For Portraits and Selfies: A Case of Monkey See, Monkey Not-Quite-Do

Portraits and Selfies Re-enactment of famous Art

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

Who Are You Negotiating With?

Negotiating with owl-eyed Mitch McConnel

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.

Spotting Bullies at Work

Narendra Modi as Authoritarian Bully

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.