June 2011


 

Life is a constant process of modification and adaptation,   The basis of our identity is forged early on through the interaction with our parents.  Our whole world is our family, our home.  But then as we grow, become more independent, explore our environment, other people and situations influence us;  extended family, friends, school, holidays, university, marriage, job; they all accrete to our personality to form a distinct, recognisable identity.  But it doesn’t stop there.  We continue to remodel our personality throughout our life.  This usually occurs by a gradual process of evolution, but it sometimes occurs more dramatically by crisis and revolution. 

So what is it that changes us?  The simple answer is experience; the things that happen.  If the environment changes, then we either adapt and grow or we stay put, stuck in the past. Not all events change us, of course; most of what happens can be accommodated within the confines of our experience and serve only to reinforce our view of the world.  But occasionally, we encounter someone or live through some situation that so outside our experience that we are forced to adjust our whole way of thinking to incorporate it.   

Change is an emotional interaction.  Things that are different challenge, excite, shock, frighten and even depress us.  If we engage with them, we may feel envious, guilty, ashamed or angry.  Sometimes we may be able to change the situation, but more often than not, we can’t; the only thing we can change is ourselves.  Working through, coming to terms with, are the processes of change;  the reconstruction of the personality that develops out of emotional crisis.   So if something affects us, makes us think and feel, then we are changed by it.  Change is instigated by emotion.   We fall out with somebody, argue, disengage, fume, but then later, sometimes much later, we pause, start to see it from their point of view, and reconcile our differences.  We are changed by what has happened.    

‘Love changes everything’, wrote Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Such a deep emotional identification with another human being results in coalescence, a  blending of experience that changes both.  Change requires an interaction, an exchange.  We are social beings; other people change us.   Conflict and love; we are changed by sharing of intense emotional experience. 

 But it’s not just direct emotional experience that changes us.  We can be adjusted by culture.  Art, literature, science, technology, religion, politics are all agents of cultural change.   They facilitate change in ourselves by altering the emotional environment.  They can rearrange the way societies perceive their existence and influence the choices they make.  Somebody proves that God no longer exists or that world is finite, and suddenly the restrictions of people’s behaviour are lifted and they change.  The ability to communicate instantly with somebody at the other side of the world, the way we experience war, earthquakes and tsunamis in the comfort of our living room as they are happening, the way we can shop, pay bills, book holidays, conduct our jobs without leaving home; all off this has altered the way we are. 

Governments, yes even Conservative governments, are agents of social change; they change the social environment by legislature and the people have to move into it.  

Architects also change the social environment.  Geoff Cohen said on Radio 4 last week that good architecture must not only be functional, it has to create hope and space for emotional development.   Jaume Plensa (currently at The Yorkshire Sculpture Park) creates  environments for peace and meditation as well as exciting spaces where change can happen.  His sets for opera create such dramatic possibilities.   

Change the environment, change the meaning.   If we move away, get another job, we mix with a whole new social group and we are changed.  If we separate from our partner,  move on, marry someone else, we become a different person.  Relationships change people, probably more than anything else. Parents and teachers create the environment/space in which children can grow, but eventually the child has to separate.  A good teacher or parent equips the child to take advantage of the opportunity. By the same token, psychotherapy can expands perception and creates possibilities for change, but only the individual can change.  You not only need space to change, you need courage to take advantage of the opportunity.  And the good enough parent, teacher or therapist, must facilitate a safe environment for the person to develop with confidence and not seek to overprotect and confine through selfishness and fear.

Art is not just a pleasing arrangement of shapes, textures and colours; it can only be properly appreciated in its cultural context.   So-called ‘Conceptual’ artists use imagery to explores a theme that resonates with and provides insight into contemporary culture.  In an age of internet dating and casual sex, Tracey Emin dares to explore female lust.  Damien Hirst, on the other hand, expresses a more ordered corporate theme, in which feelings, emotions are put into boxes and bottles and categorised.  But isn’t all art conceptual?  Maybe historical notions of art were much more limited to religious imagery, myth, society portrait and landscape, but like classical musicians, each artist interpreted those concepts according to the fashion and spirit of the age.   Likewise The Romantics, Turner’s misty decaying ruins alongside the engines of the industrial revolution, the pre-Raphaelite expression of the Victorian tension between spirituality and sexuality expressed the way the artist saw them as an instrument of the prevailing culture.  But increasingly art has come to represent political and social themes.  The Spanish artists, Picasso’s Guernica, Miro’s burnt canvases screamed their outrage at the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.  Perhaps photojournalism occupies the same niche nowadays.  One well constructed image is worth a thousand words.

So art changes as the social environment changes.  But the artist also helps to create that environment by conceptualising aspects of culture in images and structures.  So art is a medium to help people gain insight and understanding of their culture as expressed through the expressive perspective of one individual.  

Of course, the creation of the artist says as much if not more about them as it does about the culture (though they are still a representative of the culture).   Successful artists can be and often are self centred to the point of obsession; you might say they have to be.  And in a narcissistic age,  some art has self indulgent to the point of boredom.  Do we really want to know so much about Tracey’s soiled bed, used condoms or how many men she fucked in her tent?  Are we interested in the relationship with Louise Bourgeois’ father and her governess?   In as much as it informs us about aspects of culture and psychology we are.  Louis Bourgeois depicted a whole psychoanalysis in her art.  Joseph Beuys went one stage further; he invented a fantastic personal narrative through his art;  catapulted from his crippled Stuka when it crashed in deep snow in Crimea in 1944, he claims to have been rescued by Tartar tribesman, who kept him alive by wrapping his broken body in felt and animal fat and feeding him milk.  His art reflects aspects of that incident as well the boundary between fantasy and reality.   

Other artists use their experience to express something wider, more general, while maintaining the  template of their formative life experience to fashion a recognisable identity-in-style.  Henry Moore drew large female figures with holes in them to represent his fixation on the beloved, though at times distant mother; there were gaps in their relationship. . 

Some artists are more blatently commercial in their adherence to culture; they generate shapes, ideas that people want.  Anish Kapoor creates large reflecting surfaces, bulges, wax installations, that people enjoy.  ‘Art is not meant to be controversial’, he recently declared.  He likes to be liked.       

 Art doesn’t so much create the object, it creates the environment, the mental space through which the rest of us can think about their own existence.  In doing so, it both represents the culture and helps to create it.  The process can be transformative, but for some artists it can become iterative and hermetic, the unending scratching, etching of an itch until something changes to change the focus; war, famine, love.  

Some art will travel; either because it expresses a universal theme, like love, or because its meaning is so meaningfully abstract, so that people from different cultures bring their own meaning to it.   Shakespeare travels and so does Turner.   Is this what makes art great?   Is this the function of art; to create the space for the thoughts of others to enter.  In our instant, media culture, people are often considered clever because they say what everybody else is thinking and wish they had said it.  They re clever because they make everybody feel clever.   Is that what artists do; set down a challenge that makes the rest of us feel clever by gaining insight?  If so, they don’t necessarily do it deliberately.  

‘They tell me it’s great art.  To me, it was just another scribble’

 

It’s always good to talk to my brother; he is an artist and gets me to think out of the box!

So why do we help each other?  It defies logic.  According to Dr Samuel Okashi, who was speaking at the Cafe Scientifique last night, if we were the rational, logical creatures we claim to be, then there would always be an advantage not to.  The Prisoner Game, invented by the ‘autistic’ mathematician John Nash (depicted in the film by Russell Crowe),  demonstrated that when you cannot trust your partner what to do, it is always better to defect, because the risk of collaborating when they don’t, could mean you end up with nothing and even if you both defect, you could at least end up with something.  This makes logical sense to prisoners and psychopaths, who cannot trust.  It also makes sense for governments.  Look how difficult it is for states to agree on cutting carbon emissions.  Powerful states with more to lose, defect, because if everybody else cuts emissions they will gain, even though the world will lose.  How could you ever get them to collaborate?

Why should people who are inherently narcissistic and self interested, engage in co-operative altruistic behaviour?   Is it just that we are social animals and as such have an inbuilt need to collaborate?   Such behaviour is built into us from the beginning; it’s instinctive; the baby clings to the mother, the mother’s instinct is to care for her infant.  Families stay together not just because there are distinct advantages for them to do so, but because there is a powerful emotional bond.  People group themselves in tribes.  There’s strength in numbers, but there’s also comfort, creativity and meaning.  In a social unit, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  No one person can do everything.  By adopting different roles, they can work as a unit to achieve much more as long as they see advantage in doing so and there is discipline.  And for that you need trust and leadership.  Difficulties arise when you have too many chiefs and not enough Indians.  Our survival as a species is based on collaboration.        

But we don’t collaborate with others just because we discern long term gains from such behaviour or because we avoid long term losses; we avoid being punished.   No, I think it’s deeper than that.  Our lives are built on meaning, the meaning that can only come from social interaction.  Our brains are wired by making emotional connections; neuroscience shows that the more we engage with the people and world around us, the more our brains adapt to cope; the more we grow as individuals.  It’s the way we form our identity.  Defection leads to autism, depression, exclusion and in an evolutionary sense, extinction.  Comparative research among primates indicate that the bigger the social group, the larger the size of the brain.  The implication is that you need big brains to hold in mind the dynamics of so many relationships. 

The key factor is trust.  Relationships, societies are based on trust.  Evolution assumes collaboration, at least for time enough to exchange genes but for social species collaboration must persist for much longer.  Trust is the glue that bonds people into families, friendships and tribes.  We have to know that at the end of the day, those whom we are bonded to by trust, will not abandon, mislead, exploit or betray us.  We need to know we belong.   Without trust we are like prisoners; always suspicious, watching our backs, making sure that others do not steal the advantage leaving us with nothing.  Society disintegrates without trust.  

The Prisoner Game is not the only game. There is another game for social animals and that is what my grandmother quaintly called courtship.  Here the goal is conjunction, the creation of a lasting bond.  In the edgy dance of courtship, each partner attempts to determine the sincerity of the other in all sorts of tests and tasks. ‘if you really loved me, you would do never be late, forget, let me down.’  The object is to build and establish the share mythology of absolute trust that will sustain the sufficiently to rear confident, trusting children while at the same time consolidating their place in the tribe.  In the courtship game, there is only one win.  The philanderer and seductress may achieve a short term gain, but it doesn’t last and both are the losers, gaining only disillusion and loneliness; lust, trust and bust!    

The Prisoner Game is based on false assumptions.  It assumes that human beings are purely logical, rational animals, who have no time for trust and only see personal advantage in relationships.  It is rather similar to the corporate game in which representatives employ the skills of seduction, charm and persuasion, to gain an advantageous deal.   Trust often doesn’t come into it; the best either partner can hope for is mutual advantage, bound by a written agreement, where law replaces trust.   But in the corporate world too, aren’t the best agreements forged during a round of golf or over a drink or meal?  The enjoyment of the game, the companionship, alcohol and food are ways executives still use to break down suspicion and promote trust, but increasingly such individuals are ‘protected’ by their PR companies.  As societies have expanded, so they have developed ever more efficient systems to protect themselves from ‘messy’ emotions.   You need more than the promise of good intentions if you are going to strike the best deal. 

Are so called civilised human beings becoming more selfish and more suspicious?  Do we trust less?   And are we paying the price for this?  Isn’t loneliness the major public health risk of our time?  Hasn’t the birth rate declined  – and the divorce rate gone up?   Are we breeding a generation of mixed up, disenfranchised kids?  Are we more split, more confrontational, more keen on our individual rights than building something together?  Is it better to be right than be together?  Is this the essence of our decline as a society?  Can we do anything about it?

The driver game, in which drivers choose whether to drive on the left or the right,  only works if the players can rely on each other to make the same choice.  A partnership must be mutual, in marriage, friendship or even corporate relationships.  If one partner does everything, if one partner is ambivalent, deceives, plays away, betrays, it doesn’t work.  But collaboration requires energy (though not as much as suspicion) and as long as their basic needs are met,  human beings are lazy. 

So is this the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper?