More Reasons Not To Use Contextomy

I recently saw an article in The Guardian about a controversy that arose from misrepresenting reviews of a book by Jordan Peterson through the use of selective editing.

The Times columnist James Marriott tweeted an image of the cover featuring a quote from his review that appears to endorse the work. In the now deleted tweet, he wrote: “Incredible work from Jordan Peterson’s publisher. My review of this mad book was probably the most negative thing I have ever written.”

The quote attributed to Marriott read: “A philosophy of the meaning of life … the most lucid and touching prose Peterson has ever written.” The actual phrase from Marriott’s review is: “one of the most sensitive and lucid passages of prose he has written”, a description specifically about one chapter in an otherwise almost entirely negative review.

Other reviewers were likewise quoted out of context. The issue is causing one publisher to create a best practices document for their staff.

Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the SoA (Society of Authors), said that “quoting lines out of context isn’t clever marketing”, calling the practice “morally questionable”. Readers and authors “deserve honest, fair marketing from publishers. We can’t get that by undermining and misrepresenting one writer to boost the sales of another. It puts off reviewers from reviewing and readers from buying,” she told the Bookseller.

Solomon is later quoted as noting that this sort of editing of quotes likely qualifies as a criminal act under an English consumer protection regulation from 2008.

It may still be the case, but at one time this sort of creative omission was widespread in relation to movie reviews. I wrote a post about the practice, which is called contextomy, back in 2007. I basically wrote along the same lines as Nicola Solomon that the practice undermines confidence.

It also occurred to me that the growing push to use marketing language focused on the audience experience and needs is another reason to avoid using out of context reviewer quotes…or reviewer quotes at all. Quoting reviews that focus on the excellence of the artist and their achievements is often less helpful in making a decision to participate than customer focused language.

In the process of searching for my post on contextomy, I came across a 2006 post I made about how an obsessive focus on perfection can create an environment where anything less is viewed as a failure.

In there I quote a Juilliard professor:

“…an average graduate of law school or medical school can still have a decent career. But it is not possible, he said, for a successful artist to be only average.”

Shortly after, I quote Artful Manager author Andrew Taylor about the language used in arts marketing materials and grant reports:

Perfection, triumph, success, and positive spin. Their performances are always exceptional. Their audiences are always ecstatic. Their reviews are always resounding (or mysteriously missing from the packet). Their communities are always connected and enthralled. In short, they are superhuman, disconnected, and insincere.

In 2006 arts professionals were saying this sort of language comes across as disconnected and insincere, but it took another 10-15 years before this concept was embraced and repeated often enough for it to gain traction. Hindsight being what it is, that is nearly a decade of what could have been constructive marketing messaging that has been lost.

Though to be fair, social media platforms which are so useful in disseminating these conversations only became publicly available around 2006 (Twitter & Facebook) Linkedin was 2004 but wasn’t really hosting these conversations then.

The Bell Works, But It Needs You

A couple weeks ago, I caught a story on NPR about a temporary monument exhibit that has been placed on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  While a little more permanent than a pop-up exhibit, it is only meant to appear on the Mall for a limited time.   The project, Beyond Granite, was initiated by Monument Lab which commissioned six artists “.…to think about histories that haven’t been commemorated by the Mall and to look to moments when the Mall was charged by people, not statues.”

One of the pieces is a playground inspired by a picture of a Baltimore playground taken a few days after it was segregated showing black and white children playing together. Young visitors are able to play on the equipment which comprises the piece.

Another is a piece commemorating Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Day concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she was prohibited from performing in Constitution Hall because she was Black.

The piece that caught my ear was “Let Freedom Ring,” that plays “My Country Tis of Thee,” a song Anderson sang in her concert. The installation plays all but the last note leaving a bystander to step forward and pull a lever to complete the song.

“The piece is simply saying, America is not America without you as an active citizen,” Ramírez Jonas says. “It needs you in some way.”

Doing a little more research, I discovered the sculptor, Paul Ramírez Jonas, is chair of the Art Department at Cornell University. An article on Cornell’s website provided more information on the philosophy behind the piece and the bystander’s role.

Before participants pull the lever to ring the last bell measuring more than two feet tall and wide, Ramírez Jonas asks them to declare why they are doing it: Are they celebrating “freedom to” do something, or “freedom from” something? They can preserve their choice in a graphite rubbing of one of those two prompts, inscribed on opposite sides of the bell.

“I’m not telling you what your idea of freedom is,” Ramírez Jonas said. “I’m just suggesting that there’s flexibility, that there’s room for inserting yourself.”

Another inscription shows the song’s first verse with selected words missing, inviting participants to modify the lyrics – as Anderson did when she sang “our country” instead of “my country,” and “we sing” instead of “I sing.”

The process of “pulling together,” Ramírez Jonas said, occurs through awareness of others’ expressions of freedom and a sense of collective responsibility. Reflecting a bias toward optimism, Ramírez Jonas said, he never contemplated a design that might have rendered “America” unable to be completed.

“The bell works,” he said, “but it needs you.”

Reading a Bloomberg article on the project, I became aware of another piece by Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke (Crow) artist. It features an enlarged version of the artist’s thumbprint encased in glass and outlined in red soil. The names of 50 Crow leaders who signed agreements with the US government, often by using their thumbprints. The name of the piece, “The Soil You See…” comes from the words of one of the few survivors of Battle of Little Bighorn

“The soil you see is not ordinary soil — it is the dust of the blood, the flesh and bones of our ancestors. . . . You will have to dig down through the surface before you can find nature’s earth as the upper portion is Crow.”

Do You Remember Your First Concert Experience?

Last week Washington Post contributor Theodore Johnson reflected back on the first concert he saw when he was 9 years old (The Fat Boys). He noted that due to Covid restrictions, this summer would a delayed first concert experience for a lot of young people.

Lest you think that my posts advocate for some niche arts and culture insider philosophy, Johnson, a retired naval officer and adviser to the New America think tank, writes much the same as I regarding the value of shared, in-person experiences.  He cites studies that have shown how people value collective experience concerts provide which is all the more reason to lean into those themes in marketing messaging.

And aside from how technologically advanced a major concert is now, I’m most struck by the diversity of the crowds. Maybe there is some social and civic magic to be found in our return to shared, in-person experiences.

Social scientists have identified four themes that help explain the attraction of concerts and the significance of attendance. The most prominent is the experience, followed by the engagement, the novelty and, lastly, the practical reasons.


Engagement matters. Ours is a society that requires frequent positive community participation if it’s to be resilient against the forces pulling us apart. Scholars have explored the impact of attending concerts, and they’ve found such benefits as an increased sense of belonging and improved well-being. Concert audiences “experienced feelings of togetherness,” researchers report. Sharing a love for something facilitates a path to connection.

How Will The New Albright-Know Be Received By Buffalo’s Working Class

Bloomberg had an article about the renovated Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, now rebranded Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Prior to the renovation, the director said people would frequently tell him the museum was meant for the elites.  The post-renovation goal is to have the working class residents of the city feel comfortable visiting the space.

It was interesting to read that the director was insistent that the town square plaza not become a lobby. There will be play areas with Legos rather than admission desks and coat checks. They also looked at 12 other cold climate cities and took inspiration from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s glass enclosed atrium to design a glass enclosed space that  will act “…as a kind of snow collector when it’s cold enough and a place to watch the rain pour down when it’s not.” They engaged the community in focus groups to get ideas about how the space should be used when the museum opens again.

I was a little concerned about how well-thought out their efforts at connecting with the working class might turn out when I read that recent programming included a gamelan and Wayang puppetry dance. But in fact, Buffalo is apparently a center of gamelan and other Indonesian arts.

The crystal sculptural elements of the Town Square space are also a favored space for selfies:

Visitors gravitated to the base of “Common Sky,” and few resisted the urge to open up the cameras on their smartphones after looking up at the mirrored panels along what is now Buffalo’s hottest selfie spot. Giving it a run for its money is Lucas Samaras’s “Mirrored Room” (1966), one of the museum’s most beloved, aptly named pieces, which has been fully restored and given pride of place in a new (free) gallery space all to itself in the Knox Building.

The Bloomberg article acknowledged some of the troubles that the museum world in general is facing by wondering aloud if this public gathering space may provide a convenient locale for protests:

Buffalo is deeply segregated by race and class, while its destination art museum is run by a nonprofit institution dependent on the support of the region’s elites. How will the museum react if a protest of a board member takes place inside Town Square? Or a rally in support of staff unionization?