I normally don’t hang, post, paste, pin, plaster or paint anything decorative (except basic paint) on my office or home walls.

In my office, a few things dangle from wall pegs, but just for ease of utilitarian access to them. I’m not at all puzzled by why others do hang stuff on their walls, because I can explain it—in a number of very different ways, drawing upon various psychological, philosophical and design principles, which is one of the objectives of this analysis.

What also needs to be explained is not only why people hang stuff on walls, but also why they do not leave them blank and empty. Although these sound like the same question, they are not. A reason why someone does something is both logically and psychologically different from a reason why they don’t refrain from doing it (much as having no reason to live is not the same as having a reason not to live).

For example, we may do X for the positive rewards, yet refrain from not doing X because of anticipated punishment. Showing up for work, on time and sober, is like that. To the extent that the mechanisms and dynamics of reward and punishment are different and independent of each other, their roles in explanations are also different and independent. (Choosing to buy ice cream for its rewards does not entail punishment for refraining from buying it, if the ice cream is only nice, not necessary.) Hence, it will be very useful to ask two distinct questions:

  • What are the expected rewards of hanging stuff on walls?
  • What are the expected punishments, if any, for not hanging stuff on walls?

Among the explanations I propose are some very exotic and unexpected ones, in addition to the obvious ones that require little discussion. For the sake of completeness, I will cover both kinds:

1. Exteriorized locus of control: Sticking a note, e.g., “Think thin!”, or a plaque with the Ten Commandments on a wall or a refrigerator door, functions as a form of self-control, motivation and inspiration and tool of self-programming to achieve what will power is perhaps unable to, e.g., in connection with weight control.

In its most general terms, such posted prods represent an externalized control, command and imperative that will be obeyed or otherwise followed more readily than inner whisperings, precisely because they carry the force of an external, exterior command, authority or other influence. Psychoanalytically, such hangings are exteriorized “super-ego” or alter-ego, much as the Ten Commandments or AA’s 12 Steps are. A nun’s wall crucifix, a Bruce Lee poster on a skinny weight-lifting kid’s wall and—far more subtly—a corporate logo on the office wall all serve to externally motivate, support and justify desired performance.

The reason why such an external locus of control works is also the reason why it is often necessary: Among those whose “internal locus of control” (sense of autonomy and self-direction) is insufficient for a given task, an external boot or nudge will be necessary to get something done.

Because a command is always, in terms of the “bio-grammar” of the brain and by definition an externally imposed demand, an externalization of a perceived requirement as a command will be far more effective than any inner whisperings. In effect, hanging stuff on walls is often a projection of inner values and priorities onto a surface that will mirror and compel their realization.

What are the implications of a bare wall, from this perspective? The foregoing analysis suggests that workmates or organizations that favor bare walls have a very strong internal locus of control or no values/goals/inspiration/identifications—the former being the likelier of the two. Recall the minimalism of icons, paintings, stained glass, etc., of the Puritan movement and the Protestant Reformation and how these correlated with a break from the external authority of Rome.

In my case, a strong internal locus of control is, I believe, the best explanation for my having no commandments or other motivators on my walls.

2. Status displays: This is perhaps the most obvious reason for stuff on walls, whether it’s a photo of you and your Ferrari, you at the peak of Mt. Kilaminjaro, your hot girl/guy friend, a portrait of a famous,(otherwise unremembered) ancestor, a painting you’ve done, diplomas (which of course also serve as a posted credential and marketing tool or work-group award photo. It’s simply piggybacking on achieved status to gain or maintain status (which does not preclude other functions for the hung stuff).

Finding this shallow and transparent, I refrain from hanging anything on a wall that smacks of tacky—make that “thumb-tacky”– status-seeking.

3. Gestalt figure and ground: You can think of your wall as being either a pure horizon or as a background “foil” or frame for something in the foreground. If you regard it as being the latter, you’ll be likelier to enjoy Gestalt figure and ground effects, namely, the wholistic interplay of elements respectively identified as foreground and background.

In some instances, the perceptual alternation of the whole’s elements’ roles as figure and ground creates a number of familiar Gestalt illusions, such as the well-known “Rubin Vase” image that looks like a vase or like the profile of two people nose-to-nose as the Gestalt-shifted foreground and background elements shift. Regarding my wall as pure, unobstructed horizon, I have neither any need nor preference for a figure-ground role for my walls and abhor any patterned wall, e.g., floral wall paper, that imposes that framework of objects against a background.

The really intriguing question is what determines whether one favors pure horizon or figure-ground walls? Among the possible explanations is that for people with any form of claustrophobia (perhaps triggered by walls with dark colors), landscape paintings and other open-space surrogates may suffice as offsets. Conversely, hanging any object on a wall forces our eyes to converge on it, which can create a visual suffocation of its own. Again, that’s me.

4. Totemic identification: Just as I don’t have anything on my walls, I have no tattoos on my skin. That’s not a coincidence, because the reason is the same in both cases: no interest in having any such visible superficial (in both senses) identifiers of my identity and identifications, including totemic identification, the latter being icons that represent the “tribe”, sub-culture or other group to which we wish to or actually belong.

Not being the least bit tribal, I will limit my identifiers to purely individual ones, while allowing that these may conform to some type or archetype, but not to a group. This means that I never have and never will have an NBA, American League, NHL, Goth, polar bear or other totemic poster on any wall, preferring to confrim any role as part of something in other ways.

Walls festooned with such totemic tokens, including Amway posters, are prima facie evidence of a group mind set and desire to feel like part of some clan.

5. Idealizations: Just as many post Photoshopped or lucky photos of themselves on Facebook to present their idealized image and persona to the world, people have been adorning their walls with idealizations of themselves or those important to them since time immemorial, e.g., English landed gentry posing for a Gainsborough family portrait in which even the purebred hounds look more perfect than they were.

Those idealizations can range from doctored photos of yourself to images of the real Adonis or Venus statues. Just be sure that you are not standing next to your Photoshopped selfies when showing them to guests (lest they see the difference).

6. Physical surrogates: Here in Vancouver, one version of the story goes, some years ago a very wealthy home owner (or architect) barraged with complaints and/or stricken with an attack of conscience about how his new oversized Stanley Park lagoon-side 3-storey mansion obliterated the view of the lagoon, park and wildlife, commissioned a gigantic scenic mural on the building’s rear wall to replicate and replace the real view.

Looking at the mural’s lagoon and forest was almost as good as viewing the real scenery. Problem: When the vacant lot adjacent to that wall got filled in with another apartment building, the mural wall adjoined that of the new building and could no longer be seen.

As an example of surrogate wall enhancements, that is the most extreme I’m aware of; but, it illustrates the possibilities, e.g., hanging office paintings of mountains when you live and work in the prairies.

7. Sentimentality surrogates: Although family photos on walls, e.g., graduation photos, almost always have a self-aggrandizing status-enhancing function, they can also serve as what I’ll call “sentimentality surrogates” (and sentimentality stimuli). Their job is to display, enshrine, confirm and surrogate strong, usually positive, sentiments (unlike FBI or Wild West post office mug shots on “wanted” posters).

The tempting, seemingly obvious conclusion to draw from bare walls is a lack of sentimentality. However, from a purely logical standpoint, posted sentimental photos, paintings, etc., while possibly sufficient to prove sentimentality, are not necessary, e.g., in the instance in which there are no available photos or other evidence of the object of that sentimentality.

Ironically, it is quite possible that the stronger the sentiment, the less likely a wall display of it, e.g., from fear of damage to it through open exposure to sunlight, to damage when posting or removing them, or to kids’ or visitors’ mishandling. Moreover, anyone aware of the likely perception of the wall display as a transparent status-seeking/affirming tactic may be inhibited from putting them up. These two explanations cover my not putting such mementos on a wall.

8. Symmetry: If you, like me, favor decorative minimalism, e.g., no bulky furniture or tall cabinets, no paintings or hangings on walls, you may face a special challenge related to symmetry. Having recently moved into a new place, but with old minimalist habits, I found myself compelled to put something on the wall—in this case, a simple gold-colored ersatz platter, and did so, before fully understanding why.

It turns out that the reason was easy to identify: Having mostly furnishings that sit low on the floor, e.g., a futon-style bed with tossed pillows, low chair, low book case and area carpets, the room in question had a disturbing asymmetry, namely, very high walls that were “bottom heavy”–with everything in view on or near the floor.

Hence, to create some semblance of symmetry along the horizontal axis dividing the walls in two, I placed that decorative plate just above the imaginary x-axis and am pleased with the resulting visual symmetry.

9. Marketing: Perhaps the most justifiable use of office wall space is anything put on it for marketing purposes—including branding and promotion. It is important to note that such marketing can comprise not only elements of the pitch to clients and the community, but also selling the company to employees and prospective employees.

Seeing organizational icons, logos, staff photos and messages plastered on office walls can reassure everyone: The organization can afford the design and deployment of such resources; it has a clear, coherent and enduring mission, message and image; it is proud of its star performers (or clients); and the organization is keeping its staff in the information loop, to the extent that charts and other informatics (that double as promotional tools) adorn the walls.

10. Sympathetic magic: As psychologically primitive and instinctive as totemic identification, the use of walls as media for what is called “sympathetic magic” is archaeologically well-confirmed. The famous paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira, which depict ancient and extinct animals such as bison, sabre-tooth tigers and various ungulates, such as deer, are considered by some experts to have been exercises in sympathetic magic—creating magical images that can attract that which they depict, in a kind of artsy voodoo.

Accompanying images of ancient hunters presumably reinforce the magic by depicting them as skillful—in hopes of inspiring or assuring such hunting expertise and success.
Hanging an artist’s conception of proposed new corporate headquarters in the lobby may actually have such a magical effect: Its embodied vision and optimism impresses clients and other visitors to the degree that it generates new revenues, donations, etc., to get itself built.

Self-fulfilling artistry, so to speak.

11. Chalk-talk: One of my pet theories about the ancient cave paintings is that they were in fact primitive equivalents of the modern football coach locker-room chalk-talk, i.e., new or reviewed plays to be run in the game, drawn and explained through a chalk-board representation of them.PALEOLITHIC PLAY

That would explain why the cave paintings discovered have mostly been on walls in the deeper parts of the caves—to prevent rival tribes and the prey animals themselves from getting wind of the cave occupant’s best moves. (“So, Throg, you flank the mammoth on the left, as shown here; Dregth, you on the right…Everyone else—throw stones and shout.”)

Presumably, Amway revenue and recruitment pyramid performance charts would or could be displayed in that way, for those purposes and with similar safeguards.

One more idea: If you decide that you like my analyses here enough to frame and hang this article on your office wall, feel free to do so.

It would be legitimized at least as a chalk-talk and, of course, as…

…an idealization of great writing.

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