Sunday, May 20, 2012

Musings on Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show, Part III

We are still in the first gallery of Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show at the University of Pennsylvania Institute of Contemporary Art, and the next organizing statement from his diary is written on the wall next to the large neon light installation. 

            I would much rather live now than in any other time in history.

Unlike most of the other diary aphorisms, this one struck me as something I had not really thought about before.  Sagmeister observes that unlike 100 years ago when individuals had little control over their life, we today can be in charge of the important decisions about what we do for work and where we live our lives.  He references Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined, a book that documents a decrease in crime and violence. 

Pinker’s book impressed me with how far we have come since the Middle Ages.  He quotes Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century, which describes two of the most popular sports of that time:

Players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws…Or a pig enclosed in a wide pen was chased by men with clubs to the laughter of spectators as he ran squealing from the blows until beaten lifeless.

Pinker also describes a scholarly article “Losing Face, Saving Face:  Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town” where historian Valentin Groebner documents dozens of accounts in which one person cut off the nose of another. These acts of private vengeance were so common that

The authors of late-medieval surgical textbooks also devote particular attention to nasal injuries, discussing whether a nose once cut off can grow back, a controversial question that the French royal physician Henri de Mondeville answered in his famous Chirugia with a categorical “No.”

In late medieval times cutting off someone’s nose was the prototypical act of spite and the source of our modern saying, “to cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Living in Philadelphia with its nation leading murder rate year after year (, it can be hard to recognize that Sagmeister is right in concluding that living today is preferable to living in the past.

Another organizing Sagmeister statement is presented as words in a spider web that changes shape as I pass by it in the first room of the exhibition. ( “Being not truthful works against me.”  Sagmeister expands on this thought by writing on the wall of the gallery:

This is true for myself. My memory is too faulty to allow me to be a successful liar. And if I don’t want people to know about something I do, maybe I should not be doing it at all. People who do not cheat are happier than people who do. Surprisingly the cheaters also do worse money wise in the long run.

Maybe it is just because I am in the middle of re-reading volume 2 of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but this admirable observation by Sagmeister does not ring universally true.  Caro describes in meticulous detail how Johnson lies about his acquisition of the Austin radio station that was the foundation of his personal wealth and how he steals the 1948 Texas senate race against former governor Coke Stevenson.  Johnson was a liar who became president and died a wealthy man.

Today’s Sunday Business section of The New York Times added to my skepticism with an article titled “Is Insider Trading Part of the Fabric?”  Ted Parmigiani discusses evidence he provided to the Securities and Exchange Commission showing frequent insider trading involving analyst research at Lehman Brothers, and Mr. Parmigiani concludes that insider trading has become institutionalized on Wall Street.  Despite the successful prosecution of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading, Mr. Pramigiani says the SEC’s “widespread net has a very big hole in it.” (

“Make the first step” ( and “Keeping a diary supports personal development” ( are two more Sagmeister statements that are illustrated in the first room of The Happy Show in Philadelphia.  In discussing his attempts at meditation in Bali, Sagmeister observes that his fellow participants in the full week of silent meditation seem “sobered out and dour; the current company will not make me happy.”  He also notes that his back hurts like hell and the only pleasure is when the pain goes away during breaks in silently sitting.  I also appreciated his observation that despite all the Westerners telling him that meditation made them happy, he does not believe them for a second. 

Monitors in the room showed Sagmeister TED talks that I enjoyed very much.  His discussion of his trip and career in Hong Kong cracked me up. ( I especially liked his discussion of authentic looking fake New York City subway posters.  When I got home I googled the subject and found many more examples that made me happy ( and ( His TED talk on Things I Have Learned in Life So Far ( discusses the same themes as The Happy Show.  There is also a book by Sagmeister with the same title, but I have not yet read it.  I found another TED talk where Sagmeister discusses the power of taking time off and how he tries to take a sabbatical every seven years to recharge his creativity (

We have now finished thinking about the first gallery of Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show.  In Part IV, we will finish this blog post by reacting to the exhibits in the second gallery of this exhibition.

No comments:

Post a Comment