Crime involving art is nothing new.
Most of us heard about the multimillion dollar Rotterdam Art Heist. For those who haven't, Romanian filmmaker Tudor Giurgiu has announced plans to turn it into a movie. Most of us know that art forgeries happen, and we were reminded again this week, when news broke that the Seattle man who made $128,000 selling worthless tchotchkes he was passing off as works by Dale Chihuly had been handed a prison sentence and a steep fine.
We're also familiar with art vandalism. But that's a bit more complicated and growing moreso by the day. On the one hand, there's Banksy, whose is celebrated for defacing buildings. On the other hand, there's Vladimir Umanets, who tried to characterize his scribbles on a Rothko as art, going so far as to compare himself to Marcel Duchamps (Seriously, Umanets? Duchamp didn't deface art. He defaced a urinal and called it art.)
So crimes involving art, yes, I understand. And solving crimes involving art? Sounds compelling, although not nearly as compelling as this: the notion of crime-SOLVING involving art.
And that was precisely what was promised on an invitation I received to a lecture entitled "Forensics of Face," which promised an exploration of the connection between crime-solving and art-appreciation, and which was to be presented at the Katonah Museum of Art. The KMA is located on a country road in the northernmost stretches of the Town of Bedford, some 40 miles north of New York City, a mere 12-minute drive from my house and right next door to an American Legion post, with whom it shares a driveway.
But don't be fooled by the location. The KMA is a prestigious venue for art appreciators. But that wasn't all. There was also this: "FBI Special Agent Elizabeth J. Hemenway and Art Historian Amy Herman team up to discuss how art-based observational techniques help solve crimes."
Now my heart was racing. An FBI Agent? Talking about solving crimes? I won't lie: I'm a dyed-in-the-wool true-crime addict. It started with late-night mysteries on HLN. Then I caught onto the Jodi Arias case. And there was the Vinnie Politan connection -- Vinnie is an HLN staple with whom I happened to have gone to grammar school and stayed in touch over the years. Occasionally, Vinnie humors me when I want to dish about a case he's covering. Eventually I found my way to Investigation Discovery, the cable channel that serves up non-stop crack for true-crime junkies. I've even become Facebook friends with the actor who plays Detective Joe Kenda, Homicide Hunter. You see, Carl Marino, who plays Kenda like a young Harrison Ford, if young Harrison Ford had done film noir with a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, was a real-life cop before becoming an actor. And he too has been willing to humor me on my true-crime jones.
But getting back on point, the coup de grace for this Forensics of Face lecture was that I was offered a press pass so that I could report on the event for the hyper-local media outlet that actually pays me to do exactly what I would be doing even if no one was paying me: asking nosy questions, writing constantly and quaffing the occasional free glass of wine.
Yes please, I thought to myself, and eagerly waited for the day to arrive. And when it did, it turned out to be even better than I'd hoped.
First, it turns out that "Amy Herman" is THE Amy Herman, as in the brains behind the brilliant Ted Ed: How Art Can Help You Analyze. Even more exciting was the fact that this was the Amy Herman who founded The Art of Perception® -- a training seminar that uses art to teach law enforcement and other professionals how to better "observe and report." I had heard about the training when I was briefly considering dusting off my back-burnered New York State Bar membership, which requires a considerable number of continuing legal education ("CLE") credits, and Herman's Art of Perception happens to be an accredited class for that purpose -- as well as very much within my field of current interest.
The way the training works is that participants are shown slides of art works and then asked to report what they've seen. Absolutely no prior knowledge of art is required. The art is to be viewed the way a crime scene is viewed: raw data. Invariably, most participants start out not reporting observational data, but rather, their conclusions about their observational data -- conclusions drawn after running such data through the lens of personal experience. Thus, a participant might observe the "Mona Lisa" as a "a smug woman, smirking, acting secretive" rather than as "a white woman with an assymetrical smile, long dark hair and large hands which she has crossed in front of her."
Participants are taught to recognize the difference between observations and conclusions. Although it's virtually impossible to remove the personal "lens" through which we observe, if we can recognize when we are drawing conclusions rather than seeing, we are one step closer to discerning which of our conclusions are faulty, and which may be useful.
For "The Forensics of Face," Herman used portraits currently on display in the KMA's current "Eye to I...3,000 Years of Portraits" exhibit to demonstrate how this plays out. As promised, Herman was joined by FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Hemenway. Herman and Hemenway took turns observing and reporting on portraits, bantering back and forth and providing extremely divergent descriptions of the same faces -- just as participants in the seminar would.
For example, Herman and Hemenway took turns reporting on what they saw in this John Singleton Copley portrait of Mrs. John Scollay ("Mrs. John Scollay (Mercy Greenleaf),' 1763, Oil on canvas, Driscoll Babcock). Herman described the Mrs. Scollay as "imperious" and "withholding." By contrast, Hemenway saw the woman as "tired after a long day, yet still anxious to engage." Herman explained that neither represents an unbiased observation of a visual perception. Yet that doesn't mean that one or the other is wrong. In fact, either could be correct. However, neither is an effective way to report an observation -- not without acknowledging the process by which observation became conclusion.
To illustrate that, Herman and Hemenway took turns observing and reporting on
this photo by Margaret Fox of a H'mong woman ("H'Mong Hoa Minority, Vietnam #96" - 2002, #7/45, borrowed from the collection of Mona and Ron Schlossberg, © Peter Steinhauer). Herman focused on the subject's gloomy expression. Hemenway's observations here were distinctly more generous, notwithstanding her years as an investigator of major crimes. In fact, her willingness to see the H'mong woman as thoughtful and forthright came straight out of that experience. Hemenway explained that she was lucky to have been exposed to many cultures while growing up, and one such culture was that of the Vietnamese. Therefore, when she was called upon to investigate a murder that had taken place in a tightly knit Vietnamese community within a large city, she was able to discern what her colleagues could not: that a particular witness -- a Vietnamese woman who was extremely reserved and virtually expressionless -- would become the prosecution's star witness. Her colleagues had misinterpreted the woman's demeanor as "deceitful."
As the evening went on, Herman and Hemenway continued to compare their art observations, all the while swapping anecdotes and historical data that shed light on personal bias, how it effects our perceptions and what we can do about it. Some of it was delightfully random.
For example, a discussion of this Eduard Vuillard self-portrait ("Self Portrait With a Cane and Straw Hat," 1891, Oil on canvas), which stared straight ahead revealed that this portrait was in direct contrast to the way Vuillard portrayed his female subjects - who were typically gazing downward. Now, one might be tempted to make assumptions about his regard for women, but one would be wrong to do so. As it turns out, the women he used as subjects tended to be family members, and family members tended to wear corsets because his family was in the corset business. And a very tight corset could explain why a woman might not be able to hold her gaze upward.
At another point, Herman illustrated how local culture can impact perceptions of whether a crime has even been committed by relating an anecdote about a training she went through in North Carolina. It involved hypothetical scenarios requiring split-second decisions on whether to shoot or stand down. In one such scenario, a home invader was fleeing. Herman would have let him go until she learned that her children were in the house. This might not fly in some states. But in North Carolina, it drew applause.
Ultimately, I was left with an inescapable conclusion: bias is inevitable. If we are to make and communicate effective observations, it is our job to recognize bias and take it into account.
Lauren Cahn wishes to thank her publisher Michelle Boyle at All About Bedford for sending her to this lecture and graciously allowing her to incorporate portions of the ensuing story she wrote for All About Bedford into this piece.