Thursday, November 01, 2007

Steven Pinker on Art

Everyone should go and buy The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Here's an excerpt on art:

(click for readable larger images)


Helquin said...

Interesting excerpt. I think I agree with Pinker's basic premise, and I agree that postmodernism is, for the most part, a travesty. But he seems to be juggling a lot of assumptions and generalizations -- and he really loses me on that last page. Surely it can be argued that some of the bourgeoisie "were despicable in the conduct of their personal lives, and many embraced fascism or Stalinism." Or that the values of "personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy" are held by many modernists and even (gasp) postmodernists. Or that Pinker has done some considerable cherry-picking in holding up those particular virtues as characteristic of the middle class -- rather than, say, social hypocrisy, devotion to conformity and bigotry, avoidance of intellectual rigor, and respect for corporate feudalism.

Just some thoughts. I gather that the arts aren't a primary focus of Pinker's book, but he's set up quite a few straw men in just seven pages. Maybe I'm just miffed because he picked on Olitski while giving Warhol a free pass on those damned soup cans. ;-)

Jacques de Beaufort said...

...that's the problem with generalizations..but
evolutionary psychology is a very reductive process.

The critique he is making is about CLAIMS to moral superiority which arise from the need of art employ "interpreters" in order confer STATUS. This is because art cannot confer status if any joe blow can have it. Status is a huge deal to evolutionary psychologists, and even though Pinker bulldozes alot of the intricacies, I think he is more or less accurate in his assessment of the human animal as we have manifested ourselves in the political/commercial matrix of "art" over the last century. Tied ourselves into a nice little knot I suppose.

Helquin said...

I agree that the human animal has a powerful drive to attain & display social status -- and that the impulse has led us to tie ourselves in many nice little knots.

I'm beginning to see that my objections to Pinker are due to confusion about the term "bourgeoisie": I tend to read it as a Marxist term, indicating the capitalists who own the means of production & who employ wage-earners, while Pinker seems to use it to indicate a vaguely-defined "middle class" which includes everyone from white-collar professionals to the working poor. Even so, I'm a little put off by Pinker's apparently high regard for the sensibilities of the middle class (and the instinctive pleasures of infants). Their values are not unanimously "good things" and many of those values merit sneering.

Maybe art isn't capable of pulling off that kind of cultural critique. Several Modernist movements (Dada, Surrealism, Flux) were founded in reaction against actual, if not acknowledged, bourgeois ideals such as capitalism, nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, commercialism, consumer culture, and intellectual conformity. But in the end, these movements are absorbed by an art establishment which readily transforms paintings & sculptures into luxury items to signify an owner's status.

I think I'm tying myself into a knot! But I see the mechanisms of the art world as a manifestation of middle-class values, not as an elite affront to those values. Sorry for the long comments... I should have posted something about this on my own blog.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

...well it's weird to think that "values" are owned in different ways by different "classes" of people. Values are held by individuals not broad imaginary swaths of social strata. Certain groups lay claim to moral superiority of course. You'll find this in all classes of humanity. You'll also find nihilism in all the various classes, although it's expressed differently.

Mostly what Pinker is doing is bringing the art world down to earth by generalizing these class distinctions. But in order to fight fire you have to set off some bombs. It's not an elegant argument, but as you've pointed out there exists a legion of problems with art movements that claim to be forces of cultural liberation and change. This is because they become institutionalized after they succeed and then become part of the identified "problem".

Your long comments are more than welcome dude.

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