy rather than look to Washington, D.C. for aid. The opposition had a field day. States can’t legally run deficits. Bond markets would suffer. More schoolteachers and police officers will be furloughed, if he has his way. Hypocrisy is alive and well thanks to McConnell securing budget-busting tax cuts in 2017 for the rich but now, in a crisis, he denounces the idea of “borrowing money from future generations.”
True. True. True, and, yes, audaciously true! But hypocrisy doesn’t change the fact that Democratic leaders must still negotiate with The Grim Reaper. It happens to all of us; consumers and everyone in business must haggle with a difficult person from time-to-time.
In those unwelcome moments, size up your opponent. In McConnell’s case, he’s like an owl given his characteristically alert, on-guard big-eyed look. Clue #1 is that McConnell won’t let anything slip by him. Clue #2 is that he frowns more often than he smiles. He’ll accept opprobrium on behalf of getting his partisan way. Nobody needs to be happy in the process. Finally, clue #3 is how often McConnell’s chin thrusts upwards in a sign of sadness, anger and disgust. There’s a proud defiance to McConnell, most evident in how he refused to even give Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland a hearing. So, how do you negotiate with somebody like McConnell? Turn the person’s strength into a weakness. How are owls most vulnerable? They’re fiercely territorial by instinct and can get in foolish fights with fellow owls even when no food or mates are involved. Watch a troublesome opponent over-reach and then let their self-inflicted wounds make them pull back to an acceptable compromise.
She almost died a quiet death, and certainly the Minnesota-based farmer cooperative known as Land O’Lakes would have preferred it that way. But when the Minnesota Reformer ran a story about the Land O’Lakes company retiring the Indian maiden who has appeared on its packaging for nearly a century, the story blew up on social media and elsewhere. Soon the retirement reached The New York Times and Fox News, leading U.S. congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) to denounce politically correct “millennials” supposedly taking over the co-op.
Now on the surface, the maiden mascot re-designed in the 1950’s by an Ojibwe Indian artist, Patrick DesJariat, may not seem anything other than benign. What’s objectionable about a young Native American woman kneeling by the side of a blue lake, holding a 4-stick box of butter? Her smile is pleasant enough – but that’s where the problem starts. That’s because the image of a happy Indian maiden evokes tales of U.S. cavalry troops stationed at reservation forts engaging in what they euphemistically called “squaw-chasing” and what we should acknowledge was coerced “seduction” or worse. Being portrayed as sexually available and subject to conquering isn’t desirable. Now, the smile alone might not get us to such a sinister reading of the Land O’Lakes logo. But add in the maiden’s kneeling, compliant posture, and the fact that for years people on social media have practiced the “boob trick” of revising the logo’s image so that the maiden’s knees are chest-high instead, and you can begin to see why the co-op finally, wisely, decently enough decided that the time had come to stop trafficking in Indian stereotypes.
The truth is that lots of logos exist that should be retired. Perhaps the worst prominent use of Native American imagery is in baseball: the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo. His eyebrows are raised and his eyes are wide open, fully alert. His smile is intense, too, and fierce. Taken together, the Chief’s beady eyes and all those teeth showing suggest how, when the mouth pulls wide and taut, the emotion being revealed is vivid anger, like a dog growling because its bone has been taken away.
Some offensive imagery has been retired; until 1991 a Mexican armed robber, the Frito Bandito, was used to sell that snack. Other vile brand logos remain. There’s a long history of African-Americans being made into caricatures, resembling the grateful, obsequious house servants in Gone with the Wind. I’m thinking of Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima and Mars’ chef, Uncle Ben, for instance. The recent modified versions of those logos are certainly more upscale, sleek and less servile-looking, but frankly my dear I don’t give a damn: get rid of them.
“To be, or not to be” . . . that’s the famous question asked in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Our version today in America . . . whether to follow the stay-at-home approach advocated by medical experts, or ignore their guidance. The photo above captures the two opposing perspectives. A Denver protester is snarling in outrage: “This is the land of the free. Go to China!” A calm medical worker blocks her path. This is not an isolated incident. Across America, gun-toting, MAGA-hat wearing, anti-lockdown protestors are agitating for the economy to be opened immediately . . . or else. Most Americans agree it’s a false choice. We need both our health and our jobs, but in that order – lives ahead of livelihoods. So what is really going on here?
The answer is emotional manipulation rooted in getting supporters to deflect blame and anger. People are hurting, hence the need to turn their anger away from The White House to scapegoats like China, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Democratic governors, or reporters for asking why Donald Trump has been so slow and inept at handling this crisis. Such manipulation is a survival tactic meant to protect just one person: the President and his re-election prospects. Trump is gambling, as usual. In this case, not with creditors’ money on behalf of his casinos and hotels but with our lives, by taking any chance he can to get the economy rolling again. And why not? That’s Trump’s modus operandi. The situation brings to mind this anecdote about risk taking. As Adolf Hitler was preparing to invade Russia in 1941, his henchmen Hermann Goering begged the Fuhrer not to take such a big, foolish gamble, to which Hitler abruptly replied: “I always gamble.”
Trump has called the protesters “very responsible people.” A White House economic advisor, Stephen Moore, has compared them to civil-rights champion Rosa Parks. Never mind that some of the protestors come to these shoulder-to-shoulder, social-distancing-flouting rallies waving Confederate flags. In politics, anger and disgust have their own internal, intuitive logic. Anger means you hit out (verbally or otherwise) at opponents, the “vermin” you’re disgusted with. Will the driver of the aptly-named RAM 1500 vehicle slam into this scrub-clad medical worker, as happened to counter-protestors in Charlottesville? No, no violence occurred this time around, thank god. But if virus history repeats itself, then forget the anger and disgust that divides us as a country. Those emotions are distractions. What we need to feel is fear given what happened in 1918, when the second wave of the influenza pandemic was deadlier than the first.
Last spring, Donald Trump launched his “Cherry Blossom Collection” available online at his Trump Store, complete with images of The White House appearing below the branding: Trump Hotels. Now for his encore performance, Trump has delayed the release of the Covid-19 economic stimulus checks so that his name can be added to the checks’ memo section. This break in protocol led me to imagine he might want a currency bill of his own. Which national leaders featured on U.S. paper bills would most compete with the highly-emotive Trump? There are two.
First, Trump’s favorite president, Andrew Jackson ($20) wins the sadness sweepstakes with eyebrows both raised and pinched together, creating waves of wrinkles across his forehead. Jackson’s mouth also shows sadness with left corner of his puckered mouth drooping. Second, Benjamin Franklin ($100) wins the defiantly on-guard award. His eyebrows are arched, his eyes wide, and his drawn-up chin collides with firmly pressed lips that hint at a smile while a smirk crowns the left corner of his mouth. It’s quite the feat: surprise in Franklin’s upper face, while his lower faces mixes together anger, disgust, and a hint of a smile overshadowed by contempt (i.e., the smirk).
Let’s imagine Trump really, really, really wants to win re-election. What might that take? My suggestion is that he substitute his characteristically angry, sad and disgust-ridden face for Woodrow Wilson’s tight-lipped look, and re-release the $100,000 gold certificate that was briefly in circulation amid the Great Depression. As unemployment skyrockets, I can’t think of more apt symbolism than that right now.
As a kid, I learned the value of spotting the bullies on my elementary school playground. One bully liked to sit on kids, squashing them with his weight. Another bully wore cowboy boots and, boy, did it hurt if he managed to kick you in the shins. But how about at work: assuming nobody is physically assaulting anybody else, could bullying be playing a role in destroying productivity and morale? How might you nip that in the bud, if you find it? The answer would require knowing what to look for, emotionally speaking.
The surest signs, I believe, consist of a larger-than-usual volume of a pair of emotions, often shown in tandem: anger and disgust. I came to that conclusion by studying world leaders for my book Two Cheers for Democracy. Analyzing the facial expressions of world leaders and correlating the results to how Freedom House ranked the degree of “civic openness” in countries across the globe, I asked the question: which emotions most reliably signal a tendency toward being a dictator—a bully–instead of being democratically inclined? The answer is anger and disgust, along with a relative absence of happiness. A case in point is India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. Note on the Time magazine cover how his upper lip is flared in disgust, while his eyes are narrowed and lips are pressed together in anger. Recently, Modi sought to have the country’s Supreme Court require the media to publish only his government’s official accounts of how the covid-19 pandemic is impacting India. While the Supreme Court didn’t rule in favor of that demand, media stories about the Modi government’s “inspiring and positive” efforts on this crisis are increasingly all that can be found, as harassment of “naysayers” builds in severity.
In holding a private counseling session with an office bully, remember that anger revolves around a desire for control, to have matters unfold in a manner of that person’s choosing. Disgust, in turn, can signal that a bully finds someone else’s ideas revolting (and a revolt against the bully’s own preferences). Wherever their presence exists, what additional emotion does anger and disgust tend to develop in others? The answer is fear, as people freeze because nobody dares to move on their own accord. Regrettably, that reaction can allow would-be dictators to orchestrate the outcomes they alone want. There is, however, an antidote to the most destructive qualities of anger and disgust. Find a gentle way to “drop” into your conversation with a bully the fact that research indicates the value of happiness. Genuine happiness, as opposed to official happy talk, can lead to superior solutions arrived at more quickly, when we all stay open to brainstorming better options.