Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Steven Pinker, art critic

"The Gates" - Christo and Jeanne-Claude 2005
No fun in Pinkerland
As New Yorker reviewer Louis Menand notes, in Steven Pinker's chapter (yes a whole chapter) on the Arts in "The Blank Slate" he misunderstands something Virginia Woolf said:
"The giveaway may be found," Pinker advises, "in a famous statement from Virginia Woolf: 'In or about December 1910, human nature changed.' " She was referring, he says, to "the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism," which is "more Marxist and far more paranoid," and which gave us "Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine), Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung," and similar outré fare. But "Woolf was wrong," he tells us. "Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter."...

...Jesus wept. To begin with, Virginia Woolf did not write, "In or about December 1910, human nature changed." What she wrote was "On or about December 1910 human character changed." The sentence appears in an essay called "Character in Fiction," which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance—of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, "but never . . . at life, never at human nature." Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance. Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite.
It seems that Steven Pinker really doesn't like modern and postmodern art:
Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reason for their decline and fall become all too obvious. The movements are based on a false theory of human psychology, The Blank Slate. They fail to apply their most vaunted ability - stripping away pretense - to themselves. And they take all the fun out of art!
Pinker reminds me of Ayn Rand who hated all forms of modern and postmodern art except modern architecture. She wrote:
the non-objective artists have not achieved a free, joyous, triumphant sense of life, but a sense of doom… read the stories of O. Henry or listen to the music of Viennese operettas and remember that these were the products of the spirit of the “cold, dissecting” hand of reason. And then ask yourself which psycho-epistomology is appropriate to man, which is consonant with the facts of reality and with man’s nature? 
… Modern art is the most eloquent demonstration of the cultural bankruptcy of our age.
For Pinker it's The Blank Slate vs human nature for Rand it's irrationality vs man's nature.

We've seen how essentially authoritarian Steven Pinker is - if you don't agree with him that race is  more than a social construction you are denying reality itself. And now we see him declaring that modern/postmodern art has taken all the fun out of art.

I don't know how Pinker defines "fun" but although my preference tends towards pre-20th century art, there's lots of modern and postmodern art that I think is lots of fun.

Granted "The Gates" were not installed in Central Park until 2005 a few years after The Blank Slate was published, but I know people loved it - and not just arty people. And Spiral Jetty has been around since 1970. I think that's plenty fun.

Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson

Pinker seems to especially hate Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" which pissed off the Catholic Church, which I thought was a ton of fun.

Does Pinker know any artists? I went to art school and I can promise him that nobody was looking to deny "human nature" - they don't think like that. But Pinker has decided that evolutionary psychology - the antidote to The Blank Slate  - is the answer to everything and so it can even explain why he doesn't like modern/postmodern art. He says:
The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship. And they're surprised that people are staying away in droves.
Pinker's prescription to fixing the world of art is like that of any reactionary's - go back to the good old days.

But the art world seems to be doing just fine by ignoring Pinker's advice since 2002. The work of Cindy Sherman, she of the "photographs of grotesquely assembled bi-gendered mannequins" mentioned on page 411 sells for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per photographic print according to the Christie's catalogue. Who does Pinker think is bidding on all these high-priced objets d'art? A bunch of human nature-denying feminists, Marxists and left-leaning academics?

But far from denying human nature, consciously or unconsciously, the world of art, including modern and postmodern, actually embodies something that Pinker himself discussed in the same chapter. He writes: art - especially elite art - is a textbook example of conspicuous consumption. 

What could signal "I am rich" more effectively than buying a $100K print by Cindy Sherman?

As to why modern and postmodern art took a turn away from the figurative, that's pretty damn easy to understand - by the early 1900s photography was everywhere and the movie industry was getting started. A big part of the reason why figurative art was all the rage pre-20th century was because there were no alternatives to having an image of something you loved to look at whether it was your mistress or the English countryside. And once the hoi-polloi could afford photographs and movies, the ability to own something that really looked like something lost its cachet . And then there was the influence of technology and science on the status-signaling of art itself. I wrote up a whole theory about that four years ago.

But since Pinker thinks that everything is an evolved trait, of course he's going claim that some styles of art - those he likes - present an embrace of human natures and those he doesn't like, a denial of human nature. Menand drolly notes:
Many impulses are channelled or suppressed, and many talents and feelings are acquired, and have no specific genetic basis or evolutionary logic at all. Music appreciation, for instance, seems to be wired in at about the level of "Hot Cross Buns." But people learn to enjoy Wagner. They even learn to sing Wagner. One suspects that enjoying Wagner, singing Wagner, anything to do with Wagner, is in gross excess of the requirements of natural selection. To say that music is the product of a gene for "art-making," naturally selected to impress potential mates—which is one of the things Pinker believes—is to say absolutely nothing about what makes any particular piece of music significant to human beings. No doubt Wagner wished to impress potential mates; who does not? It is a long way from there to "Parsifal."
I've already shared that passage in this evo-psycho bro series but that crack about Parsifal is so good I had to share again.

But even more important is the part about "no evolutionary logic." Pinker's rigid belief in the all-consuming explanatory power of evo-psycho leads him down ridiculous paths. Just like his fanboys who, instead of focusing on the conspicuous consumption aspect of the arts and humanities since the ancient Greeks, are so mesmerized by "evolutionary logic" it doesn't occur to them that it's silly to use childless Immanuel Kant to illustrate strict adaptationism.

The last book published by anthropologist Marvin Harris was Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times. Harris was very much opposed to postmodernism as an approach to scientific study. But he also had problems with rigid sociobiology explanations for human culture. He wrote:
The overwhelming majority of cultural innovations, however, do not get selected for or against as a result of their contribution to the reproductive success of the individuals who adopt the innovation. Edison's electric light bulbs did not spread around the world in twenty years because Edison or his relatives were reproductively more successful than people who used gaslight or kerosene lanterns. Indeed, electric lights spread laterally within a single generation among childless couples as rapidly as among couples who had children by the dozen. 
This capacity for the lateral transmission of socially learned behaviors and thoughts is a distinctive attribute of cultural phenomena not found among nonhuman species, except in the most rudimentary form. True, sexually reproducing organisms exchange genes, but not genes for thoughts and behaviors acquired socially during an individual's lifetime. Many generations are required for genetically controlled innovative behaviors and thoughts to spread throughout a population and become part of the genome. New species (even under punctuated equilibrium scenarios) take on the order of hundreds of thousands or more years to evolve, whereas new societies and cultures appear and disappear on the order of, at most, a few thousand years.
It turns out that Steven Pinker has something to say about Marvin Harris in his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature." I'll talk about that next.