Monday, August 26, 2013

From the Building Blocks of Human Relationships to Starving Artists

As I’ve said in a number of posts, I find the idea of a board game such as chess to be a useful way of thinking about the relationship between our biological endowment and the cultural elaboration of that endowment. Biology provides the game board, the pieces, and the rules of the game. But it is culture that discovers and accumulates the tactics and strategies underlying successful gameplay. In recent years Christopher Boehm and Alan Fiske have made interesting suggestions about the basic building blocks of social interaction. The next four paragraphs are slightly expanded from an old post, Hierarchy and Equality: The Essential Tension in Human Nature.

* * * * *

Let us consider Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999), which speaks to issues of class and equality. Boehm is interested in accounting for the apparent egalitarian behavior of hunter-gatherer bands, the most basic form of human social organization. While individuals can assume a leadership role for specific occasions, e.g. a hunt, there are no permanent leaders in such bands. Boehm does not argue that such bands are egalitarian utopias; on the contrary, primitive egalitarianism is uneasy and fraught with tension. But it is real.

Boehm finds this puzzling because, in all likelihood, our immediate primate ancestors had well-developed status hierarchies. Boehm ends up adopting the notion that the hierarchical behavioral patterns of our primate heritage are overlain, but not eradicated or replaced, by a more recent egalitarian social regime. Other than suggesting that this more recent regime is genetic Boehm has little to say about it.

Independently, Alan Fiske has been arguing that that humans have four different modes of social behavior (The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relations. Psychological Review, 99, 689-723, 1992, PDF; here’s a briefer online presentation). In communal sharing, all members of a social group are treated as being equivalent. For example, if one member of a family is honored, the honor accrues to the whole family. When one member of such a group has a successful hunt, the food will be shared equally among all, with the hunter often being the last one to eat. Authority ranking is what the name implies; individual with different ranks in a hierarchy have different rights and obligations. In equality matching people work to maintain some kind of balance among them. This yields the trade in favors familiar in politics. Finally, there is market pricing, in which interactions are mediated by quantitative market mechanisms (p. 692) and which, on that account does not seem as basic as the other three (cf. Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 2008, p. 409). In Fiske’s analysis not only are relationships between different people mediated by different modes, but different aspects of a relationship between two individuals can be mediated by different modes.

It is not entirely to me just how these two conceptions are aligned. Boehm’s phylogenetically older system seems to be Fiske’s authority ranking mode, while his newer system seems to encompass communal sharing and equality matching as well. Market pricing has no obvious place in Boehm’s analysis. In any event, this is not the place to examine the relationship between these two conceptions. What is important for our purposes is that both Boehm and Fiske argue that human social interaction is mediated by distinctly different behavioral systems and that there is at least an approximate alignment between their conceptions.

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Let us consider an example, the artist.

While a few artists – by which I mean musicians, poets, actors, and so forth, even thinkers, in addition to visual artists – are able to earn substantial incomes, most do not. The “starving artist” is a familiar cliché. These starving artists often work long hours and produce large bodies of work for little pay. Why?

The standard answer is that artists enjoy their work. Indeed, they don’t consider it to be WORK at all. Many if not most jobs yield little intrinsic satisfaction. They are not activities one would undertake voluntarily. Instead, you do them because you need to make a living and you’ll get paid for doing the work. You do the work only in exchange for compensation. Artistic work isn’t like that. It may well involve many tiresome tasks, but the end result is something that is a pleasure in itself.

Furthermore, artists are often asked to donate their works and services to charitable causes. It is not so difficult to understand why successful artists might do so. Their art brings them more than enough to live a comfortable life, so it costs them nothing to donate a painting or a performance, whatever, to raise money for a worthy cause.

What’s interesting is that starving artists often do so as well. Indeed, starving artists themselves ought to be the beneficiaries of charitable institutions and some, of course, are. Why do starving artists donate their work or time, when they can little afford to do so?

Often, when asked to donate, they are told that they’ll get good “exposure.” Perhaps that’s true and perhaps they even get such exposure.

I’m wondering if something else might be at work in some if not all cases. What if the artistic activity of some artists has become harnessed (to borrow a term from Mark Changizi) to a behavioral mode of equality sharing (in Fiske’s sense)? That makes their work an act of love in which they regard the products of that work, whether tangible physical objects or performances of some kind, as belonging fundamentally to the community. If that is the case, then sharing is, well, natural.

The point of this argument, which must be regarded as speculative, is that there may be more to artistic activity than the intrinsic satisfaction of the work itself. That work may also be fundamentally social and communal.

* * * * *

See, for example, Lewis Hyde, The Gift, which has, as its publicity states, become a (cult) classic:
By now a modern classic, The Gift is a brilliantly orchestrated defense of the value of creativity and of its importance in a culture increasingly governed by money and overrun with commodities. Widely available again after twenty-five years, this book is even more necessary today than when it first appeared. An illuminating and transformative book, and completely original in its view of the world, The Gift is cherished by artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers. It is in itself a gift to all who discover the classic wisdom found in its pages.

"The best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators. A masterpiece."—Margaret Atwood

"No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged."
—David Foster Wallace

"Few books are such life-changers as The Gift: epiphany, in sculpted prose."
—Jonathan Lethem

"A manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art [and] cares for it."
—Zadie Smith

"This long-awaited new edition of Lewis Hyde's groundbreaking and influential study of creativity is a cause for across-the-board celebration."
—Geoff Dyer
FWIW, I started the book, got a good way into it, but didn’t bother to finish it. It’s good. But not THAT good.

So why the extravagant praise? Is it because Hyde saw past the intrinsic satisfaction of art-making to its social nature?


  1. To the point of "the gift' -- a younger poet, Michael Ryan, was interviewing Stanley Kunitz, elder poet with a following as established as the marginal place can be of a poet in American culture. Ryan was bemoaning the lack of appreciation, the hard work, the near impossibility of getting his work out to an audience. Kunitz's response was one of silence completed by the observation, "Well, poetry is something that you give people." And Ryan was dumbfounded, Kunitz obviously not referring to the financial aspect, but to the act as a whole of making poetry. Ryan said he would slit his veins to have that kind of blood.

  2. From my friend Gordon Fitch, who couldn't get through the pesky comments system:

    One of the things I noticed about the extravagant praise is that it comes from people who have made money, and status- and money-attracting repute as well, from their writing.  They are hardly of the Starving Artist class.  It is hard to tell from their remarks whether the author, sculpted prose aside, saw through to any sort of social facts. Elsewhere the occasional blurb suggests that he did, at least in vague outline.  But...

    As soon as I had finished reading this article, I spent some time Googling to see if I could find a free download of Hyde's book.  No such luck.  Indeed, even the reviews of it were often behind paywalls. So it seems that the content of the book did not convince any of its purveyors to give it away free. I am aware from publishing my own material on web sites of the marginal cost of publication -- very close to zero.  Enough said, I guess.

  3. "So why the extravagant praise?"

    The free lunch concept or the gift as an act demanding reciprocity?

    A poetic praise example is the gift of mead from the king to the warrior (the original double sense of the word is still retained in modern German where gift also means poison).

    He drank the sweet ensnaring mead, it always comes with a bitter aftertaste and hangover. ie. the warrior must reciprocate the gift offered (an eternal life in song)through his heroic death.

    6th century free dinners with a poetry recital lavishing you with praise thrown in at no extra upfront cost came with a very high price and left a seriously bitter aftertaste.

    The price may not be so high for modern praise givers but the reciprocal nature and obligation expected may be unchanged.

  4. One from a mis-spent youth drinking with Marcel Mauss.