The Universal Rules of Framing

07/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

One day many years ago, my son Max and I were at the Guggenheim in New York, spiraling our way down through a show of important paintings. It was one of those shows that just wasn't working for either of us. But we like to discuss what we're looking at, just for the pleasure of comparing perceptions. I suggested we talk about the framing and ignore the art. An added bonus would be that anyone overhearing us would be hard pressed to connect our insights to anything we appeared to be looking at.

Within a few paintings, we had it down. "There's a beauty. Great sense of mass, and it really works on the wall." "You think? Seems a little over the top to me, and the felt's fighting the forest."

It was so much fun that whenever we happen to end up in a museum together, we just naturally fall into our discussion of the framing. The art has taken a secondary position.

In the marketplace of ideas, somewhat like the marketplace for art, framing has an important role to play. I suspect that poor framing or no framing could significantly lower the initial esteem in which a painting would be held. Poor framing of ideas will be much more harmful, so that even brilliant and valuable ideas that are poorly framed are highly likely to be lost. Brilliant framing can be so effective in launching ideas that often the framing and the idea become intertwined forever. Ronald Regan's Cadillac-driving welfare queens, although completely fabricated, changed the perception of welfare for decades. Welfare had not changed at all. The framing had.

What is the purpose of a frame? A frame separates one thing from another. The existing world ends at the frame, and what is contained within the frame can stand alone and be contemplated. Have you ever seen a huge frame for a tiny picture? All that matted space creates a kind of visual silence that beckons, "Step closer and see the tiny treasure I protect." Just imagine how a postage stamp might look in a twelve foot wide by ten foot high massive frame. Who would be able to resist walking up to that postage stamp and trying figure out what could be so important about it so that it might deserve this much visual space?

Wouldn't you like your ideas to receive the same attention? Why was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted in the NY Times today as saying that when she speaks what she says is ignored until someone else also says the same thing? Is it harder for a woman to achieve the space that great framing might provide? Maybe she needs to clear her throat before she speaks, or speak much louder, or be much funnier. Or maybe she needs to whisper, forcing everyone to draw closer and to hang on her every word.

I will have more thoughts about framing in future pieces. I'm going to be considering how framing can manage the transition from the world outside the frame to the world inside the frame. I'm going to explore how framing can call attention to both art and ideas. Framing can also set the stage for the new, and we'll take a look at how that might optimally work. Finally, we'll see that framing sets our expectations for the expected level of quality. We do judge art by its frame, and books, not only by their covers, but by every word on the front, the flaps, and the back cover. That's where the framing takes place for ideas fighting to be accepted in the marketplace of ideas.