Monday, June 3, 2013

Reading log: Steven Pinker. "The stuff of thought"

Roses for Terrill Welch ("to live without self-appointments")
30"×24", oil on  canvas, February 2013

I've noticed recently that thinking about the not quite comfortable role of an artist in the society, as well as about the strange phenomenon of modern art world, tends to bring me back to a theory of human sociality I read about several years ago, in Steven Pinker's book "The stuff of thought. Language as a window into human nature" (pp. 401-414). The theory itself has been developed by the anthropologist Alan Fiske, but Pinker uses it to try and understand the ways we create and modify social relationships through language (which seems particularly relevant in this era of virtual communications, when all other social clues are conspicuously missing from our interactions). 

According to this theory, there are four major types of social relationships; three of them are universal, more or less "cognitively natural" to all of us, and have probably been refined and fine-tuned by evolution:

  • The first is Communal Sharing, or Solidarity ("what's mine is thine, what's thine is mine"). This is the type of relationship we fall into naturally with close relatives and partners (our "better halves"), and it is grounded in the idea that people in the relationship are, in a sense, "like one" (the same blood, the same flesh, etc.). Yet there are lots of cultural and linguistic rituals designed to extend this relationship type to larger groups, from religious orders or cults ("brotherhoods" and "sisterhoods") to nations (sharing the same "motherland"). There are also, I believe, rather feeble and not quite successful attempts to introduce this kind of discourse (and thus to establish this type of relationship) between different agents of the art world (artists, art dealers, art lovers): for example, the concept of loyalty in the "artist - dealer" dyad and the idea of supporting arts by art lovers (akin to "supporting local businesses", even at a cost to oneself). The underlying assumption is that there is a shared interest ("Art"), which makes conflicting interests (the rate of commission, the price tag on an art work) seem base and irrelevant. 
  • The second relationship type is Authority Ranking (dominance, power, status, etc.). Everyone has heard of this one, I believe; and it, inevitably, plays its part in the social aspects of art, a.k.a. Art World. Ever heard that potential collectors, even moneyed ones, are "intimidated" by commercial galleries, sometimes with "polite" overtones that it shouldn't be the case, that it's somehow the potential buyers' misconception? Which, more often than not, is followed by an injunction to "educate oneself" before even stepping into a gallery... This is the commercialized art world enveloping itself in the aura of higher Authority; more so, I am inclined to add, than even the Church.         
  • The third relationship type is called Equality Matching (reciprocity, fairness, etc.): "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". This is where the idea of a "fair price" for a work of art is rooted; that's what makes artists present calculations of material costs and labor to their audiences, or even, in some cases, claim that a collector buys (a bit of) the artist's soul when they buy a painting (you cannot really put a price tag on a bit of your soul, can you?). Also, the utterly strange idea of "per inch" rate, which looks like the most straightforward way to justify the "fairness" of a price.     
  • And the fourth type of relationship, which is neither universal nor cognitively natural to us is (you might have guessed it) Market Pricing. The historically novel idea that a price isn't determined by an intrinsic value, but by the interplay of supply-and-demand, as necessary in the modern society as it is alien to our native perceptions. When someone tells you that you shouldn't put a low price tag on your work because people will assume a low quality? That's the acknowledgement that the idea of "market price" isn't native to us. On the other hand, a work of art as a "best investment"? That's "Market Pricing" talking... 
Anyway, that's the basic classification I wanted to tell you about; I think you can "fill in" its "art world" ramifications yourself. What is essential, though, is that we can, to some extent, modulate the type of relationships we are creating with the way we talk, with language.   

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